By: Karsten Doan, volunteer contributor, American Red Cross North Texas Region
Innovation comes in many ways and often unintentional or unexpected. The human ability to improve and re-define the process in which things are done is no small victory. To have that ability and willpower to go against our pre-conceived notions as a culture and invent a process that benefits humanity does not come from an ordinary soul. It comes from within and it comes from someone who was meant to make a difference in our world and help save lives through curiosity and their determination of shaping a better tomorrow. Dr. Charles Drew was that resilient soul that pushed the boundaries and changed the way we save lives today.
Some people do not know about this legend, but Dr. Charles Drew is credited with inventing the method of proper blood transfusions as well as creating the blood banking process. These methods extend and save hundreds of lives a day, from medical emergencies to disasters. These practices enable first-responders and healthcare workers with the practical skills to improve the quality of life and even save a life when unexpected tragedy occurs.
Charles Drew was born on June 3, 1904 in Washington, D.C. He excelled at sports and was gifted in school and with years of education Charles found himself as an Instructor of Pathology at Howard University and a resident in surgery. There he was introduced to new concepts of electrolyte therapy, in the form of shock treatment and the brand-new method of blood preservation. Dr. Drew was curious and intrigued with the methods and possibilities of transfusions and the idea of blood storage and the dynamic components of both on the human body. He wanted to explore its capabilities for compatibility with others. At that time, the field of hematology was quite new and vastly unknown and the only known model of blood banks were during WWI, but was not widely researched. Dr. Charles teamed up with another acclaimed researcher to initially focus on fluid loss and blood volume related to shock, but later shifted gears to the study of the preservation of blood. He designed experiments that related the effects of trauma, specifically in the form of shaking or chills and found that it directly correlated with how blood was being stored and transported. He then outlined ways to “type” blood of donors and started the blood typing process, documenting the reactions of protein and cellular changes after transfusions. This research led to identifying how long blood could be stored and methodologies to best practice the storage of blood. When Dr. Charles Drew joined the American Red Cross, he served as an expert researcher on how to utilize plasma and safely conduct transfusions during combat in WWII. His testing and research during his time with the American Red Cross propelled the concept of mass-producing plasma and for the first time, blood units were used to collect blood to research the properties of plasma and how it can be beneficial to soldiers and patients. At this time, many researchers claimed that segregating blood on race was safer for patients, but Dr. Charles Drew strongly argued against it and believed that as humans, we all share the same properties and worked to have blood segregation discontinued and it eventually was in 1960.
Dr. Charles Drew had an untimely death on the morning of April 1, 1950 after a long night at a medical conference he fell asleep at the wheel while driving home with his colleague, Dr. Bullock. The vehicle hit the shoulder and they were practically thrown out of the car and Dr. Charles faced fatal injuries. Although his life was cut short, his impact that he imprinted on his 45 years of life here on earth has changed humanity forever. Without the dedication and drive for experimentation, he would have never been able to push the limit and explore the properties of blood and its capabilities to save someone in need. His willingness to think ahead and not comb over the details is why the processes we have in place today appear so seamless when it comes to blood transfusions, donations, and storage. His innovative spirit is a testament of how one person can make a difference and how one man shaped generations in the pursuit of knowledge.