While strolling back from class during my first year at university, I walked passed a South African National Blood Transfusion Services mobile donor centre. They had a donor drive on campus and were recruiting prospective blood donors while their trustworthy patrons queue up to donate blood. I used to be on the shy side, and as I walked past their mobile centre, I would give it a hesitant glance, but I didn’t dare to enter.
One of the nurses saw me hesitating. As I scurry to move past their mobile centre, she cornered me between a trashcan and the mobile centre. I had no choice but to listen to her marketing proposal of why I should become a blood donor.
She quickly realized I wasn’t convinced to lay down on a small uncomfortable bed. To get poked by a relatively large needle and watch while a part of me is slowly draining from my body through a small see-thru tube into a barcoded plastic bag. I noticed the utter disappointment in her face as she suddenly got serious as she deviated from the usual marketing script and said: “You know, your donation will give someone, somewhere, some much needed time.” And she turned around and went back to do her usual duties.
She said it with so much passion that I knew what she said came from the bottom of her heart. That day I became an avid blood donor. After a couple of years of continued donations, I received a call from the blood bank to ask me if I want to become a platelet donor. As a platelet donor, you can not make the usual ‘walk-in’ donation like donating blood. It was a more complicated machine setup with a lot of tubes that needed to be prep. (see blog photo for the machine)
During one of my regular platelet donations, they told me my platelets matched a specific patient battling cancer. They explained to me how they use the platelets for patients to recover after a chemotherapy session.
Then came the big question. The nurse wanted to know if I’m willing to do a series of dedicated donations for that specific patient. That would mean that I need to donate platelets a couple of days before the patient would receive chemotherapy and be available to donate platelets at unregular times. I thought if the patient will fight this, I’m going to be in their corner. So I committed to donating platelets for an unknown individual for an unlimited time. Without a doubt, this would become one of my most life-changing experiences in which I would engage in my life. The first couple of months went smoothly. I would donate platelets, and the patient would receive chemotherapy. The patient’s cancer went into remission. Everything returned to normal.
One morning, I got a call from the blood bank informing me that the patient had a fallback and the cancer is back. I immediately started again with dedicated donations. But this time, the fight would be brutal. It would be a gloves-off fight with immense intensity. The patient experienced almost every side-effect known with this round of chemotherapy. The platelets help with the recovery after each chemotherapy session, but it wasn’t enough. The patient’s immune system didn’t have enough momentum to recharge itself. The patient needed additional platelets to help the immune system to get going again.
I was donating platelets at the maximum rate, which were allowed. Only in exceptional cases and for a limited time you can exceed the number of donations. It was a unique case, and the MD signed off on the additional donations.
I remember leaving the office that day on my way to donate platelets. I still had three donations left before I’ve reached my absolute limit. I was in high spirits, but before I could get my car, I received a call from the blood bank. They informed me that it wasn’t necessary to come in that day for a donation. The nurse didn’t tell, and I didn’t ask, but I knew. The final battle was over. There would be no more fighting for this patient.
An indescribable feeling of total emptiness slowly crept over my soul as I was sitting on the sidewalk beside my car. For the previous eleven months, I had a higher purpose. An anonymous person out there needed my help, someone who desperately depended on a total stranger for life-giving platelets.
Time has passed, and I went back to my regular schedule of donations. Yet, the feeling of total emptiness that clouded my heart didn’t want to go away. As I was sitting in my usual spot at the blood bank, the nurse slipped me a small handwritten note. As I began to read it, my heart broke into a million pieces.
Dear anonymous donor.
We have never met and probably never will. I want to thank you for your dedicated support for an unknown stranger from the bottom of my heart. You do not know how much this means to my family and me. I had one more birthday this year with all my loved ones. I was fortunate to tuck my kids into bed and give them special hugs and kisses. I was able to watch them fall asleep after bedtime stories. Although these were troubled times, our family was able to create special memories. I know this time, it would end differently. I want to say: “Thank you for the time.”
That feeling of emptiness inside me gave way to a sense of immense gratitude for being part of this tremendous story. It did not have the ending we anticipated or hoped for. But then I realized this is not the end. Through the pain and tears, heartache and sadness, special memories were made to last a lifetime for those left behind. Memories of bedtime stories and special hugs and kisses.