Arm-to-arm: Where blood goes after it’s donated and who it saves

Posted on 5 July 2018

Were it not for blood donors, life-saving medical treatment for trauma victims, complicated surgical procedures and cancer treatments would not be possible.

Blood is made of cells that carry oxygen to, and waste products from, all the tissues of the body. Blood cannot be artificially reproduced – it can only be generated by the body. It can, however, be shared – given by one living person to another. Through the process of blood donation, lives can be saved. In fact, giving just 475ml of blood (traditionally referred to as one pint) can save up to three lives.

The cycle of donated blood

After being drawn from the donor into a carefully labelled sterile bag, the ‘pint’ of blood is transported to the nearest South African National Blood Service testing and processing lab. Here it is spun in a centrifuge to separate it into red blood cells (ideal for patients with anaemia or who have suffered trauma or undergone surgery), plasma (for patients with bleeding or clotting problems), and platelets (for patients with leukaemia, cancer or bone marrow complications).

There are four blood groups: A, B, AB and O, all of which are then divided into Rh positive and Rh negative. Not all blood groups are compatible with each other, and transfusing the wrong blood group into a patient can be dangerous. Group O negative is the universal blood type and can be given to anyone.

A unit of blood only lasts 42 days after donation, which is why it’s important for blood donors to donate regularly.

The emergency perspective

South Africa’s emergency services and intensive care units live in constant fear of running out of their most precious resource: blood. Donation drives take place frequently around the country, and loyal donors do their ‘duty’ by generously donating 475ml of their blood every three months. But compared to demand, donor numbers remain low. For example, a mere 1.2% of the Western Cape’s estimated population of 5 million people donate blood.

Dr Grant Lindsay, an emergency unit doctor at Mediclinic Victoria in Tongaat, KwaZulu-Natal, says the shortage of blood resources in South Africa is a dire problem.

‘Being located along the N2 on the north coast, we receive a lot of emergencies, ranging from motor vehicle and industrial- and farming-related accidents to gunshot wounds and other traumas. We usually have two units of universal donor blood in reserve for such emergencies – two is too few, I’d be far happier with ten in reserve. Sometimes we have to give those two units to another hospital for an elective procedure like a bypass, leaving us without any blood in reserve,’ says Dr Lindsay.

But if a hospital does run out of their reserve supply of blood, a close working relationship with the South African National Blood Service ensures that this blood is replenished as a matter of urgency.

There are many good news stories to share. Dr Lindsay describes how, just last month, an eight-year-old boy who had been hit by a speeding taxi on the highway, was rushed into ICU at Mediclinic Victoria, suffering multiple trauma and intra-abdominal haemorrhaging (internal bleeding). He was in emergency surgery for two hours.

‘That young boy would have died of his injuries had he not been given blood,’ says Dr Lindsay.

‘If more South Africans donated blood, so many more lives could be saved.’

Published in Emergency

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