As chief medical officer for the American Red Cross Biomedical Services, Pampee Young, MD, PhD, has responsibility for ensuring about 40 percent of the nation has a safe, effective, and adequate supply of blood and blood products to meet everyday demand and increased need in times of crisis.
It's a job that's never finished.
"We're always looking at ensuring we have safe and effective blood products. This is a constant effort. You can never collect a bunch of blood and say, 'we're done,'" she noted of the continual need. Young, who was named to her new role in January 2018 after spending 15 years at Vanderbilt, added red cells have about a 40-day shelf life and platelets about five days.
"Platelets are almost always in very short supply," she stated. In addition, Young said there is often a shortage of the rare O negative blood type. "The summer is a really tough season," she continued. "Most people are busy and have a lot of other plans. Platelets can take one to two of hours to donate ... that's a pretty significant time commitment. A unit of whole blood only takes about 15 minutes to collect and about an hour for the whole process." In addition to time, other barriers to donation include fear of the process and strict federal regulations that make some volunteers ineligible to donate blood.
From driving messaging to enhance donations to addressing policy issues on a federal level, Young is keenly aware of the critical nature of her position. "We provide blood to about 2,600 U.S. hospitals," she explained. Despite the challenges, Young relishes her new role in a field that sparked her interest long before she joined the American Red Cross.
A Love of Science
Young immigrated to the United States as an eight-year-old from her native India. She grew up in the Houston area where she went to high school before earning her undergraduate degree in biochemistry from Rice University.
"I was always very fascinated by the complex biochemistry of the human body," Young recalled of her childhood. "That drew me to science and medicine. Once I got into medical school, I just loved the diagnostic process."
She earned her MD/PhD from U.T. Southwestern in Dallas before relocating to Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis to pursue residency in clinical pathology followed by a fellowship in transfusion medicine.
Young joined the faculty at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in 2003. "While at Vanderbilt, I developed a program in regenerative medicine," she explained of her lab's focus on the WNT signaling pathway to foster regenerative rather than a scarring repair of complex soft tissue injuries. "My laboratory was interested in how to drive the repair toward restoring the injured tissue's original function and architecture," Young said, adding the team's work resulted in several patents.
She also served as medical director of Transfusion Medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and was actively involved in translational research in the field of transfusion and cellular therapies, which combined her many scientific interests. "As transfusion medicine doctors, we partner with trauma surgeons, as well as other surgeons and hematologists, to understand difficult transfusion cases, what the best transfusion strategy is, and to understand hemolytic diseases and their best workup."
Scaling Her Efforts
Young said her work at Vanderbilt helped her prepare for her new role as she scales her experience and knowledge to a national level. As CMO for the Red Cross, her key priorities are "working with national agencies to ensure a healthy blood supply, a safe blood supply, and to ensure we have the resources to develop innovative blood solutions."
She continued, "We have to talk seriously about blood sustainability. Can we meet our nation's blood demands in a time of crisis?" she questioned. Young added it's more than a medical matter ... the answer to that question also has national preparedness and security implications. A pandemic, for example, could quickly jeopardize the nation's blood supply.
To that end, she is helping lead the Red Cross advocacy for more flexibility and funding to develop new technologies for pathogen reduction, improve storage options to preserve blood and platelets longer and develop new blood products. While there are a number of regulatory hurdles, Young said the American Red Cross national lab does a great deal of research around identifying emerging threats. She added the Red Cross was the first to implement Zika testing in their blood centers.
It was this opportunity for impact at a national level that drew her to the Red Cross when the opportunity presented. "We are the largest blood supplier/collector in the world so we have a seat at the table in making policy, a seat at the table in how to protect the safety and quality of our blood," she said.
At Home in Nashville
While the American Red Cross is headquartered in the nation's capital, it was important to Young to remain based in Tennessee's capital city. Over the 15 years spent at Vanderbilt, Nashville had become home.
"My husband, David Young, has a job here that he enjoys," she said. Her children also have roots in Nashville. The mother of three girls, her youngest is a rising fourth-grader at USN. Her oldest just graduated from Vanderbilt, and her middle child will be a sophomore at Young's alma mater Rice University.
"We enjoy our friends and our community," she added. "We love to hike and love to go to all the parks." Young said kayaking and gardening are two other activities she particular enjoys in Middle Tennessee.
So far, being based in Nashville has worked out well for her myriad duties with the Red Cross. "Having a national-level position, it's actually advantageous to be located centrally in the country," she noted of her frequent trips to D.C. and across the country to work with regional CMOs under her supervision.
No matter where she lands, Young's focus remains the same - directing awareness, resources and research to ensure the Red Cross blood supply is ready when needed.