A friend was over at my office the other day when my phone rang. It was a nurse from the blood bank of the Laquintinie Hospital in Douala. She told me of a woman scheduled for a delicate operation that afternoon who did not have enough blood. Could I come over and give her some blood? I told her I would be there within an hour.
Then I gave my friend the gist of my short conversation with the nurse and he looked at me as if I had just agreed to do something illegal. Still with astonishment audible in his voice, he asked, “Are you really seriously thinking of going to give your blood?” I said, yes, I was. “But, from every indication, you don’t even know who this woman is!” He sounded really puzzled. “That’s correct,” I said, “but I’m used to it. I don’t know her and I don’t care to know her. It’s enough for me to give her my blood in the hope that she’ll have a successful operation.” I could still hear his voice heavy with doubt and see the puzzled look in his eyes as we parted.
As I wound my way through the snail-paced evening traffic so characteristic of a Friday evening in Douala, with taxi drivers completely violating every available traffic rule in the book as they shout insults at each other and flash obscene gestures in the air; with moped riders, the notorious “bendskin” riders, rushing at you, or past you, from left and right with three or four passengers on their backs, I could still hear my friend’s question: “Why would you give your blood to a complete stranger?” My answer intrigued him all the more. “I donate my blood for Monica.”
Who is Monica?
When I mentioned Monica, his eyelids dilated as he turned a questioning look at me. Before the question “and who the hell is Monica?” could leave his lips, I gave him the answer. “Monica, in case you’re curious to know, is, or shall I say, was my sister; the only sister I ever had. She passed on in 1975. She would, however, have died twenty years earlier had someone, nay, some people, many unknown to us, not given her their blood.
It was the blood of complete strangers that gave our sister a new lease of life. Although she passed on several years later, it was not for lack of blood.” I was still very young then when my sister took ill and was rushed to the Catholic Hospital in Shisong. She was in hospital for several weeks when one day my parents appeared extremely worried. I could hear them in hushed tones discussing my sister’s illness and, from every indication, all was not well. Then my father called my brother and me and asked us to walk the ten miles that separated the hospital from our home to give some food to our sister and to greet her.
We were always excited when we had to travel out of our village of Nkar to Kumbo or Shisong. We loved the open spaces and the fresh air and the hills that roll on and on like waves and the valleys we had to cross to reach our destination. A journey on foot of about three hours would take us nearly twice that long.
When we arrived at the hospital, we admired the doctors and the nurses in their impeccably white garments, with stethoscopes hanging around their necks. We admired the clinically clean environment of the hospital although I immediately hated, as I still do, the all pervasive smell of the medication that always wafts through hospital wards. There has always been for me something inexplicably intimidating about hospitals, and that is perhaps one reason I never ever dreamt of studying medicine. Even when friends of mine and I dreamt of future careers, medicine was never on my list; mainly because of the smell of medicines, which I barely tolerate.
When my brother and I arrived at the hospital, we saw a cousin of ours sitting on one of the benches in the hospital courtyard. He immediately led us into our sister’s ward. What struck me then, and I still occasionally have visions of that scene, was the tubes dangling over my sister’s bed, one leading into her nostrils and the other into her arm. I couldn’t believe that the frail figure in bed was my sister until she turned round, saw us and rewarded our presence with a smile. That weak smile was truly my sister’s and something ran through me and almost instantly clouded my eyes with tears.
Attached to the tubes were two small bags, one containing a clear water-like liquid and the other a dark reddish liquid, which our cousin whispered to us, was blood. That was quite an intimidating sight! I nearly fled from that room. My sister could barely speak and was in considerable pain. Shortly thereafter, two nurses walked in, gave us broad smiles and asked us to step out of the room while they attended to my sister.
As we stood speechless outside, our cousin told us of people donating blood to our sister, and invited us to go and see for ourselves. We followed him down the long, impeccably clean corridor, reeking medication of all sorts. There, at one window, we saw an uncle of ours and two other people sitting on chairs with tubes dangling from their arms and emptying blood into little pocket-like containers. Our uncle called out to us and told us he was giving blood for our sister. He then pointed to the other two men with him and asked us to greet them because they too had volunteered to give blood to our sister.
At that time, giving blood to someone didn’t mean anything to us. My attention was entirely focused on those needles sticking out of people’s arms and I remember wincing from the imaginary pain I thought they must be feeling. Oh, and that much blood being drained from someone! Boy, I didn’t think I could give away so much blood and still survive! That scene of people sitting there with their arms stretched out and needles sticking from them was to remain with me for several years to come.
Later, I learnt how those generous people had come by at the height of the crisis and voluntarily given their blood to save my sister. Some of those people, our uncle told us, were total strangers on their way to the market in Kumbo. They had been asked to give generously of their blood, and they had done just that, some for the first time in their lives. How selfless and generous they were! Our sister pulled through that crisis, recovered well enough to come back home to us.
I remember how she always thanked those people who had been so generous to give her a new lease of life. She didn’t even know what was happening as she had been for a good part of the time in a coma, but whenever she talked about her stay in hospital, which was quite often, she always recalled the huge quantity of blood that she received. “And where would so much blood have come from, had it not been for some generous souls?” she always wondered; and you could clearly hear echoes of gratitude in her voice.
In the second part of this write-up, I tell you how I became a blood donor myself several years later.