FALLS CHURCH, Va. – One of the men who helped to invent a “box” that could save lives on the battlefield said he joined the Army for “three years -- tops.”
“That was 31 years ago,” Army Col. Francisco Rentas added with a smile, remembering what he said to his family gathered at Fort Buchanan, Puerto Rico, on his way to basic training. “Everybody was crying, and I told them that it was for two or three years. I told them I would be back.”
A native of Ponce, Puerto Rico, Rentas had every intention of returning home to his parents, sister and brothers.
“Every time we go by Fort Buchanan, we always remember -- just like a movie -- Francis sitting on a small wooden bench, carrying a small handbag,” said his sister Hilda Rocafort, who was 12 years old when Rentas was born. “When he didn’t return in two or three years as we expected, we were sad because of the distance, but deep inside, we knew that he was happy. He was focused on new achievements.”
And there would be a multitude of worthy achievements, including one that has made a lasting difference in the lives of his military family -- the invention of the Golden Hour Human Blood Transport Container.
The 10-inch-square Golden Hour box is a device that carries blood far forward to the battlefield. No effective combat-environment, thermal, blood-carrying container existed in 2002 when U.S. troops were fighting in Afghanistan, far away from any fixed medical facility.
Rentas retires from the Army in a ceremony Sept. 21, as his latest tour of duty -- director of the Armed Services Blood Program Office -- winds to a close. In this role, he has overseen the disposition of blood products to the combat theater and elsewhere throughout the military medical community.
“[Special Forces units] needed a container to carry red blood cells that could operate in Afghanistan’s desert and mountainous terrain and maintain the cells without freezing or cooking them,” said Dr. Victor MacDonald, product manager and subject matter expert on blood products for the Pharmaceutical Systems Project Management Office at the U.S. Army Medical Material Development Activity at Fort Detrick, Md.
Transporting blood, which is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, is no simple task. MacDonald said red blood cells must be preserved at the correct temperature -- 1 to 6 degrees Celsius or 34 to 43 degrees Fahrenheit -- to be viable for transfusion.
“The beauty of the Golden Hour container is that it preserves red blood cells without the use of electricity, batteries or even ice,” said MacDonald, a member of the original invention team. The team received the Army’s 2003 Greatest Invention Award.
Rentas’ path toward the science of blood banking would begin with his Army enlistment as a clinical laboratory technician in 1981. He said he wanted to be an enlisted soldier even though he had just earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Puerto Rico. Before a year was up, Rentas met his wife of 30 years. They now have two daughters.
He stayed enlisted for almost six years, attaining the rank of sergeant before earning a direct commission in 1987 as a second lieutenant in the Army’s Medical Service Corps.
“I really enjoyed working in the lab behind the bench, testing blood and other samples -- plus, I was married,” said Rentas, with his smile returning as he explained how his three-year homecoming never happened.
And for those whose lives have been saved by preserved blood products close at hand, many would agree that it is a very good thing that Rentas decided to make the Army a career.
“How [the Golden Hour container] works,” Rentas explained, “is that there are panels inside the container that you freeze ahead of time, and when these panels go from frozen to liquid, everything inside stays at 4 degrees Celsius for about 72 to 75 hours, depending on the temperature outside.”
Success of the Golden Hour container, Rentas and MacDonald said, is evident by the fact that it is still in use today -- not only in the U.S. military and civilian medical communities, but also in several countries.
“And not just for blood,” Rentas said, “A lot of medical professionals are using the box for other temperature-sensitive, life-saving medical supplies -- platelets, vaccines and medications -- during emergencies as well as on the battlefield today.”
“I know how important it is to have more time available to use blood products for patients,” said Robert Rentas, a younger brother of the colonel and administrator of the Instituto de Radioterapia del Este in Humacao, Puerto Rico. “I feel very proud to have Francis as a brother, and I am completely sure that from heaven our Mami and Papi are smiling for all of his accomplishments, and for being a great father and husband.”
Through his 30 years of service, Rentas’ achievements include service as chief of military laboratories and blood bank centers; more than 20 medals, honors and awards; close to 50 published presentations and publications; a master’s degree; a fellowship in blood banking; and a doctorate in clinical laboratory science. But being a part of military blood banking – the noble mission of saving lives -- has always inspired him, he said.
“Our motivation is driven by the pictures of those returning in flag-draped caskets that could not be saved or those of a young wife with two children at her husband’s funeral,” said Rentas, who plans to continue working in blood banking when he enters the civilian workforce.
“Every member of the Armed Services Blood Program throughout the world works hard to ensure we do whatever we can to take care of our customers while maintaining the safety of the military blood supply,” he said. “I will miss them all.”