I know that Galati is not officially in Dracula Country. We are just a port on the Danube that Braham Stoker’s characters use to access the region, before riding west across the mountains to Transylvania. Still, the blood-fanged menace has come to be associated with all of Romania, and we too sell the Dracula souvenirs in Galati.
The spirit of Dracula is alive and well in our medical system. Last week I finally figured out how to donate blood. This was a big step for me since I cringe at just hearing words like blood, clot or transfusion. Still, it is something that I’ve wanted to do for a long while but had never made the time to do it. I know that there is a serious need for those with medical illnesses or emergencies. I figured that this is a practical way to participate in my local community and invest in its health and survival. I’m attracted to the idea of being able to give of yourself in order to bring life to others.
There is a blood bank not far from my home. Because they receive donations every day from 8 to 10, I assumed that there wouldn’t be many donors. I checked my coat, received a number and was ushered up the stairs to a large waiting room. The room was packed. At first, I thought it was full of people there for blood tests but I soon learned that they were all donors.
I registered and then waited in line to get my blood pressure checked (I’m a healthy 13/8). Then, I waited in another line to consult with a doctor about my recent medications, operations and sexual history. Then, I waited in line to have my finger pricked and my blood checked. The nurses noticed my name and my nationality, and they asked me to tell them my life story. That took me a whole 2 minutes. Then they asked me how much money I made, and if it was enough for me to live on. The nurses couldn’t understand what motivated me to donate blood. It was only later that I realized that all my fellow donors were quite poor.
Then, I moved to another line and waited to donate. As I stood there, someone tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around to see Coco and Gabi’s mother – two children that had been a big part of our Community Center’s early activities. They had left the programs a few years back, and it had been a long time since I had seen them. Their mother and I caught up on the whereabouts of our mutual friends. She told me that she was there to get some blood tests – something that the blood bank provides for free when you donate.
Finally, after 2 hours, I was called in to give blood. Now, I have had my blood taken many times in order to check my thyroid levels. Usually, they take the whole vile. One time, when I was 12, they filled 3 viles and I fainted on the way to check out. So, with all my experience with syringes, I approached the bed and I saw a small sack connected to a tube. The pack was quite a bit larger than the viles I was used to. Next to me sat a tattooed man, dutifully opening and clinching his fist as his bag filled with red juice. I started to panic. I wondered if I had enough fluid in my body to fill that thing. But what could I do? It took me 2 hours to get to this point and there others waiting in line behind me. I felt like the kid who waits in the long line up the ladder to have his turn going down the slide, only to look down, get scared and climb back down the ladder over the others that are hanging on. Wishing that I had eaten breakfast and at least had something to drink – at least 2 liters of something – I laid on the bed, the nurse rubber banded my arm, and she yelled at me a couple of times to keep my arm straight. Then she told me to open and close my fist. I cringed. I sweated. I looked at the clock. I kept rubbing my eyes and my vacation goatee. The nurse asked me a couple of times if I was ok and assured me that I was almost finished. As I felt the blood drain from my hand and some weird pulsing sensations in my arm, I hoped that she was right. Of course, I couldn’t look at my arm. Finally, my 450 ml bag started beeping and the nurse disconnected me. I sat there for a few minutes, remembering when I fainted as a child. I made sure everything felt ok, stood up, and got yelled at again by the nurse for not keeping the cotton pressed tight enough to my arm. Then I stood to wait in another line. I signed out and they gave me about 20 dollars worth of food vouchers. That, for me and my fellow donors, was the price of our lifeblood.
The following day I returned to the blood bank to collect the results from the blood test. After seeing all the donors from the previous day, I expected to wait in another line. This time though I was alone in the room – not even Coco and Gabi’s mother.
I realize that no one is being paid money for blood and that some benefits are welcome encouragements for blood donations, but essentially, the food vouchers represent an income for those who make less than $150 per month. I’m sure that there are some like me who do not come from poverty that chose to donate blood, but the motivation of the overwhelming majority is their need for the food vouchers every 70 days. If the motivation for the donation is acquiring the voucher, then this is wrong. Sadly, we are not even asking ourselves the ethical question about turning blood into a commodity or a currency. This is the same mentality that has convinced the poor to donate kidneys and other organs for money and has led to organ trafficking and ultimately to human trafficking.
Just as Dracula fed on the blood of others in order to live, the Romanian medical system feeds on the blood of the poor in order to provide transfusions for those that have access to medical care. Today there is lots of complaining about the wages of medical workers – and maybe they do not get paid enough – but how do we compare a reasonable working wage for medical professionals with a reasonable compensation for blood? What is the price you put on blood? How much is it worth? There is an irony in the medical workers refusing to work because they do not receive enough pay while the blood, which is cheap, is given by those who do not have access to the services of the medical system that they are donating to. Wouldn’t it be better to give each donor access to the medical system’s services if and when they need it? Shouldn’t everyone have to invest in it in some capacity, whether by coin or by blood, to insure one’s self and one’s community? Maybe then we could move from being a nation known for Dracula to a nation known by its practice of Eucharist.