Laos: bloods donors give new life under the eyes of the Buddha

Published: 25 September 2007 0:00 CET

Dr Oleg Blinnikov, German Red Cross

You might have been born in a small village on a green mountain slope somewhere in a far flung area of southern Laos. You work hard in the rice fields but life is good; in harmony with nature and the traditions of your ancestors. Every evening you go to swim in the cold river near a beautiful waterfall. But one day you step to the side of the road and your legs are blown away by a land mine planted here more than 30 years ago.

Your friends carry you on a handmade stretcher to the closest river, than a boat brings you to the road where only four-wheel drives can go. You are lucky and are picked up by an NGO's white Toyota. The driver is nervous and drives quickly because you are pale and your breathing is shallow, blood is still pouring from your wounds.

At the hospital people rush you to an empty ward with old beds and badly painted walls. Doctors fix a plastic tube with oxygen to your nose. Your blood pressure is very low, your pulse is fast, you are in shock. You urgently need strong pain killers, intravenous fluids and blood,a lot of blood. But there is none to be found. The doctors and your friends call frantically for donors but it is too late, you feel very tired, you see a dark emptiness, sounds become dull and come from far away, you are dying.

We are standing near an empty intensive care ward in Saravan Provincial Hospital, where the above episode might have taken place. It's a simple room with four old beds: there's no other furniture, no equipment. But in my mind I can see very clearly how this quiet place can turn into a hectic battlefield for the life of wounded patients or young mothers after a delivery complicated by heavy bleeding.

For three years I worked as a surgeon in a similar Laotian hospital. Today as a German Red Cross health delegate I am assisting my colleagues from Lao Red Cross to establish a national blood safety programme in five provinces.

A provincial blood transfusion centre was established in the 70-bed Saravan hospital in 1997. It occupies two very small rooms in the hospital laboratory. Space is limited, but it is clean. The equipment is well maintained.

"The provincial blood donation centre collected 252 units of blood in 2006 and 75 per cent of all those donations were voluntary," says Mr Chantho, Head of the provincial blood donor centre. "With support from the national blood transfusion centre we are planning to bring that figure to 90 per cent in 2007."

Assisted by German Red Cross, the National Blood Transfusion Centre provides Saravan province with one equipped vehicle for mobile blood collection campaigns and resources for the construction of a new building for provincial blood services.

German Red Cross also supports the training of provincial staff and public awareness campaigns in Saravan.

After visiting the hospital we join the provincial mobile blood collecting team. All the equipment is carefully packed in the pick-up and the volunteers follow us to the village on motorbikes. The road is dusty and bumpy.

The head of Nongsaa village is already waiting for the Red Cross team in the temple. A four-metre high golden Buddha looks on as tables and portable beds are set up in front of him.

Many would be surprised at this scene, but not these villagers. The temple is the place where people undertake an individual spiritual journey. It is also the place where it is easy to understand, as the Dalai Lama said: "that others are human brothers and sisters and that we as humans can help each other as one of our unique human capacities."

One by one people come to the temple. There is no hurry, every voluntary blood donor is carefully examined, interviewed and placed on a bed where blood is taken.

My attention is attracted by a young man with a Red Cross t-shirt. I ask Dr Souli, head of the provincial Red Cross branch who he is.

"This is Mr Somchai," I am told. “He's an active Red Cross volunteer who has already donated blood four times in the past. Many villagers donate blood regularly. If the hospital needs blood urgently we can ask people here to give blood and we never encounter refusal. They are very kind people - we'd like to give them special certificates of recognition from the Red Cross and provincial government."

In two hours enough blood has been collected and the Red Cross mobile team is ready to leave. Today, more donors came than were needed and only the required number of blood units was collected. As we leave the hospitable villagers on Nongsaa I am thinking about other provinces where blood donation centres don't exist, or where mobile blood collecting teams are poorly equipped.

People in remote rural areas are often afraid to donate blood because of traditional beliefs or from fear of disease or pain. But today we could see that in places where the Lao Red Cross is active and well supported, blood donations is as much a part of life as going to the temple.