A blood transfusion is a serious medical intervention. When I first arrived at UCLA Medical Center to fill out forms, have tests done and get ready for my open heart surgery, I was asked to carefully read some very explicit information about blood transfusions, the blood supply, and to consider whether or not I would choose to have a blood transfusion.
Except in extreme emergency, a blood transfusion is always a choice, made by the patient or her next of kin/friend. This was carefully explained to me and I had time to think about it. I took my decision very seriously because I hoped to avoid having a transfusion if it was at all possible. In some instances if you are planning ahead for surgery, it is possible to bank your blood and have it stored for your own use. This was not possible for me because it may have contributed to anemia just before a major surgery. You can also ask family or friends to donate (they are tested first, of course) if they are your blood type.
Most of us rely on the blood donated by generous strangers. There is a stringent testing program in place to ensure that the blood you will receive is free of any possible agent that can cause harm. Despite this, there have been instances of HIV or other blood borne viruses being passed along to the patient.
When a doctor on my team informed me three days after my surgery that I was anemic and it would be of real help in my healing process to have a transfusion, I did not hesitate. I had determined that I would accept the recommendation of my doctors. I knew they would not offer a blood transfusion to me lightly.
I was nervous when the nurse brought the blood. She explained that on occasion a patient may have an allergic reaction to the blood, and become warm, begin to itch and exhibit other signs and symptoms. She said they were prepared for such an event and would give me shots of antihistamines.
Just before they began the transfusion, I asked what type blood it was. I was told it was "A" and that reassured me, as I remembered discovering my own blood type in physiology lab in high school. The transfusion, which consisted of two units of blood, was uneventful and successful enough that I did not require more.
On my last night in the hospital, I did not close my eyes. I lay awake all night long. I had forgotten to ask for a sleeping med and by the time I did it was 3 AM. I remember many things about that night - the heavy winds and rain against the windows, an arriving Lifeflight helicopter which seemed to hover just outside.
Despite watching the movie "Philadelphia" with Tom Hanks in a hospital death scene (kind of like watching a movie with a plane crash while you're flying), and despite my wish for sleep, my punctured arms and sore incision site, and the recovery I knew stretched before me, my (newly repaired) heart was filled with a kind of gratitude I had not previously known, for the simple but profound joy of life itself.
(Next week: My return home and the realities of recovery.)