Today I saved a boy’s life. That’s what I was told after I walked out of the blood bank’s transfusion room into the hospital hallway. I laughed, thinking it was a nice metaphorical pat on the back after watching 350ml of blood get slowly drained from my body. But then I found out I literally did save a young boy’s life. Simply because I decided to donate in the right place at the right time.
An Australian colleague of mine asked me to join her to donate blood through an Ozzie programme at a local blood bank that channels blood units specifically to children with thalassemia. Thalassemia is a complicated blood disease far beyond my understanding to attempt an explanation here. From a quick overview of my usual Wikipedia-style research, it creates fatal iron levels in the blood and causes infection, bone deformation, enlargement of the spleen, anemia, and heart problems. In many places, a bone marrow transplant is the most promising cure. In Cambodia, however, that option just doesn’t exist in a country ridiculously under-resourced in health infrastructure. The rich might be able to afford healthcare in Thailand, but the poor are often left to die – that is literal.
I’m not going to lie, I didn’t really intend to donate blood today. When my colleague approached me, the first thing I asked in slight defence-mode was “what am I going to do after they interview and reject my blood?” In my own ‘progressive’ country, I have been banned from giving blood. Earlier this year, Canada added insult to injury by “lifting the ban” on gay men giving blood and opening up the pool to those gay men that have been abstinent for no less than five years. So we can get married and live equal lives under the law – but don’t have sex with your spouse and you can have the privilege of giving your blood to save lives. So fine. Don’t take our blood, don’t take our organs after we die – keep messaging that we’re a high-risk group in spite of a wide range of diverse lifestyles among people of all sexual orientations and, say that this is purely evidence-based policy. I can’t deny I carry some baggage about the blood donation and organ donor industry.
My goodhearted and persistent colleague took my concerns and went up the information ladder to get answers. In Cambodia, you are asked specifically whether you have had a new sexual partner in the last six months, and then whether you have had unprotected sex with that person. There is no gender, no assuming risk-group denomination, and no reinforced stereotypes for the so-called sake of health profiling.
After a medical check and a prick in our fingers to determine blood types, my unfortunate colleague who had instigated this trip out of the office found out her hemoglobin levels were too low to donate for the moment. It was just going to be me in the blood donor lounge chair. As I laid there watching my blood drain slowly through the tube, I thought about how being rejected for this for many years before had really detached me from understanding this experience. Leaving the donor room, I got the “saved a life” comment and was suddenly dragged by a man into the kitchen. He didn’t say anything to me, just pointing and giving me food. I assumed it was his job. As I sat down replenishing myself with bananas, an egg, and water, I learnt from my colleague and the Australian charity contact what had actually taken place as I was donating.
A mother and a man who works for the hospital running blood between facilities arrived at the bank in desperation for blood for her son. Suffering from thalassemia, he was at the stage of splenomegaly, where the spleen literally expands like a balloon in the chest. In Cambodia, to access blood for a surgery, you must be able to replace it beforehand. Needing two units, the mother was not able to get enough blood into the bank for the required transfusion. Blood as a currency might not happen so bluntly elsewhere, but blood bank reserves certainly are an issue everywhere. The Australian charity was able to sign over my blood on the spot for the boy who needed emergency surgery immediately. The mother and blood runner came in bowing to me whilst still in the kitchen and thanking me profusely for giving them the unit they needed for her son right then. The impact of what had really happened – then and there – didn’t come to me until a bit later on. I have a big bag of instant noodles and a can of condensed milk from a visibly poor family that speak more gratitude than I’ve ever received. I’m so humbled by this afternoon and I have never felt so connected to a donation before in my life.
Please give blood. Please fight for the opportunity for everyone to give blood. Today, because of fate choosing a time and location, I found out that I saved a boy’s life in Cambodia. But just imagine all the times you don’t even find out that you have saved somebody’s life in a moment of emergency.
If you are in Cambodia, there is a desperate need to give blood through Australian charity Voices’ ”The Risk Project” so that it can be matched with kids suffering with thalassemia. Please consider it – you do the work of the donation, but they do the work of making sure it reaches the individual.
And of course everywhere else for those with the privilege of donating, please make a visit to the blood bank. I may have protested through a sort of personal boycott and disengagement in the past, but I will now wholeheartedly give in countries that accept and welcome my blood to save lives.
This article was re-published in Canada’s DailyXtra on August 10, 2013: