Give blood, the earlier you start, the better!

By Malisema Mahloane

Every year on June 14, countries around the world celebrate World Blood Donor Day (WBDD). Today’s WBDD events serve to raise awareness of the need for safe blood and blood products and to thank voluntary, unpaid blood donors for their life-saving gifts of blood. The slogan for this year’s campaign is “Give blood, give plasma, share life, share often.” It focuses on patients requiring life-long transfusion support and underlines the role every single person can play, by giving the valuable gift of blood or plasma.

My name is Malisema Juliah Mahloane, born Relebohile Juliah Ts’ita. I am a Mosotho woman living in Maseru. At my age, I think I am a veteran blood donor since I have made so many blood donations.  Despite all those donations, I still feel nervous with every new blood donation! In this article, I reveal why I plead with parents to encourage their children in particular teenage girls to donate blood while young – well, this is my experience having donated blood many times.

Why is blood donation so important and yet feared by many people? To be honest I don’t know but I don’t want to believe it’s the fear of needles. The process lasts just around 15 minutes sitting or lying in one position with one needle inserted in one vein to draw blood.

It was in June 1998 I had just received admission at the National University of Lesotho very excited to go to varsity. Walking past Queen II hospital looking around while busy with my shopping, I decided to enter the small stone brick building along Kingsway road to enquire on the services. I can’t remember what I was curious to know since the building was clearly written Lesotho Blood Transfusion Services. I went up the stairs into the offices and was warmly welcomed. After the blood donation process was explained to me, I conceded to giving blood and without wasting time, the attendants handed me a form.

I remember I had just turned 17 on Friday 12th of June, that same month I signed my first blood donation form.

I was asked to be honest with everything on the questionnaire and I did exactly that. Next the form was checked to ensure it was correct. Following that I was ushered to the scale, my weight was well over 50kgs the minimum required. Blood pressure was checked; I was seemingly nervous but all was normal. Afterwards it was a finger prick to check blood iron in a bluish green solution. The prick was disturbingly painful and the assistant smiled said sorry as she squeezed a sample of blood from my finger. She dropped the sample in the solution. Immediately as it sunk, she smiled asked me to lie comfortably on the special chair known as the ‘blood donor chair’.

At this point my heart is beating faster, I don’t know what next to feel. The attendant tired an elastic band around my arm, reached for a large bore needle which she inserted in a highly visible vein on my arm, there and then my blood was flowing to the collection bag. It was a painful process but awesome to watch while pumping with my fist. 15 minutes later the bag was full, she removed the 16-gauge needle from my vein, put a plaster to stop further blood and asked me to rest a second before stepping off the chair. For the whole of my donation just 500ml of blood was drawn but it looked like a whole lot!

Afterward she ushered me to the table where I was offered refreshments, there were Marie and Eet-sum-mor biscuits then Oros.

Although it is not advisable to donate blood for health check purposes, there are various health problems revealed which include viruses like Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C, HIV-1 and HIV-2, HTLV-I and HTLV-II, syphilis. Some of these viruses are sexually transmitted while some are not.

Much as I was young I was curious to know one thing, my blood group and type. Knowing my blood type was important in case I had an emergency situation requiring a blood transfusion. I was asked to return 2 weeks later to get my blood group type and the health results. Young people should make it their responsibility to know their blood groups since most parents do not know.

I don’t know why but I kept the whole process a secret, not at all bothered to share with my sisters what I had done that day, however it was a big thing. Without fail, I went back to get my “results” at LBTS. This time, the silly brave me had all of a sudden become super extremely worried of the big reveal. Results will always be results no matter the situation I don’t care who says what!  

I remember being called to an office to be given the results, the nurse made sure it was private and confidential. First she reminded me of the importance of donating blood and emphasized what diseases they check, she stressed how my blood underwent the highest check in the most trusted laboratories by experts. As she related that I was worried sick expecting the worst of all the results and ready to die any minute.

There were not health problems at all found even the slightest. She then handed me a grey small card written my names and the blood type reveal was O negative. I made a deep sigh of relief, then followed the attendant to the then LBTS Coordinator’s office Mr Matete Motlojoa. In there I was welcomed again all smiles and great admiration for the choice I made. Mr Motlojoa encouraged me to take good care of my health, stay motivated to donate, never let my gut down because as a blood O negative, I am a universal donor therefore I am highly in demand and said “You are a diamond among pearls!” Then he honoured me with a 1st blood donor pin which he plugged on my jacket. I left the place extremely excited, wanting to everyone to see “my conversation starter”.

Universal donors are those with an O negative blood type.  Why?  O negative blood can be used in transfusions for any blood type.  Type O is routinely in short supply and in high demand by hospitals – both because it is the most common blood type and because type O negative blood is the universal blood type needed for emergency transfusions and for immune deficient infants.

At home, I shared the great news and all were happy for me. I am the youngest of five children at home, my late parents had four girls and one boy. Growing up I don’t remember seeing any of my family members donate blood. Probably my father did while in the police service, I never asked anyone. 

From Mr Motlojoa’s statement I took blood donation very seriously and committed to it. I became a regular donor who wanted nothing in return except saved lives. I went to University well aware of the consequences of reckless behavior, the disappointment I would bring to myself should I fall prey of serious incurable viruses and diseases. But then at NUL, two yeras later I was confronted with a serious health challenge that to date I still do not know how I contracted.

In winter 2000 I had just received my second year results happy to proceed to the third year. That June I got sick, so severe that I was hospitalized for a week. I was still loyal to my donations, an act I carried with pride and my donor card to prove. I had a severe persistent cough, drastically lost weight. I had never been so scared in my life!

I remember one fateful morning throwing up right away after bathing. My sisters stormed into the bathroom and stared at me. Their obvious question “Are you sure you are not pregnant?”

“Of course not,” I replied surely.

“And don’t even think I could be HIV positive; I am a blood donor!” I added showing them my recently signed card.

My sisters were a little relieved I was off the list of their worst nightmares. Just because you are a regular blood donor does not make you immune of any danger. Like all other human beings, blood donors are prone to health risks too like I was that year. However, regular blood donation helps a person to maintain cardiovascular health, reduce the risk of developing cancers, stimulates blood cell production, maintain healthy liver, weight regulation, help improve your mental state.

I was rushed to Queen II hospital carrying also my blood donor card which upon producing together with my medical record book I was fast forwarded to the front of the queue. A privilege for being a life saver. What the doctor suspected was the last thing on any one’s mind…TB! I fainted there and then.

Later when I woke up around lunch I was on a bed in the TB ward my sisters around me. I was supposed to be admitted in hospital for two weeks having been diagnosed with TB but I responded so well to treatment that I spent only one week. My weight had dropped below 50kg, a nightmare to any dedicated blood donor. That moment I took my diet and medication super extremely serious. The year was 2000, a TB patient had to take about 11 tablets at once, morning, noon and evening in the early stages of daily treatment. I took no chances, my health was my priority, I cared nothing about my looks and what people thought. All I wanted was to continue giving blood to the needy. My treated lasted six months.

To my recollection, people said TB was a taboo I should not disclose it, I cared to live and see others survive too, so I shared my journey with them, finish your medication that was all I did. One day while on treatment I got a call from LBTS they needed urgently blood not only from an O group donor but O negative of course. It was very painful to let them down, telling them I could not. Those calls kept me alive, determined to live big, reclaim my health which I did successfully.

In 2001 I was back in full force giving blood wherever I wanted or was called. One day I received a very life changing call, I was home minding my business. There were three little newborn babies who needed blood as a matter of life and death. I was asked on the phone; do you think you can do this?

I was shaking, not sure if I was in the right state of health. I had not donated in a while but took a giant leap of faith in myself and prayed God to save the little innocent souls. I answered the caller,” yes I am getting ready, please send the ambulance to collect me.”

I was praying so hard all the way to LBTS that everything should go well, my iron levels, my blood pressure and lastly that I had none of the many viruses to endanger the new born infants. For the first time in my life I had never been that scared, seeing small three collection bags on my lap while donating blood for three human beings at once. What a hero I thought to myself!

