In October 2012, captain Ziv Shilon opened the gate between Israel and Gaza so that IDF soldiers could return to Israel, following the nation’s disengagement plan from the Strip. At that very moment a terrorist bomb planted at the gate went off, causing a massive explosion. Shilon lost his left hand, but was still able to direct his soldiers to safety.
He was evacuated from the scene and transfused with 56 units of blood, which helped saved his life. Despite the loss of his hand, he runs marathons and engages in other intensive sports.
Israel’s wars and the constant security threats it faces makes having a handy reserve of blood a strategic need. Yet it falls short of requirements set out by the World Health Organization, which state that nations should strive for self-sufficiency with a minimum blood supply sufficient for 4 percent of their population, at any given time. Israel holds blood supplies sufficient for just 3 percent of its population, or a stock of some 260,000 units instead of the 350,000 or 400,000 it should have, by WHO standards.
Furthermore, the blood is processed and stored at a facility in Ramat Gan’s Sheba Medical Center that is unprotected from missiles, biological and chemical attacks, and earthquakes. The labs, the blood storage and the donor rooms are surrounded by windows looking out onto the hospital campus. Lovely, but definitely not safe in case of an attack.
But that’s not all. The facility, which is the nation’s only blood bank and processing center, is bursting at the seams. The complex was built in 1985 to serve a population of 5 million. Today Israel’s population nears 9 million people, and is expected to grow to almost 12 million by 2039.
The current blood center thus lacks the capacity to process all of the blood the country needs for surgeries and medical treatment, let alone in times of emergency. Its labs are cluttered with instruments and are not set up to support all of the technology it will require, including for protection from a cyber-attack.
“I don’t sleep well at night,” said Prof. Eilat Shinar, head of MDA’s blood services, referring to the lab’s vulnerability and blood supply shortfall. Dressed in a uniform of spotless white shirt and dark trousers, the 70-year-old Shinar, a hematologist by profession, looks like an army general on a mission. Her shirt is adorned with blue epaulets and the red stars within red circles of Magen David Adom, the country’s emergency medical service.
Soon, hopefully, Shinar will be able to sleep better. MDA has started work on a new blood bank — a $130 million project that will make Israel the only nation in the world with an underground blood bank, safe from missiles, chemical and biological attacks and earthquakes.
It will be a state-of-the-art complex, said Moshe Noyovich, a senior Israel representative of the American Friends of Magen David Adom and also overseeing the project. “No blood center in the world will be as shielded as ours.”
Design of the new center started five years ago, and cranes and workers have started building the structure, which is hoped to be ready by the end of 2020.
The 5.43-acre facility in the city of Ramle, some 20 miles southeast of Tel Aviv, will consist of six floors, an adjacent MDA logistics center, and parking spaces for bloodmobiles, ambulances and donors. The top three floors will hold rooms for blood donations, a training center and the facility’s administrative center. The lower three floors, underground, will be protected by special shielding to specifications from the Home Front Command and the National Security Agency; it is here that the blood will be stored and processed.
The facility will be able to produce 500,000 units annually, which will meet the WHO target taking into account population growth. It will be able to produce and process 2,200 blood units daily (up to 3,500 units in an emergency situation), compared to the current 1,100 units produced daily. The staff size will more than double from 184 to 374 employees.
The new center will be protected against missile attacks, biological and chemical attacks, and earthquakes, and will have enough space to accommodate the latest technologies both for processing blood and for keeping the site safe from cyber-attacks. There will be a special shielded storage space for a strategic supply of blood, the minimum necessary for emergencies, such as natural disasters, wars or other catastrophic events, Noyovich said.
MDA has already raised $100 million for the project, and is seeking to raise the remaining $30 million. Most of the donations have come from the American Friends of the MDA. Bernard Marcus, a US billionaire of Home Depot fame, is the biggest donor.
Earlier this year, MDA dedicated a new bombproof national blood dispatch center housed in a reinforced and partially subterranean facility in Kiryat Ono, near Tel Aviv, designed to be protected against missile, chemical, and biological attack, the MDA said.
The imperative to donate blood unifies the whole population, said Shinar, the head of MDA’s blood services. Jews, Muslims, Bedouin and Druze, secular and religious, all line up to donate blood, she said. In Jewish holiday months, for example, Muslims come to donate blood to make up for any shortfall in supply. “We have agreements with them during our festivals and they donate very nicely,” she said. And just as everyone donates, so everyone gets blood when in need.
Shinar sees her role as one of national strategic importance. Because MDA is a non-government, not-for-profit organization — similar to all other Red Cross organizations around the world — she is in a position to undertake what could be called “blood diplomacy,” exchanging supplies of blood between Israel and countries with which the nation doesn’t have diplomatic relations. Israel is a member of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), which has 192 member societies around the world.
This is especially useful when rare blood types are needed. “We send blood to each other,” she said, saying Israel brought in blood from Malaysia once, for example. Israel and Malaysia, a predominantly Muslim country, don’t have formal diplomatic relations.
When there were terror attacks against Israelis in Turkey and Bulgaria, the local Red Cross representatives waited for MDA officials to land and whisked them directly to hospitals, to evaluate the patients’ medical condition and decide upon their transfer to Israel, Shinar explained.
In addition, in view of the yearly visit of thousands of Israelis to Uman, Ukraine, MDA has received permission from the Ukraine Red Cross to operate a Hebrew-speaking MDA clinic there, she said.
On a sunny day in September, wearing their white coats, lab workers at the Ramat Gan center were processing the blood that would be later stored and dispatched to hospitals and medical centers when needed. The donor section was quiet that day and throughout the facility big glass windows let in quiet patches of light. Lovely, but definitely not safe in case of an attack.
The new facility “will take us 20 years forward, with the technology we need,” said Shinar.