Black Hills Life Flight Air Ambulance Now Carries Life-Saving Whole Blood


Improving patient outcomes by transfusing donated whole blood to save lives in the air 

Rapid City, SD, September 25, 2023 – All four Black Hills Life Flight aircraft, located in Rapid City and Hot Springs, SD, are proud to announce that they now carry and can administer whole blood onboard every air medical transport. Black Hills Life Flight is the first and only community-based air ambulance service in the state with this capability. Having whole blood aboard their helicopters and fixed-wing plane allows their industry-leading trauma clinicians to provide additional life-saving care when every minute counts. 

Every unit of whole blood provides red blood cells, platelets, plasma, and clotting factors for superior outcomes for patients suffering from trauma or hemorrhagic shock. It is particularly valuable in rural areas where there may be limited access to donated blood. Since Black Hills Life Flight carries its own blood supply, its clinicians can administer it in-flight while preserving the receiving hospital’s stock. The crews previously carried only packed red blood cells and plasma, and are excited to now carry whole blood which delivers oxygen around the body more effectively.   

“For flight team members like me who respond to scene calls and rural hospitals, the ability to carry whole blood is a game changer,” said Jennifer Zettl, a flight nurse with Black Hills Life Flight. “Many small hospitals only carry one or two units of packed red blood cells and frequently do not have access to plasma, cryoprecipitate, or platelets. Being able to arrive with whole blood can be the difference between life and death.” 

Zettl described a recent experience when she arrived at a rural hospital to transport a patient with a condition that easily leads to hemorrhagic shock. The hospital staff had already transfused the three units of packed red blood cells they had on hand. The doctor was relieved to hear the crew had whole blood on board their aircraft. The clinicians administered it in flight through their warmer, and by the time they arrived at the receiving medical facility the patient was much improved.    

A recent study published in the Journal of the American College of Surgeons found that whole blood transfusions improve the 30-day survival rate of patients suffering from hemorrhagic shock by 60 percent. The earlier patients receive whole blood, the better their outcomes, showing the significance of pre-hospital transfusion. Moderately to severely injured patients, including those with head injuries, particularly benefit from whole blood transfusions. 

“The ability to carry whole blood on board means the people of the Black Hills area have access to a critical lifesaving intervention,” said Darryl Crown, account executive with Air Methods, the leading air medical service provider in the nation and the parent company of Black Hills Life Flight. “With all of the outdoor activity and curving mountain roads in this area, whole blood is ideal for the type of injuries we see.” 

The benefits of administering whole blood were accentuated during World War I and in the early stages of World War II. According to the National Institutes of Health, the ability to separate blood into its different components was developed in 1940, and it became more common to administer blood products due, in part, to the improved ability to store them. However, blood components don’t carry oxygen as well as whole blood, and during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq the military brought whole blood transfusion back into favor. Doctors found that using warm whole blood allowed trauma patients to recover faster and live longer. Additionally, using universal, low-titer O blood is not only safe in both children and adults, but it also eliminates the time needed to test patients for blood type when every minute counts in an emergency.    

All Black Hills Life Flight clinicians have at least three years of experience in an emergency or intensive care setting before joining a flight crew. They receive ongoing advanced training, and every nurse and paramedic has access to Air Methods Ascend, an in-person and online training program that allows clinicians to perform at the top of their licensure. Air Methods Ascend is available to medical personnel across the country.