Tuesday, January 27, 2015

A Bloody Good Neighbor: Dr. Charles Drew

For the last 10 years or so, as I've walked to and from shul, I've passed a couple of blocks from this historic marker:

It marks the former residence of Dr. Charles Drew.

Chances are very good that you're familiar with Dr. Drew's work. That is definitely the case if you've ever had surgery, gotten a blood transfusion or responded to the plea to Give Blood and Save a Life. That's because Dr. Drew was a pioneer in the Blood Bank process:

Much of Drew's research, however, focused on one of the most challenging medical problems of that time: how to "bank" blood so it would be available for transfusions as needed. Blood loses its integrity--and thus its utility--soon after it leaves the blood vessels: it starts to clot, and soon the cellular elements, especially the white blood cells, deteriorate, and levels of electrolytes change.
Medicine now takes blood banks for granted, but the first ones presented many technical and administrative challenges to Drew and Scudder and their colleagues: blood had to be collected with sterile equipment, into sterile containers, and treated with anticoagulant, then stored at a constant temperature, in refrigerators that were reliably efficient and protected from electrical outages. Each donation had to be typed, and tested for syphilis (one of several diseases that could be transmitted via transfusion.) Donors had to be recruited, scheduled, and screened for obvious health problems before "bleeding." Nursing and laboratory personnel had to be trained in collecting, handling, and testing the blood, and standard procedures set up, including forms to track every step of the donation process. Their experiment, which ran for seven months, was a success, and served as the basis for Drew's dissertation, "Banked Blood," for which he received his doctor of medical science degree in June 1940.

Drew's work then went beyond the Blood Bank and tackled the challenge of collecting and using just the Plasma in blood:

His key findings, complex procedures, and standards for collecting, processing and storing blood proved his expertise and led to an appointment to head the Blood for Britain Project (BFB), an effort to transport desperately needed blood and plasma to Great Britain, which was under attack by Germany.
To separate plasma from blood cells, the team used centrifuging (separation of blood components by density) and sedimentation (separation of particles from a liquid). The plasma was then pooled from a collection of eight bottles using an anti-contamination technique under strict air and ultraviolet lighting conditions, and samples were cultured for bacteria. An anti-bacterial called Merthiolate was added to the blood product and batches were tested weekly. Finally, each batch was transferred to a shipping container and diluted with sterile saline solution. A final sample for bacteria-testing was taken before the containers were sealed and packed. By early August, a trial shipment of plasma was sent to England and confirmed "entirely satisfactory."

The fact that this process worked at all is amazing. But when consider that he was dealing with 1940's tech, it's downright amazing.

Drew even invents the notion of a Blood Mobile. You can see one in action here:

More photos can be found here.

And just how hard core was Dr. Drew? Well, he named his child Bebe for Blood Bank. That takes a dedicated scientist and an incredibly understanding wife.

Oh, and there's one more wrinkle to this story. Dr. Drew was African American. He had to cope with massive amounts of institutional racism just to be a practicing physician. Not to mention the very blood banks he helped developed wouldn't allow him and other African Americans to contribute to. Yes, the Internet Meme writes itself:

If you have heard of Dr. Drew, chances are pretty good that you've heard the legend surrounding his death. Apparently this was repeated as truth in a MASH episode. Turns out, it's not true that he died as a result of not getting a blood transfusion at an all white hospital:

His tragic death generated an enduring legend that Drew, the man whose transfusion research had saved so many lives, ironically bled to death because he was refused treatment at an all-white hospital, or was even denied a transfusion. Although the legend has been debunked repeatedly--by Drew's companions, witnesses at the hospital, his family, and others--it has persisted. Why? Perhaps, as historian Spencie Love has noted in her analysis of the Drew legend, (One Blood: the Death and Resurrection of Charles R. Drew), the facts of Drew's premature death were bent and blended together with the stories of genuine victims of medical segregation, to convey an underlying message about the consequences of racial prejudice. While understandable, the legend hardly does justice to Drew, a man who achieved so much before he died, and who worked to undo racial discrimination by demanding excellence of himself and of his students, without ever embracing the role of victim.

What a remarkable soul.

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