When Pat Franck went to work at Spokane’s new blood bank 50 years ago, she kept a gun-cleaning rod handy.
The former barmaid didn’t clean guns, but instead snaked the rod through tubes that carried donor blood.
Once cleaned, the tubes were used over and over, as were needles.
“You wonder how anybody survived, really,” said Franck, chuckling about the drastic changes in the past half-century.
Blood bank workers are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the center, which opened in September 1945. Some former employees, like Franck, are touring the blood bank and marveling at the modern technology.
The Inland Northwest Blood Center has come a long way since nurses sharpened needles on a whetstone and patients were required to replace blood they used.
Blood wasn’t even scary stuff for health workers back then, said Joanne Costello, the first employee at the blood bank created by local doctors.
“I never wore gloves, incidentally,” said Costello, 73. “We didn’t have that many diseases we had to even worry about. AIDS? There wasn’t such a thing.”
To siphon blood from one container to another, medical technicians simply sucked on the end of a tube.
Orange juice shared a refrigerator shelf with bottles of blood and coffee brewed on a burner in the laboratory.
She described the original center, on the fifth floor of a downtown building, as “a dismal little room” with no clock and four Army surplus cots.
Shadows on the wall told Costello when it was time to go home. After-hours, she was on call in case someone needed blood in a hurry.
“Junior League girls” volunteered to take blood pressure and serve coffee, Costello said.
In the sixth months before the bank became self-sufficient, it operated on $15,000 raised by members of Spokane civic, fraternal and social organizations.
Franck was hired as a Girl Friday, she said, cleaning blood tubes and sharpening needles by hand after every sixth use.
“It was scary,” said Franck, who tended bar and waited tables before working at the blood bank for $105 a month. “I’d never done anything like that before and it overwhelmed me.”
Now, four people work nights in the blood bank, which in 1954 landed in a larger building at 507 S. Washington. Another 100 work part-time or full-time during the day.
Bags of blood occupy a row of large refrigerators and juice stays in a refreshment room where people relax and eat doughnuts after giving blood.
People who need blood pay $55 a pint, more than a fourfold increase from early rates of $12.50.
Patients were expected to replace blood they used, or find someone else to replace it. Those who ignored the policy paid an extra $25.
“We don’t need money,” William Pennock, the center’s director, said in a 1946 newspaper article, “but we do need the blood and it will have to be replaced, pint for pint, by the relatives and friends of patients who receive the blood.”
Occasionally, when the blood bank helped saved a life, dozens of friends gave blood to show their appreciation. Forty-nine people from Cataldo, Idaho, donated after a 14-year-old boy from their hometown survived serious burns on New Year’s Day in 1946.
In its first year, the blood bank sent out enough blood to fill six 55-gallon vinegar barrels.
Now it collects about 30,000 pints of blood each year.
“I think it’s great,” said Franck, “considering what it was when it started.”