Sharp Edges

Jim Taylor is an Okanagan Centre author and freelance journalist. He can be reached at rewrite@shaw.ca.

Canada Day will be a little different this year. COVID-19 restrictions will cut mass gatherings, family reunions, and patriotic parades.

My local Rotary Club, to take just one example, will not serve several thousand pancakes to long lines of sunburned people.

But despite urgings to stay home, more people will hit the road. Hotels and restaurants are gradually opening again. We may not be able to drive to the Grand Canyon. But British Columbians can still drive to Wells Gray Park or Hell’s Gate.

One summer, we drove across northern Ontario. I had an early Volvo. Its instructions specified “premium gasoline only.”

As we rolled along the TransCanada Highway towards Thunder Bay, the needle on the Volvo’s gas gauge dipped lower. And lower.

I tried several rural gas stations. No premium; only regular. I drove on.

Finally, just past the point where Terry Fox gave up his marathon-a-day attempt to run across Canada, my car ran out of gas.

It was a long walk into Thunder Bay.

Starting next week, there will be more cars out on our roads. That means more accidents. And if Canadian Blood Services were to run out of gas, figuratively, people would die. Because you can’t get a refill of blood if the tank is empty.

Earlier this year, there was a risk their tank could run empty. Because of COVID-19, fearful donors were staying away. Fortunately, giving went up 20%.

In fact, a friend who volunteers at donor clinics assured me the agency takes so many precautions that you’re more like to catch COVID-19 at home!

Canadian Blood Services maintains an online National Inventory of Blood Supply Products (blood.ca/en/blood).

Earlier this week, the supply of some blood types was down to just three days. Only two common blood types had more than five days’ supply, across the whole country.

Even that won’t guarantee that the emergency room you’re taken to will have the right kind of blood to save your life. Hundreds of factors need to be checked, and matched.

Each of us, for example, carries antigens for every disease we have ever recovered from.

For 10 years, my wife benefitted from those antigens. Because her leukemia made her ultra-susceptible to communicable infections, she received a monthly transfusion of immunoglobulin, a cocktail of thousands of other people’s antigens — to top-up her tank, so to speak.

I can’t imagine how many millions of donors she was indebted to.

Towards the end of her life, she made a symbolic effort to repay one or two of them.

As leukemia continued to ravage her blood, her hemoglobin had dropped dangerously low. Hemoglobin is, loosely, the cells that make your blood look red. They convey oxygen through your circulatory system, to provide energy to your muscles and organs.

Healthy people normally have hemoglobin levels around 150. Joan’s levels had dropped below 50. Little wonder she felt chronically tired.

Our family doctor suggested that a whole blood transfusion might give her a little more energy.

The emergency room gave her three units of blood. It took about nine hours.

Next morning, a young ER doctor told her that even with those three units, her hemoglobin levels were still only 77.

“We normally hospitalize patients at 75,” he said. He gave her a choice. Two more units of blood immediately. Or she could come back later that week for those extra units.

“There is another alternative,” Joan said.

He looked puzzled.

“I could not take the blood at all,” she said.

He looked startled.

Joan explained that she knew she was dying. The additional transfusion would give her, perhaps, another week or so of comparative comfort. But it wouldn’t change anything.

“Someone else needs of that blood than I do,” she said.

The doctor’s expression suggested that no one in his experience had ever voluntarily turned down a step that could prolong life. But he accepted her decision, and sent her home.

Two units of blood is next to nothing in that whole national inventory. But who knows — maybe those two units let some unknown person recover from emergency surgery. Maybe they helped someone with a chronic illness over a hump.

That’s the whole thing about donating blood in Canada. It is totally voluntary, and totally anonymous.

Joan made a sacrifice, so someone else might live a little longer, or a little better. Don’t let that sacrifice be meaningless.

This summer, contact your nearest Blood Services centre. For Joan’s sake, make an appointment to keep their tank filled.

Jim Taylor is an Okanagan Centre author and freelance journalist. He can be reached at rewrite@shaw.ca