For the Blood is the Life and Other Stories

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When he turned 18, Thomas was encouraged to donate blood for himself. There is now no frozen-blood bank in Switzerland, so his blood is stored in the rare-blood banks in Paris and Amsterdam. He travels to France to donate, avoiding the bureaucratic machinery that would grind into action if his blood had to be sent over the Swiss border to Paris. The first urgent request came a few years after Thomas began donating, when he got a phone call asking if he would mind taking, and paying for, a taxi to the blood center in Geneva to donate for a newborn baby.

That moment brought it starkly home to him how valuable his blood was. It was perhaps also the first intimation that the costs of donating would ultimately be his. Some countries do pay donors and some pay more for rare blood to encourage donations. Thierry Peyrard told me that he was recently contacted by a doctor in Zurich asking for blood with another rare combination of negatives, for a patient about to undergo surgery.

There were only four compatible donors in France, and Peyrard could only contact two by phone. One of them was a year-old lady living in a village near Toulouse. Walter had one last chance to find the blood Francisca Akata so desperately needed: a small laboratory on the other side of the Atlantic. The panel exists to ensure that if anyone, anywhere in the world ever needs rare blood, they will have the best possible chance of getting it. If the donor and recipient are in different countries, the blood services of both countries will negotiate costs.

Because they are inherited, blood types tend to pool in specific populations, and of those donors turned out to be in the U. A flight from the U. And the blood would be fresh. All six U. In Rochester, England, it was James' th donation.

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He was surprised and mildly intrigued to learn that there were only known people with the same blood in the world. This was when Walter discovered how remote the hospital really was.

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The blood would have to travel for several hours to get there, bumping over a dirt road in the March heat. A helicopter, supplied at the last minute by the hospital to avoid the lengthy road journey, was waiting outside. Her blood flew the rest of the way to Kumbo and arrived at , just after Francisca had been wheeled into the operating room. The operation was a success, and the Catholic Diocese of Kumbo found her somewhere to recuperate before flying home. Since his blood can be given to anyone with a negative Rh blood type, Thomas could save countless lives.

But if he ever needs blood himself, he can receive only Rh null blood. If he donates a unit for himself, he has to permit it to be used by anyone else who might need it. This leaves Thomas dependent on other Rh null donors.

The global tide of blood in history, medicine and culture

But of the other odd people known worldwide with Rh null blood, only six or so besides Thomas are thought to donate. The reluctance to donate is perhaps understandable, but it places an added burden on the people who do give their blood. Over tea, he described the impact of his blood on his life. Every three seconds, someone in the world receives a blood transfusion this translates to 2. In Sweden, a modest initiative begun in has increased contributions by simply texting donors to let them know when their blood has been used; Britain has followed suit.

But these life-saving donations can also carry death and disease. The disturbing stories of contamination from around the world, especially by HIV and hepatitis C, are now well known. For instance, many people with haemophilia, surgical patients and new mothers who received blood products in the s and early s in Britain also unknowingly received infections, mainly HIV and hepatitis C.


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Many are still seeking recognition and compensation. There are effective measures. One is the rejection of blood donations from people who have recently visited areas where blood-borne diseases such as malaria, West Nile fever or Zika are rife. Ironically, British blood is considered a risk for contamination with the prions causing the neurodegenerative condition Creutzfeldt—Jakob disease, and is not accepted outside the country.

Elsewhere, larger risks remain. There are further disturbing tales. We sense the terror of year-old Radha in western Nepal: while she is menstruating, she must make her lonely way each evening to a remote hovel to sleep.

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This practice, chaupadi , makes Radha, like thousands of other teenagers, vulnerable to sexual assault by local men. And there are the rural communities in India where blood is now a kind of cash crop. Heroes and heroines, too, abound in Nine Pints. She made crude liver extracts for the treatment of pernicious anaemia, using mincing machines borrowed from friends, including Virginia Woolf a distant relative. By the late s, war was looming, heralding a need for blood. The bone marrow produces 2 million red blood cells every second. It produces pluripotent stem cells that can become any cells, and red blood cells with no nucleus that can slink and slither through the tiniest of capillaries.

Images of red blood cells show filled-in Cheerios or enticing pillows, so when I see a simulation of red blood cells, I want to jump into the picture and curl up in the middle of one. The American Society of Haematology prefers to liken them to doughnuts. Daily, the blood's 30 trillion red cells do a full circuit of the body, travelling about 12, miles, three times the distance from my front door in Leeds to Novosibirsk.

The circulatory system of veins, arteries, and capillaries is about 60, miles long, twice the circumference of the Earth and more.

Most of that is the capillaries, tiny blood vessels and holloways that reach nearly every cell in the body. In a resting human, the heart pumps a litre of blood every 10 seconds, and it beats 75 times a minute on average. So does the heart of a sheep. A blue whale's heart, the size of an economy car, beats five times a minute less on a deep dive ; a shrew's, 1, times. The heart is busy, and so is blood. It has a lot to do. It carries oxygen to organs and tissues, as well as nutrients, heat and hormones, the signals that regulate our functions, energy, sleep, mood. It carries out waste disposal, ridding the body of carbon dioxide and other unwanted matter.

A. No, never.

It clots when necessary. It fights infection and repels foreign invaders. It is a tissue and an organ at once. Robyn Williams: The book is like that, it's just a tremendous read. And while she was reading then, you made 4 million blood cells, red blood cells. It's extraordinary, zooming around the body like that.

The Most Precious Blood on Earth - The Atlantic

But when we give blood, the thing I find quite interesting is how they check for a number of things, obviously like HIV or syphilis, and they can do so very quickly. But there are all sorts of other little things like herpes and hormones. If you happen to be midcycle and feeling very jolly, and your blood is taken away, what if a chap gets it? There's so many things to look for to see whether the blood is okay to pass on.

Have they got it down to a pat, is there no problem? Rose George: We are fortunate…well, I'm saying we in the UK but also in Australia and in any country with a good blood supply system, we are fortunate that the level of safety now is extraordinarily high. But blood is a biological product, so essentially it cannot ever be fully safe because we cannot know what the next infection will be, we can't plan for it if we don't know what it is, we didn't expect Zika, we didn't expect HIV. So there is always that caveat about blood.

It's a living thing, so it can't ever be truly safe.


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But I think we are doing pretty well as it stands in our blood supply. Blood is so rich, and what that means is that it can be a really amazing diagnostic tool for the medical profession.

The global tide of blood in history, medicine and culture

You can learn so much from it. I had a few Google alerts set up when I was researching the book, and one of them was 'a simple blood test', because about every couple of days in the media you'd find that a simple blood test could tell you whether you were going to get Alzheimer's or whether you had concussion or whether you could predict tumour markers or predict cancer. And most of these are years away from being reality, but there's always excitement about it, there's always this passion about the possibilities of blood.

And I think what's really fascinating about blood is how much we do know and how much we have learned very quickly in years really but how little we know as well and how much there is still to know about it. I think it's quite an intriguing substance. Robyn Williams: There is a bit of worry of course about those clotting factors.

The numbers are quite substantial altogether in the population who can't actually clot blood, the haemophiliacs.