NewsPositively Montana


Red Cross volunteer delivery drivers save lives in rural Montana communities

Red Cross Driver
Posted at 10:56 AM, Jan 17, 2024

MISSOULA — Donating blood can save lives, but those donations wouldn’t get to the people who need it without the help of volunteers.

Wolf Ametsbichler is a retired Missoula resident who for the past two years has been delivering blood donations across the state. His volunteer position is critical for rural hospitals in Montana.

A blood donation cannot be stored forever, and if it expires it can no longer be used. While a large hospital like St. Patrick in Missoula has no trouble using up blood donations, smaller hospitals such as Mineral Community Hospital in Superior may end up wasting blood. Wasted donations are avoided through a blood rotation system.

If Mineral Community Hospital has a batch of donated blood that is set to expire soon, they’ll send it down to a larger city, like Missoula, where that donation can be used quickly. In exchange, the Missoula blood bank sends Mineral Community Hospital a fresh box of blood.

But the blood doesn’t move itself, and that’s where volunteers like Ametsbichler come in.

“You get to the hospital where you deliver the product, or you get to Great Falls to the lab, and people are so appreciative and it just makes you feel good when you drive home and you think, 'Boy, I’ve done something nice today,'” he said.

At 70, Ametsbichler drives boxes of fresh blood to rural hospitals and brings almost-expired boxes back to Missoula.

“It means a lot, not only to me but the rural hospitals because they’re dependent on that blood supply being available for people when they need it,” he said. “As well as making sure that blood does not get wasted at all.”

While Mineral Community Hospital doesn’t constantly use its blood supply, it is crucial that they have it available. The hospital serves all of Mineral County and receives many of the crash victims from accidents on Interstate 90.

“When you're the patient who suddenly needs two to three units of blood, to be able to have that brought to you within an hour, that's absolutely life-saving,” Mineral Community Hospital Population Nurse Deanna Montgomery said.

Montgomery also serves as the hospital’s integrated behavioral health care manager. Before her work in Superior, she was a phlebotomist with the Red Cross’ mobile blood crew for five years which showed her the crucial role blood donation plays in health care.

“Until I went to work at the Red Cross, I really had no idea how important it was,” she said. “And then through that role, I discovered how directly it impacts our communities, both locally and around the state.”

The position of a Red Cross transportation specialist like Ametsbichler is critical to Mineral Community Hospital and other rural hospitals, according to Montgomery.

“(It’s) absolutely critical. Healthcare in a rural community is identified as a specialty in and of itself because of the removed nature of the care that we provide,” she said.

Ametsbichler is originally from Germany but moved to Montana after living as a foreign exchange student and attending at Hellgate High School in the early 1970s. As soon as he retired, he began looking for meaningful volunteer opportunities that would allow him to create his own schedule.

He landed on the Red Cross, working in a blood donation center before moving into the transportation specialist role. He loves his position just as much as the hospitals appreciate his work.

“If you're on the road at six in the morning on a beautiful summer day, you're kind of in tune with the natural environment because you see a lot of things, you see nature stirring as you drive, and it's fantastic,” he says. “It’s doing something meaningful while exploring the state. That’s about as good as it gets.”

The Montana Red Cross is currently in need of 34 more transportation specialists across the state, including seven in Missoula.

If there is not a driver available, the Red Cross is forced to UPS ship the blood donations, an extra cost that falls on the organization.

Volunteer opportunities can be found here.