Sunday, we observe World Blood Donor Day — a time to remember the importance of blood donation in the medical field. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), access to safe blood donations is essential for quality universal healthcare and a key component of effective health systems, as transfusions of blood and blood products save millions of lives every year.

Mercy Ships knows from experience the importance of blood donors and their impact on changing lives. In fact, they are essential in helping us achieve our mission of bringing hope and healing to the forgotten poor.

Since our field services take place in areas that lack access to quality medical facilities, we have had to establish a creative solution to gaining access to a blood bank — one that walks!

“There are a lot of benefits in using what we like to call a walking blood bank,” Colleen Conley, Mercy Ships Laboratory Programs Manager, said. “That’s been the terminology that’s been used in Mercy Ships for 40 years, the walking blood bank, which is really the crew, who graciously volunteer to be processed as blood donors.” 

During our stay in the countries we serve, the Africa Mercy is home to nearly 1,000 volunteers, with 400 living onboard at any given time. These dedicated volunteers not only give of their talents and time, but many also request to become blood donors. Every year, our lab technologists onboard establish a fresh blood bank database for that year’s field service. 

“It’s a cool, big picture program, and it gives all of our crew members an opportunity to interact and be involved in the medical process,” Conley said. “Many are volunteers who work outside of the medical department onboard the Africa Mercy, so it’s always nice when they get to give towards a patient’s need like this and connect with what’s going on in our surgical programs.”

During a typical field service, Mercy Ships collects and transfuses between 80 to 150 units of blood, depending on the operating room needs. While the laboratory works hard to ensure that units are available for each blood type well before the surgery starts, sometimes a patient has a more challenging case. One of the benefits of having blood donors on the ship with the patients is that in the case of an emergency, a donor can be brought in immediately to donate, allowing for fresh donations to be used.  

For patients like Sambany, this system can be the difference between a life of pain and one without. 

Over 40 years ago, a tumor began to consume Sambany’s life, weighing over 16 pounds and causing great pain.

“Sometimes it felt hot like a fire,” Sambany said, “I could not sleep at night, and even during the day it heated me up. When walking, it’s too heavy. I had to hold it.”

The tumor was also an emotional burden. Family and friends rejected him, mocked him, laughed at him, and shunned him. Some thought his condition was contagious. Harsh words were flung at him: “Why are you still alive? No one can help!”

Hopelessness defined his life. The search for help required traveling hundreds of miles with no success. Sambany’s poverty blocked any other option, and his despair reached new depths. 

“I was waiting to die,” Sambany said, “I could not do anything. Every day, I was waiting to die.”

So, Sambany’s world shrank to the size of his house, his only place of safety and peace. Eventually, he became so weak that his life became a monotonous cycle of waking, sleeping, and eating. He felt useless.

One day he heard an announcement that resurrected hope — a hospital ship that could treat tumors was coming to his home country. In spite of his weakness, Sambany told his family, “Die or survive, I want to go!”

His family recognized his desperation and determination, so they helped him reach the ship. 

Due to multiple health concerns, Sambany’s surgery would be extremely high-risk. For almost two weeks, he rested as the medical team determined the best course of action.

Meanwhile, his story spread throughout the ship resulting in signs on the doors of cabins asking for prayer and willing blood donors.

Once the doctors felt more confident of a positive result, Sambany was scheduled for surgery. The operation took over half a day, and over twice of his body’s volume of blood was lost and replaced. Our crew, our living blood bank, literally poured life into Sambany. The blood of 17 people from six nations now runs through his veins.

“Oftentimes, in operations, you have high-stress moments where you’re in the middle of something – where, in that moment, if something goes wrong, you could lose the patient from a severe hemorrhage or something,” shared Mercy Ships Chief Medical Officer Dr. Gary Parker. “With Sambany, it was pretty much high pressure the whole 12 hours of the surgery.”

The result? Sambany was finally free from the burden that had weighed him down for nearly two-thirds of his life! After the surgery, a group of volunteers watched breathlessly as Sambany looked at himself in a hand-held mirror, seeing himself for the first time without his tumor. With his head wrapped carefully in bandages, he looked into the mirror and said, “I am happy. I am free from my disease. I’ve got a new face. I am saved!”

Lives like Sambany’s are saved every day all over the world, thanks to those who give blood for their communities. This World Blood Donor Day find out how you can change lives in your neighborhood by looking up local blood banks in your area. 

There are so many ways to get involved with our mission of bringing hope and healing to those in need. Learn more here.