Somewhere in the UK, there are 27 people who we are very very grateful to. We don’t know their names, if they’re male or female, old or young, and we’ll never know who they are. We’re grateful to them because they are blood donors, and between March and July 2016, our little Alec had 27 blood and 2 platelet transfusions.
It’s very common for premature babies to require blood transfusions – almost all the ones I know of have needed at least a few during their NICU stay. My sister-in-law was born prematurely 18 years ago and her transfusions have always been discussed in our family. Because of this, I already knew it was a “thing” for early babies and it didn’t really worry me when we first heard Alec needed one. However, having discussed this with other NICU parents, this is a really scary concept to get your head round – transfusions bring thoughts of risks and emergency Casualty-style scenes and it feels really worrying.
A doctor told us that Alec had about a Coke can’s worth of blood pumping round his tiny body. He needed to have loads of blood tests taken and due to his immaturity, his body couldn’t replace the blood itself in the same way adults can. Also, extremely premature babies are at high risk of internal bleeding (Alec had a large bleed on the brain and a bleed on his lungs during the first week) and low haemoglobin requiring transfusion is often an early indication that this may have happened. Sometimes the blood just isn’t managing to get the oxygen round the body effectively and as a result, the baby’s oxygen requirement can increase. Giving a blood transfusion in this instance helps the baby to saturate better. Alec also needed a few transfusions during two of his operations (remembering the long walks to theatre which always involved a nurse carrying a bag containing blood).
As time goes on, NICU parents can become used to blood transfusions, which in many ways, feels like a bit of a weird perspective to have. I remember saying once, “He looks a bit pale, might he need a transfusion?” Other parents have mentioned always looking at the numbers on the blood gas printouts, knowing that if the hb (haemoglobin) was under a certain level, their baby was likely to need a transfusion. Other indicators of possible transfusion requirement are the oxygen levels increasing and more “bradies” (bradycardia: heart rate drop), along with swinging saturations. NICU parents get very accustomed to all of these, and often, the treatment is a blood transfusion.
Today I went to give blood for the first time. I don’t know why I never have before, but I no longer feel it is an option for me not to, knowing that Alec is here because of blood donors. Sam donated too and we took the boys with us – it certainly encouraged some other donors hearing about Alec! Unfortunately it didn’t work out for me this time. My blood didn’t drain quickly enough (they need the full amount (a pint) within 15 minutes), somewhat ironically due to my still breastfeeding and not having enough fluids for both that and giving blood – we only managed ¾ pint. I shed a few tears whilst still sat on the chair as it felt so important to me to have done it. However what I have realised is that I don’t feel squeamish about it, it doesn’t make me feel faint and it wasn’t painful, just a bit uncomfortable (all things I was really worried about before). So in a few months I’ll feel confident about going to try again.
I wrote this post as a bit of an awareness raising, as I now feel really strongly about giving blood! We really don’t know when we or someone in our family might need life-saving blood. If you’re not sure if you can give blood, check out www.blood.co.uk I hope this post has given you a bit of an insight into why premature babies have and need life-saving blood. I hope too that it has encouraged you to perhaps donate for the first time, start giving again if you’ve stopped or reminded you why you donate if you already do.