The kindness of strangers
Dundas boy is thriving thanks to a donor’s life-saving gift of blood
When Nicholas Clark was born, his arms were so tiny his father’s wedding ring could fit all the way to his shoulder.
Just over two pounds and 12 weeks early because of medical complications, Nicholas was always under close watch at the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at McMaster University Medical Centre.
At three weeks old, his hemoglobin levels dropped and doctors informed his parents that only a blood transfusion could save his life.
Advised against a family donation, his mother Shannon watched emotionally as a stranger’s blood flowed into her son’s veins. His condition improved almost immediately. Three weeks later, the same donor saved his life again with another transfusion.
“I’ll never be able to say thank you to the person who saved Nicholas’s life,” Shannon says as she scrolls through old pictures of Nicholas attached to tubes and wires inside an incubator.
Now two years old, healthy, chubby and full of energy, Nicholas bears no resemblance to the frail preemie he once was. His mother looks forward to the day he’ll understand that his hardest days are behind him.
“Everything from here is easy.”
She also plans to teach him about the importance of telling the world how his life was saved so that others may be given the same chance. Since Nicholas’s birth, Shannon has devoted herself to promoting blood donation.
She speaks on behalf of Canadian Blood Services at community events, high schools and workplaces. She often brings Nicholas with her to help drive home her message.
“He is living proof that donors make a difference,” says Canadian Blood Services spokesperson Veronica Magee, who has heard Shannon speak several times and is always moved by her presentation. “It makes it real for people … It’s just amazing that she’s willing to put her story out there.”
Shannon explains her dedication to the cause simply: this is her way of giving thanks to the person who saved Nicholas.
“This is something you have to share,” she says. “This is the way we can pay it back.”
The Dundas mother, who has an older son, Nolan, 8, always knew blood donation was important. She used to help organize blood donation drives at her workplace, Dofasco, and always made time to donate herself. But she didn’t do it for any compelling reason, instead just following her coworkers’ lead.
“I never knew anyone who needed blood,” she says.
After Nicholas’s ordeal, giving blood carries a whole different meaning.
“You’ve seen both sides,” she says, noting she gave blood as soon as she was able after his birth. “You do it with a lot more purpose.”
Though more than half of Canadians will need blood themselves or know someone who does, less than 4 per cent of the population donates, according to blood services. And the pool of donors is aging every year, pushing the need for new and younger volunteers.
Shannon recently went to a Burlington high school, hoping her story would inspire teens to start donating. She tears up every time she shares how Nicholas could have died if not for a stranger taking the time out of his or her day to donate blood.
In terms of volume, preemies don’t place a heavy demand on blood services. Dozens of babies can be saved with the same amount needed to save one adult after an accident, notes Dr. Christoff Fusch, division head of Mac’s NICU.
“Preemies are not major recipients, but they do need it.”
For babies born severely premature and weighing less than 100 grams, a blood transfusion is almost always required, he explained. Some require help because they are ill or are growing faster than their bodies can produce blood. And sometimes their tiny blood volume can’t handle the amount of blood collection required to monitor their health, though Fusch said doctors do their best to minimize the impact.
“Blood donation is incredibly important,” he says, noting it’s a regular occurrence in the ward.
Fusch explained the medical community has steered away from asking parents to donate blood, noting it’s safer and reduces the risk of adverse reactions to use blood from a screened donor. It can also be psychological stressful on a parent to donate, he explained.
If a baby requires more than one transfusion, the hospital aims to use the same donor. In Nicholas’s case one donation was divided into four parts and stored for his exclusive use. Shannon often thinks about the donor and wonders what motivated the donation.
“It’s easy to give blood,” she says reflectively, “but when you receive it, you’re so (grateful) for what someone has done for you … that single donor saved Nicholas’s life.”
The basics of giving blood
Who can donate?
• Identification required
• You must be at least 17 years old, in good health and feel well on the day of donation.
• You must weigh at least 110 pounds.
• Minimum of 56 days between donations.
How does it work?
A donation takes about an hour and could save three lives. You will be screened before donating for things like recent dental surgery or a cold. All needles are sterile and the blood they take, about a half a litre, is quickly replaced by your body.
What else can I donate?
In addition to blood, you can also donate plasma and platelets. Canadian Blood Services is looking for individuals to join its stem cell and marrow network. A diverse range of donors is needed to improve chances of a match.
For more information, including where to donate locally, call 1-888-2-DONATE or visit www.blood.ca
Source: Canadian Blood Services
Conquering your fear of blood donation
Many people want to donate, but are scared of needles. Veronica Magee of the Canadian Blood Services explains how to make a donation easier.
Donating blood — for the most part — does not hurt and involves only a small pinch. This is true of the hemoglobin check and the donation itself.
To alleviate any fears first-time donors may have, we offer the following suggestions:
• Plan to donate on a day when you are relaxed and not pressured by time limitations.
• Review eligibility criteria and the donor questionnaire online so you have an idea of what to expect.
• If you are rested, hydrated, and have had something to eat, your donation can go more smoothly.
• There is support at each clinic from staff and volunteers. A first-time donor may also be able to have a volunteer. Ask about this when making an appointment or when you arrive at the clinic.
• Nurses are also available to offer additional tips on how to make donating blood less daunting.
905-526-3299 | @NicoleMacIntyre