LifeSouth Community Blood Centers: Nancy Eckert, CEO

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In the business of collecting, processing and distributing life-saving blood, safety plays a major role.

Donors volunteer to come in off the street, roll up their sleeves and give a unit of blood to be stored for the use of someone undergoing a medical procedure.  Blood bank operators need to consider the safety of those volunteers as well as the safety of blood recipients with every unit of blood collected.

It is with this focus that Nancy Eckert, CEO of LifeSouth Community Blood Centers, oversees operations at this non-profit community blood supplier for hospitals in Florida, Georgia and Alabama.  LifeSouth, headquartered in Gainesville, Fla., has served communities for 35 years, building a blood banking network of 800 employees, serving 110 health facilities in 20 regions and collecting approximately 240,000 donors this year alone.  Blood bank workers know their jobs are never-ending and that their responsibility to ensure the best product possible is constant, she said.  Eckert herself has committed 15 years to LifeSouth as its CEO.

“It is our responsibility to make sure that the blood is available when it is required,” Eckert said, “and we understand that safety is the biggest component of the values that we need to consider.”

Time-sensitive Operations

For blood banks, time is of the essence.  The shelf life of a unit of blood can be as short as five days.  Considering that it takes one day to prepare and label the product, only four days remain for the product to be delivered and remain viable.

“The components that we provide to the patients are a challenge,” she said.  “Donors are volunteers, so our supply is dependent on the good will of the community we’re serving.”

Unique Non-profit Status

LifeSouth is a charitable organization; however, blood bank operations fall under federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines.

“You have this strong oversight by the FDA and regulatory agencies and yet we are a not-for-profit and depend heavily on volunteers,” Eckert said.  “The difference between another not-for-profit and LifeSouth is that we are able to collect a fee for the services that we provide in getting the unit from the donor to the recipient in order for us to be able to continue to operate and give good care.”

Safety Initiatives

In keeping with FDA guidelines, LifeSouth walks a fine line when addressing not only the desires of its volunteers to donate blood but the safety of blood transfusion recipients.  The FDA issues initiatives for maintaining safe and adequate supplies of blood and it’s up to organizations like LifeSouth to uphold those mandated standards.  Where organizations can run into issues is in dealing with donors who want to give blood but fail to meet donor qualification standards.  Eckert cites one example of such a mandate that involves the potential transmission of mad cow disease through blood donated by individuals who lived in Europe for a certain period of time.  Those individuals must be turned away from blood donor centers, she said, even though there is no proof that mad cow disease can be transmitted through donated blood.

“It’s difficult for us because we have to follow these directives but it’s also difficult for the donors who want to participate in the donation process to understand why we’re doing this,” she said.  “They’re healthy, they don’t have the disease, but that’s what we have to do.”

Core Values

Blood collection and distribution is a sophisticated business that requires good teamwork, Eckert said. When people think of donating blood, they see the donor room but don’t realize everything else that goes into the process.  There’s also a certain pride in being a part of a team that provides such a valuable service, she adds.

“We have to make money in order to provide a service,” she said.  “However, we don’t necessarily provide the service to make money.  The employees seem to take a lot of pride in the fact that they are providing a needed service to the community.”

That sense of pride carries over into the communities in which LifeSouth has a presence, where each blood center works to uphold reputations for ethical, honest and courteous behavior while maintaining good will among its residents.  A business that relies on volunteer donors to complete its objective cannot function without a good reputation, Eckert said.

Capital Investments

For blood banks, the development of a software system to monitor inventory is a major undertaking, so much so that it must be approved by the FDA as a medical device.  This keeps many IT companies from tackling such a project.  Therefore, LifeSouth developed a proprietary computer system to handle inventory, which just received FDA approval and will be implemented this year.  This system will replace software that was developed in 1985 and, while Eckert said the current system serves its intended purpose it has its limitations.  This new system will better manage LifeSouth’s operations, she said.

Research Initiatives

Several years worth of work is coming together at LifeSouth’s Gainesville location for a cord blood bank, part of the national cord blood bank initiative.  The organization has operated under an FDA approved IND (investigational new drug) since 1998 and has recently been received federal funding for the project.  The federal contract will allow the program to grow and help patient awaiting transplantion. Eckert said LifeSouth’s geographic location and access to a minority population, specifically African-Americans, made it a prime candidate to join this nationwide network of cord blood providers.

Increased research and confidence in the effectiveness of the use of cord blood transplants is making this a more acceptable product for transplantation, she said.  With that, there is greater emphasis this year on increasing donations, preserving them and making them available through the national marrow donor program.

“Until you have support on the transplant side you really can’t afford to collect and store cord blood because it’s an expensive process,” she said.

Serving the Community

Even though the LifeSouth organization is stretched across three states, Eckert said the emphasis remains on providing the community with a vital product.  Those same communities are also vital to providing ample blood supplies, she added, noting that she never stops being amazed that ordinary citizens are so willing to give of themselves to help their communities.

“It doesn’t surprise me that people don’t donate.  It surprises me that people do,” she said.  “If you really think about what you’re asking people to do, it’s quite a lot to ask and yet people do it willingly. Blood donors are just an amazing cross-section of humanity.”

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