On Friday, I donated blood at the children’s hospital, something I’ve been meaning to do for ages. There is a blood bank at children’s, shared with the neighboring maternity hospital, but blood is in chronic shortage – in part because people are reluctant to donate and in part due to difficulties with storage. As a result, patients needing blood are required to replace the blood they use before they’ll be given any from the bank.
What this means in practice is that a severely ill child will lie in a hospital bed – sometimes for hours – while family members run around trying to find someone willing to donate. (A similar scene unfolds in cases of trauma, or when a mother starts hemorrhaging after giving birth, and often to similarly tragic ends.) This process is complicated by local beliefs that only men should donate blood. In addition, families must buy the blood bags from a pharmacy across the street – the hospital itself is out of stock – which for many means trying to beg or borrow the money to do so.
Sometimes the family manages all this in time to save the child.
Sometimes they don’t.
So on Friday, I found myself lying on a worn leather examination table in a dark, cluttered room marked “Bleeding Room”, a needle in my arm drawing my A-positive blood for a little girl named Dora. (And yes, the needle was straight from a sealed package and the technician was wearing gloves.)
Dora’s mom waited outside the room. Dora, an adorable toddler, lay unconscious on Ward 2, watched over by her grandmother. She had malaria and was severely anemic, so much so her hands and feet neared mine in paleness.
My blood was out of my body just long enough for the team to test and label it. Just as the technician told me I could get up from the couch, a nurse hurried off to Ward 2 with a bag of my still-warm blood in her hands. I followed, and watched as they prepared the transfusion, then came back later with a doctor friend to check how Dora was doing. The doctor was worried that her heart might be overwhelmed by the volume of fluids given to her – not just blood but malaria meds and other fluids – but she seemed to be coping. We left her still unconscious and with her worried (but grateful) mother and grandmother at her side. I prayed she’d make it.
On Monday, I arrived at the hospital to find Dora not only alive, but sitting up and smiling at me from a windowsill. She was pink and alert and looked perfectly healthy. We took her photo (see above), though she refused to smile for the camera.
I was positively glowing all day, and kept stopping by to visit my personal little miracle. There were lots of jokes among the doctors about the super-duper powerful blood the little girl had been given – in other words, blood from a white foreigner – but they all knew as well as I that almost anyone could have given that life-saving blood.
The American Red Cross blood services no longer wants my blood, because I’ve been exposed to malaria and other sorts of nasty African pathogens.
No problem, I’ll happily save it up for little girls like Dora.
To learn more about the children’s hospital mentioned here and to find out how you can help, please visit the Welbodi Partnership, which supports paediatric health care in Sierra Leone by partnering with the Ministry of Health and Sanitation to establish the Sierra Leone Institute of Child Health.