VIDEO — Estes Park Health offers therapeutic phlebotomies; High altitude living can put people at greater risk for excess red blood cells

Close-up of a medical device containing a blood bag labeled with patient information, blood type, and expiration date. Blood tubes are connected to the bag, and there's blood present in the device.
Factors that create the need for therapeutic phlebotomies vary, but professionals say people who live at altitude should be aware of the risk. (Photo by Wendy Rigby)

Therapeutic Phlebotomies at Estes Park Health – YouTube

Living in the Rocky Mountains has many advantages including spectacular weather and breathtaking scenery. However, high-altitude can also bring on potential health issues. One of those is a condition called polycythemia which can develop as the body makes more red blood cells to compensate for low oxygen.

That’s where therapeutic phlebotomies come in.

“Therapeutic phlebotomy is when we’re taking off an amount of blood because someone has either a high hematocrit or high hemoglobin,” said Jennifer Godfrey, RN.

At Estes Park Health, therapeutic phlebotomies are performed by registered nurses in the infusion center at the hospital. Eric Anderson is one of the patients who comes to the hospital regularly to have blood drawn. He has suffered from blood clots in his legs and lungs and a recent blood test showed his body was producing a high number of red blood cells.

“Having my hematocrit lowered will definitely lower the risk of having more clots develop, so that’s reassuring,” Anderson said.

The process is quick, simple, and safe when handled by a professional like nurse Jennifer Godfrey. She begins by setting up a scale for the blood bag like those used at blood donation centers. This piece of technology makes sure no more than 500 milliliters of blood is taken at any one session. Then she cleans the arm and inserts the needle.

“It only takes about 15 minutes of having the blood drawn,” Anderson noted. “And then when I’m done, she bandages it up and I’m on my way. I love having it done here. I live five minutes from here so it’s hardly any inconvenience at all for me. I don’t have to go down to Loveland or Fort Collins or anything.

Factors that create this blood condition vary, but professionals say people who live at altitude should be aware of the risk.

“It can be people who have smoked their whole life, that’s a common contributor to having this,” Godfrey explained. “Living at altitude your whole life. Even eating habits, exercise. A lot of different factors can go into having a high hemoglobin.”

When the therapeutic phlebotomy is over, the nurse removes the needle, bandages the arm and the patient can go on his way. The blood is thrown away, however, and not used for any other patients.

“I started doing it every week and it’s definitely made an improvement,” Anderson commented. “It’s been steadily coming down. I’ve had more energy I would say. It’s been very helpful.”

Godfrey said having a dedicated room where nurses can take care of therapeutic phlebotomy patients has been helpful.

“Throughout the time of me doing these so far, being able to talk to them, ask them, ‘How are you feeling from that first visit to now?’ six or seven visits in, and they’re feeling a lot better which is great to see,” she stated.

For individualized care close to home — keeping patients healthy and at their best — think Estes Park Health. Mountaintop Medicine, Quality Care.