Viewpoint: There will be blood donors

With President Raimonds Vejonis recovering from a serious heart operation on January 20, there's minute examination of every release coming from the Presidential office, not only regarding his state of health but the constitutional implications of what looks certain to be an extended leave of absence.

In among the appeals for parties to set aside their differences to help the country to run smoothly (which we can hope for with no expectation it will happen) there was another message:

"In support of the hospital, the President calls on people to give blood to the blood donor service, which directly contributes to cardiac and other patients," an official statement said.

This gave me the warm glow that is felt by all blood donors in such circumstances, no matter how noble their motives. Coincidentally, I had donated blood just a few days earlier. Maybe I had, in my own small way, helped the President. The feeling of smug self-satisfaction is well summed up in British comedian Tony Hancock's classic TV show The Blood Donor.

"We should have something for people to pick us out by... of course as long as they get the old corpuscles, that's reward in itself. I just think we ought to get a badge as well," muses Hancock's pompous first-time blood donor.
 
My adventures in Latvia's blood donor service began a few years ago when their mobile blood donation bus parked outside the Saeima building for its annual visit when voters are treated to the enjoyable spectacle of politicians being bled dry for the country rather than the other way round.
 
Seeing the MPs photographing each other to score quick 'likes' for their Twitter accounts (and of course from philanthropic and patriotic motives too) I realised there was a severe danger they would gain temporary moral superiority over the Saeima press pack.
 
Keen to defend the prestige of the journalistic profession and maintain parity with the politicos, I joined the back of the queue and prepared to fill in a medical form and pump out some claret for Latvia.
 
As the nurse was about to hand me the form she asked to see my ID. I presented my British passport. Her Majesty's request to assist the bearer without let or hindrance cut no ice.
 
"This is no good, we need your personas kods," she said, referring to the unique ID number all Latvian residents need, without which it is impossible to do anything more complex than buy a pint of milk.
 
"Aha!" I replied, "I know my personas kods off by heart!" and I recited it to her.
 
"No, we need an ID with your photo AND your personas kods," she said.
 
I didn't have one. Back in those days even a residency permit was a piece of paper without a photo.
 
I handed back the form and scuttled away hoping none of the politicians would see me.
 
The next time, a few months later, I got a little further. With my new residency permit in hand (complete with personas kods and photo!) I revisited the blood bus, now parked outside the Dailes Theatre.
 
To my disappointment, it was not full of thespians giving blood while rehearsing their death scenes, as I had hoped. The last act of 'Hamlet' peformed on the blood bus would make quite an appropriate staging.
 
I started filling in the form, which I thought would be a formality. However, an awful lot of the questions seemed to relate to whether I had spent any time in the United Kingdom, which - being British - I certainly had. I got the distinct impression that British blood was to be treated with extreme suspicion as a result of Mad Cow Disease and the possibility that at least some of it might actually be blue.
 
I understood their concerns. I would not like to be responsible for turning someone into an insane bovine and I imagine going for a blood transfusion and seeing something resembling blueberry juice being pumped into your body might cause distress.
 
Following a whispered discussion among the medical personnel about whether my low-octane British blood was actually worth the bother of sucking out, and after a quick medical examination I was positioned on the reclining chair, a hosepipe was inserted and the blood began to flow. I felt fine.
 
I always wondered what smelling salts were like. You see them in old films, used to revive maiden aunts who have just been told women are riding bicycles in trousers.
 
As I regained consciousness I decided smelling salts were rather disagreeable.
 
The medics were extremely nice, in a matronly sort of way. They checked me a few times, called me 'Mikhail', gave me water and candies and told me to drink lots of sweet tea. Then they handed me a paper bag full of snacks and - much to my surprise - a plastic envelope containing a few coins. I hadn't realized you actually got paid.
 
Counting the coins as I staggered light-headedly around the theatre I deduced that my blood was worth about the same per litre as a fairly rough French vin de pays. It made a certain sense, as that was largely what it consisted of, so I bought another bottle of it.

The next time I gave blood, six months later, I had a feeling of slight apprehension. The routine was the same: fill in form, medical test, but this time I was standing in line in a council building. It was a long line, too, and we checked each other out.

"Look, there's the man who drives the snowplow! There's the girl from the checkout in Maxima! Next time I drive past his tractor or buy a packet of sausages at her till, we'll be able to give each other the special blood donor smile," I mused.

I reached the front of the line, sat down in the reclining chair next to another well-known local figure, The Man Who Always Carries An Umbrella, and they plugged me in. The chairs were facing a large screen, presumably used for council presentations.

"What time does the film start?" I joked. "No wonder the tickets are so cheap!" They plugged me in and away we went. Yep, plenty blood flowing today!

I regained consciousness to the now familiar aroma of smelling salts. I hoped the man with the tractor and the girl from the checkout hadn't seen me. I wasn't so worried about The Man Who Always Carries An Umbrella.

A very nice lady from the Red Cross gave me a pair of socks as I wobbled out of the council chamber. Somehow those socks made it worthwhile. I really did need a new pair of socks.

So when I went to give blood last week I knew what to expect: a small payment, some snacks and temporary oblivion (plus a purely theoretical day off work). But I had personal reasons to want to give blood too, having recently lost a family member. I reasoned that if I gave blood again, it might help someone else like them and visiting the Twilight Zone is not so bad once you get used to it.

I was almost spared when the woman handing out forms demanded my bank account details - changes to the rules mean no more cash payments - but I was able to retrieve the details via my cellphone and minutes later I was being buckled in for the ride again.

As the pipeline went on-stream I wondered how long I would last. After a while I felt a bit light-headed. Here we go.

Then much to my surprise, the blood extractor next to my chair, pumping away like a beaver trapped inside an accordion, beeped. That means it's finished! I did it!

The next thing I remember is being in a bright, sunny garden. The relative I had been thinking about was there too. He was smiling.

"Mikhail! Mikhail!"

Smelling salts. Nurses. Water. No cash payment. No socks. But it was still worth it.

"Has this happened before?" asked the doctor who came to check me.

"Every time."

"Maybe you should consider whether it's a good idea for you to give blood," she suggested.

Of course, she is right. The good news is most people give blood without such silly dramas and I would encourage anyone with a bank account and a personas kods to give blood. Full details are available at the the official blood donor service website HERE.  

Even better, the blood donor service has just announced that the public has heeded Vejonis' call and stocks have risen rapidly.

But if a pint of my plonk did happen to make its way though the Presidential artieries, I would regard it as a true 'vin d'honneur'. And if at any point you need another pint of B negative, give me a call. Just have the smelling salts ready.

 

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