The Greatest Gift

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Zoo InternQuest is a seven-week career exploration program for San Diego County high school juniors and seniors. Students have the unique opportunity to meet professionals working for the San Diego Zoo, Safari Park, and Institute for Conservation Research, learn about their jobs, and then blog about their experience online. Follow their adventures here on the Zoo’s website!

haley_week3_photoIt’s widely known that a blood transfusion in humans can save lives, whether it replaces blood lost in an accident, or platelets and red blood cells that do not form properly. But did you know that animals can also receive transfusions? Plasma transfusions are sometimes given to baby animals that weren’t nursed properly by their mothers so that they have a better chance at a healthy life.

We went “behind-the-scenes” to see and learn about plasma processing and plasma transfusions in at the Harter Hospital Clinical Pathology Lab located next to the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Center for Conservation Research. Ms. Leslie Nielson, a lab technician, gave us a tour of the lab. I was particularly fascinated with one aspect of her job, plasma processing, which is adapted from human medicine. Plasma processing separates the plasma from the rest of the animal’s blood. Scientists collect blood from a full grown animal and put it in a centrifuge to them separate the plasma from the blood. Two layers are formed and the plasma is removed and bagged. These bags are then labeled, dated, and placed in the freezer to be stored and used for another animal of the same family if necessary.

The centrifuge is a huge machine and has many compartments as well as dials used to control the separation process. The special bags used to hold the plasma come in different sizes, small to large. The lab also is equipped with four large freezers that store the plasma until it is needed for a transfusion. The plasma is organized by animal type and by the temperature at which they must be stored. They even come in a range of colors, from a partially opaque white to greens, though scientists don’t know why this difference in colors occurs.

During our visit, we got to see a plasma transfusion in action on a young Thomson’s gazelle being housed in a holding pen at Harter Hospital. A holding pen is a secure and safe room that can be used for many purposes. Animals may wait in a holding pen before or after a surgery or an exam. An animal may even go into a holding pen to receive a little T.L.C. The gazelle we happen to see was receiving a plasma transfusion intravenously. The I.V. ran from behind the baby’s ear, up and through the wall, and into a compartment just outside the holding pen. The compartment, which held all the fluids the gazelle was receiving, is on the outside of the holding pen to protect the tubing and bags from becoming tangled or being punctured.

Getting to witness such an amazing process was thrilling and it was truly amazing to see methods of human medicine being applied to animals! Plasma transfusions have given many animals a new chance at life, even when the likelihood of survival would have been extremely low without it. It makes me think twice about what it means to donate blood and how the process is beneficial and potentially lifesaving in many different ways!

Haley, Real World Team
Week Three, Fall Session 2013