Blood

April 10, 2010

“Sarah George. Report to the lab.” Sarah makes her way to deck 3, where our resident vampires, Linda and Naomi, wait, needles in hand. Naomi plunges a 14 gauge into Sarah’s vein, and the plastic sac begins to fill with bright red blood. It’s 8 pm on a Sunday night–not usual working hours for a blood donation center, but on the Africa Mercy, anytime is fair game.

In countries like Togo, where diseases like hepatitis and HIV run rampant, the general population is not a reliable source for clean blood donations. So, who do you turn to? Answer: The crew!

The blood donation system on this ship fascinates me. In developed countries, the usual sequence goes: Draw blood from donor. Separate into component parts. Send to hospitals. Refrigerate red cells for up to 35 days. Distribute as needed. On the ship, the order goes more like this: Draw blood from donor. Carry into the OR. Transfuse into patient.

This hospital is one of the few places in the world where transfusions of whole blood still take place. The centrifuges needed to separate blood into its component parts–red cells, plasma, platelets, etc.–are too bulky and expensive to house on the ship. Same goes for the refrigerators needed to store blood. As a result, everything happens in real time. The doctors identify patients who might require blood before, during, or after surgery. Our lab techs match up a string of pre-screened donors who have the same blood type, then notify each that they may be called in, whether that be in the morning, afternoon, or the middle of the of night. If a transfusion looks imminent, donors are asked to refrain from leaving the ship.

I’m not one for needles, so Sarah allowed me to experience vicariously the joy of giving blood. I sat with her as Naomi poked and prodded, helped her off the bed, and took one for the team by finishing off some cookies afterwards. Sugar aside, the best part was our trip to the ward the next day. Sarah approached bed 14, where a young woman propped herself up on a pillow. A line of stitches snaked from her temple to the bridge of her nose, down her cheek, then disappeared under a blue rag she held over her mouth. Two days earlier, doctors had removed an enormous tumor from her lower jaw. Sarah laid her hands on the woman’s legs. She introduced herself, and a translator spoke to the woman in Ewe: “This is the girl who gave you blood!” With a patched up face and a mouth still silent from swelling, the woman lifted her arm up and down, up and down, saying “Thank you!” in a most beautiful way.


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6 Responses to “Blood”

  1. Shanthi Jayakumar said

    Alana,
    There is a famous quotation and I think it is from poet Milton the gist of it is that … they also serve who only sit and wait…. Being there and watching is also “participation”. I admire you for what you are doing.
    Cheers!
    -Shanthi

  2. Adam said

    Yikes!

    I tried to donate blood while I was studying abroad in Chile (one of my classmate’s host grandfather needed an operation, and they ask that the family provide a good number of blood donors to keep from diminishing the supply – I’m not sure the culture of blood donation is as well developed). I went through the interview. I was rejected. Why? I’d been to Africa! A touch ironic given the above.

  3. paul rutherford said

    Wow, Alana. I learned so much about blood. I had no idea blood donated in the states gets separated then used. How interesting that y’all use whole blood. Thanks for sharing your experiences, friend.

  4. Patti said

    A highlight of a day? A new post from Alana! I love your writing and reading what is new in your world!
    Hope we’ll get some more stories when you return.
    Patti

  5. Whistler said

    Erin, some other friends, & I all went & gave blood on Holy Thursday. I have a tradition of giving blood on Good Friday. Thursday was better for her schedule, so we adapted. I would like to give blood in every state (& other countries 🙂 I have more of a dump truck-filled-with-buckets-with-lists. I think that is one of my more random/going to take some time + commitment dumptruckbucket items

  6. Wow! What a touching story. I just now discovered your blog and am so glad to have found it. God bless you for the amazing work that you’re doing! I look forward to reading more of your stories.

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