Because a safe, reliable source of blood is critical to providing effective blood products to recipients, blood banks are dependent on the altruistic voluntary donations of citizens. As a result, blood banks place great emphasis on making the donation process pleasant, convenient, and as safe as possible for donors. Giving blood is not only an act to save other people’s lives but to save yours too. The minute you remember your true value to the world, you get this conscience to “protect” yourself in certain incidents you have control of. Throughout my varsity years I carried this badge of honor and survived many situations some of which could have caused me my life had my decisions been bad.

There are 4 blood group types. Group A, AB, B and O. Blood bank specialists determine your blood type based on whether you have antigen A or B on your red blood cells. They also look for a protein called the Rhesus (Rh) factor. They classify your blood type as positive (+) if you have this protein and negative (-) if you don’t. Blood O don’t have antigens.  This makes eight common blood types: A+, A-, B+, B-, AB+, AB-, O+, O-.  Knowing about blood types allows healthcare providers to safely transfuse donated blood from one person into another during a blood transfusion. Blood types also need to be compatible for organ transplants. (see chart)

On my graduation day I got fascinated by a nose ring then I pierced knowing very well that body piercing was a one-year setback to any blood donor. A good girl gone bad excited by the world outside school.

In 2005 I became pregnant with my first child, for two full years I could not give blood, my donor card even got misplaced. The comeback in 2007 was still as powerful as my first, the LBTS called to check on me that they missed me. Then again in 2009 I expected my second child. I resumed the donation process in 2011. My last third child was born in 2017. In 2019 then I had a tattoo, another year break.  So in total I have 10 years of not donating blood. That’s about 30 donations not done!

As a woman, knowing my blood type at an early age has played a huge role in the success of all my children’s births and shaping into the mother I am today. My children’s father has a blood type Rh factor different from mine hence it was critical for his blood type to be checked in my first pregnancy. We wereRh incompatible so it was verified. Rh incompatibility usually isn’t a problem if it’s the mother’s first pregnancy. That’s because the baby’s blood does not mix during the pregnancy however at birth, the mother’s and baby’s blood can mix. If this happens, the mother’s body recognizes the baby’s blood as a foreign substance, then the mother starts building defense against the baby.

To prevent complications, doctors had to secure me a series of two Rh immune-globulin shots during my first pregnancy, the first shot I had around the 28th week of my pregnancy and the last second shot I was injected immediately after child birth. It had to be within 72 hours. Rh immune-globulin acts like a vaccine. It prevents the mother’s body from making any Rh antibodies that could cause serious health problems in the newborn or affect future pregnancies like causing multiple miscarriages. It is therefore extremely critical to know your blood type, that of your partner before planning your future as a woman.

I have been donating blood for the past 25 years and we are still offered the same refreshments, Marie and Eet-sum-mor biscuits and Oros. With no money at all, this is an unpaid act of love. However, I am not stopping intentionally. My motto is simple. “Do what you can while you still can”. I give blood freely, I lose nothing, I don’t even know who I give it to. I am a volunteer, I don’t want to wait for family members to be in danger and compelled to donate.

All my LBTS pins and gifts provide me enough satisfaction. On Monday 12 June I was turning 42 years old. In these years I have done 32 donations one of which was two days ago on my birthday, that’s a huge milestone to myself. And to think I have never received blood in my life, God is mighty.

During my blood donation journey I have had many challenges most of which were the lack of iron in my blood. For this I have had to reconsider my diet, ensure it is a healthy one with greens enough to provide all the needed minerals. The only supplement I take is iron tablets, drink lots of water and live life as normal as possible also exercise whenever I can. 

My message to all those who can start as young as now to donate blood, do not wait. You don’t have to live like an angel sin free, there is no such life, carry on with your life enjoy it as much as possible, but do your best to take care for yourself and save yourself so that you can save other people’s lives.

I have never met any of my blood recipients in my entire life, that’s what I should live with as a volunteer, I have made peace.

To all the volunteers, blood donors I salute you and happy World Blood Donor Day!

If this article changed your life you can write me an email