I remember the first time I came face to face with the people who were literally keeping me alive.
I’ve had the opportunity to speak at two Héma-Québec engagements in the last three years. The first was at a thank-you dinner for the volunteers who set up and run the blood drives that are held around the city of Montreal year-round. The second speaking engagement was a dinner to thank blood donors who had donated twenty-five, fifty, and even a hundred times or more.
The sense of gratitude I felt at these events was overwhelming. After all, when I receive blood every three weeks, all I see is a unit of blood with a tracking number on it. Obviously, I know where the blood comes from, but actually seeing the faces of these donors really brought the point home. Meeting the volunteers who devote their time and energy was humbling. I was given the opportunity to thank each one of them in person on both occasions.
Here’s the speech I gave on both occasions:
My first transfusion was at the age of six months, shortly after being diagnosed with Thalassemia at the Montreal Children’s Hospital.
Having Thalassemia makes it impossible to take life for granted. I have Thalassemia major, the most severe form of Thalassemia. It is an inherited blood disorder where your body has difficulty producing hemoglobin, which is the protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen throughout your body. When your blood does not carry enough oxygen to the rest of your body, you have anemia. This type of severe thalassemia is treated with blood transfusions and treatment to remove excess iron in the blood. The blood keeps me alive, but because of the amount of blood I need to receive, there is a risk of extra iron accumulating on my vital organs, which could be fatal. So, I also have to use a chelating agent to remove this dangerous iron from my body.
The blood transfusions have always been a constant in my life. I still go to the same hospital that I always have. It is the only hospital in Montreal that has a dedicated Thalassemia clinic. One nice thing about always going to this hospital is that there are other patients there who I have known my whole life. The fact that there is a group of people who have the same medical condition as me makes me feel that I am not alone. Talking with others while receiving blood is a nice distraction.
When I was five years old, I started receiving a drug called Desferal to chelate the extra iron from my blood. The treatment consisted of daily injections. At least 5-6 evenings a week, my mother would gather together all the elements that were needed to mix this medicine. We needed a syringe, venotubing, alcohol, gauze, sterile water, and a needle. Once she had mixed this medicine, tapping the syringe very carefully to ensure that there were no air bubbles present, it was time to find a spot to administer the medication. You can imagine that this was my least favourite part. I would make a million excuses for why I was not ready for the needle. I would ask if I could have 5 more minutes, 10 more minutes… We would examine my stomach, my arms, my legs for a spot that was not too bruised, not too sore. Then my mom would poke me with the needle, something she must have hated to do.
As I mentioned, this treatment began when I was five years old. I had already been transfused 52 times.
The Desferal was delivered with an infusion pump that I would be connected to all night. The pump itself was heavy and cumbersome and restricted my movement quite a bit. Sometimes I felt as though I were attached to a leash. I learned not to move too much at night. Some days I woke up to find the needle yanked out of my arm and the Desferal leaked all over my sheets. Or sometimes the needle had not been inserted deep enough, and I would wake up in the morning with a huge swelling on my leg. Those were the worst days. It meant that all the pain I had gone through the night before had been for nothing. Desferal was a very cumbersome treatment, yet very effective at reducing iron in the body. My parents instilled into me the importance of using this treatment very early on. From the age of 12, I began administering the needle on my own. I also knew that several patients had not used Desferal often enough, and the excess iron had accumulated in their tissues and vital organs, leading to their death. I knew I did not want to end up like them.
When I was in elementary school, I did not have the ability to describe my condition to my peers. They knew that I missed a day of school every month, and somehow sensed that I was different from them. That, plus the fact that I was very quiet, prompted them to be quite protective towards me. I was very shy about my nightly injections and did not often have sleepovers.
By the ninth grade, I had been transfused at least 175 times. I was able to explain my condition to my classmates to a certain extent, but I would only tell my very best friends. I was afraid that if I told everybody, I would be treated like I was made of glass. I was afraid that they would pity me, and the last thing I wanted to be was pitied.
I grew up in a very close-knit community, yet to this day they do not know about my condition. When I was growing up, my mom would not talk about it with anyone in our community. It sometimes made me feel as though perhaps it was something that I needed to keep hidden.
But at home, it was because of my mom and dad’s strength that I grew up to be who I am today. My mom and dad always made sure that I had as normal a childhood as possible. They raised me to believe that I could do anything I wanted to do and be anything I wanted to be.
In college and university, I became much more open about it. By this time, I had been transfused at least 240 times. I was happy to discover that, even though people were at first shocked to learn that I was dealing with thalassemia, they were quite understanding and didn’t change the way they behaved around me. I also discovered that most of us are dealing with some type of problem or another— be it a medical condition, a psychological condition, a financial problem — and that I was not alone.
When I was 22, I was asked if I wanted to be part of a study for a new oral chelator in pill form called Ferriprox. Of course, I jumped at the chance to get away from the needles and the infusion pump. I had been waiting for that moment all my life. I started taking the medication and have been on it ever since. It has improved my quality of life tremendously.
In the transfusion room, patients don’t often think of the fact that an actual person gave us this blood from their own body. All we see is the bag of blood and it feels a bit disconnected. It is overwhelming when you actually do think of all the people who have made a choice to give blood, and that in doing so, they are saving your life. Blood donation is necessarily anonymous, but I sometimes wish that I could meet those people who give so generously.
I have worked full time for the past eleven years and it has its challenges. I require a transfusion every three weeks, and I receive two units of blood each time. Altogether, my hospital visits take 5-6 hours and I am quite drained by the end. I have to miss an entire day of work every three weeks, but luckily, I am at a company where they understand this and I am able to make up the time that I miss throughout the week.
In the past, I have not been so lucky. One company tried to make me use my vacation days for my transfusions. When I proposed that I simply not be paid for those days that I missed because of transfusions, I was actually accused of asking for “preferential treatment”. I actually had to say very bluntly to this person that I would die without these treatments. Another company almost reversed their decision to hire me when they found out I had to miss work so often. These companies would not have objected to make arrangements if I needed a wheelchair. Perhaps it’s because Thalassemia is not something that you can see when you look at me.
Living with Thalassemia is something that I have always done. It is a part of me. My parents always tried hard to make sure that I had as normal a childhood as possible, and when I became more independent, I, too, made sure that I never let my Thalassemia stop me from doing what I wanted to do. I grew up, I went to university, I fell in love and got married. I won’t let my medical condition be an excuse for not doing what I want to do. The fact that I am stubborn by nature has helped me well in this regard.
I estimate that I have had, at minimum, 531 transfusions over my lifetime.
I feel almost defiant. Why should I hide such a thing? It is not my fault that I was born with Thalassemia and need blood to survive. And there is no shame in it. In fact, I am just starting to realize that if I tell others that I need blood, they will realize just how important giving blood is. Being here today, talking to all of you is a great way to start.
I’d like to thank each and every one of you for the hope you give to people like me every day. Without you, I wouldn’t be here.
What I didn’t expect was the reaction of the audience to my speech, both times. There were gasps of surprise, and, as my husband observed, many tears among the audience members.
After each speech, I was approached by many audience members who actually thanked me. They thanked me for sharing my experience and for reminding them why they were giving blood, why they were volunteering at these blood drives, and why they wanted to continue doing so.