Bad Blood

Blood plasma bag AP

Joe Szaller was a respected blood mobile medical team manager at the Red Cross Chesapeake regional blood center in Baltimore.

But in late 2000, as CBS News Correspondent Sharyl Attkisson reports, Szaller began seeing disturbing trends that he felt compromised the safety of the blood he helped collect and the people who would receive it.

His team, he says, was among the safest, best performing blood collection team in the region.

However, when asked if it's possible that infected blood could have slipped through, Szaller replies, "Yes, I firmly believe that."

How could that happen?

To begin with, handheld computers are supposed to "pre-check" donors against a database, in case they've been flagged as unsafe. But Szaller says the "pre-check" computers were out of commission most days.

"Let's say you do have Hepatitis C, well you can't donate," explains Szaller. "Well, your social security number would be in that pre-system and it would come up and say, 'may not donate.'"

"If I don't have the pre-check system, I don't know that."

According to Szaller, blood was routinely accepted without the required pre-check. Adding to the dangers, he also says Red Cross employees were put on bloodmobiles without the mandatory safety training and weren't asking donors the right screening questions, questions to identify if they're at high risk.

Szaller says he complained to his supervisors for months, but nothing changed.

"I reached the point where I could not sleep at night," he says. "I was thankful at this point that my family lived in West Virginia if they needed a blood transfusion because I know that the Chesapeake Bay area's … taking too many shortcuts just to make their goals."

Though much blood stays in the region where it's collected, it can be sent anywhere it's needed. Finally, in spring of 2001, Szaller called a special Red Cross national hotline to report the safety violations. After that, things did change, but not the way he expected.

The day after he called the hotline to report the problems, Szaller was fired. He believes his call was the reason for his termination.

"I knew in my heart all the way down to the bottom of my feet," he says. "I knew that this was it."

His bosses say they fired Szaller for mismanagement, despite the stellar job reviews and stacks of commendations and awards he had received.

What adds to Szaller's credibility is what the Food and Drug Administration found when it recently inspected the facility where he worked.

In documents obtained by CBS News, inspectors cite a long list of safety violations, many of the same ones Szaller had complained about. The FDA also found the systems designed to catch and correct safety mistakes were deeply flawed.

And those are the same problems the FDA's been documenting system-wide since 1985. In fact, the FDA says the entire Red Cross blood system is in shambles, and there's been a "dramatic increase in the number of unsuitable blood products it's released over the years."

The Red Cross argues it's poured millions of dollars into fixing and upgrading its blood business and that the blood supply is now safer than ever.

Szaller lost a court fight to get back his job since Maryland law doesn't protect all whistleblowers. Though he no longer works for the Red Cross, Szaller feels by speaking out he can still play a role in saving lives.

"I'm not vindictive," he says. "I don't want any money.

"I want this to be out in the public. It's got to save a life, even if it's my own son's, and that's the bottom line. "

The Red Cross claims it was not given a "full and fair opportunity to respond" to this report. However, CBS News contacted the Red Cross repeatedly beginning July 12, 2002 on the issue of blood safety, both verbally and in writing, but the Red Cross provided no information. CBS News obtained some information on the Red Cross position from court records in the current lawsuit the FDA has filed against the Red Cross for contempt of a 1993 consent decree ordering the Red Cross to fix numerous safety problems with the blood supply.



CBS News Investigation:

Part One: Disaster Strikes In Red Cross Backyard

Part Two: Red Faces At The Red Cross

Part Three: The Battle Inside The Red Cross
  • Jaime Holguin

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