During the consultation I remembered that I was there because of my parents.
As an only child, I was very close to my mother. One of the treasures she passed on to me was a love of the comedy of Tony Hancock. To this day I recall the pair of us almost falling off that old lounge watching Hancock’s Half Hour. Classic episodes, such as “Lord Byron Lived Here”, are black and white marker stones of my child hood.
“Have you gone raving mad? I mean, I came here in all good faith, to help my country. I don't mind giving a reasonable amount, but a pint?”
Tony Hanock in The Blood Donor.
As I walked to a vacant work station I recalled “The Blood Donor”. In this episode Hancock piously suggests that he should be given a badge to advertise his service to humanity, “Nothing flash, of course,” he says “just a little one that says ‘He gave so that others could live’!” The idea is tut-tutted by his fellow donors. He faints before he reaches the chair. He wakes up after the donation is complete.
Once seated, I was given a token of appreciation. A small badge displaying the Red Cross symbol and words commemorating a 75th donation was placed in my spare hand. I accepted it with an ambiguous sigh as needle phobic Hancock ran amok in the blood bank of my mind. I averted my gaze from the needle and reminded myself that I wasn't motivated by altruism.
As the blood began to flow, the conversation with the technician explored the reasons for so many donations in such a short space of time. Seven years. I used the word “therapeutic” and noticed that a couple of the other donors were trying to understand that adjective in the context of a blood donation. Trying not to lecture, I pointed out that giving blood, for me, was akin to a curing a massive hangover. The life I improve is my own.
My mother, as well as being a fan of British TV, was proud of being “teetotal”. I was often told that her family, far away in London, abstained, except for the odd shandy at Christmas. Mum didn’t even have that odd one. She hated the stuff. Which made life interesting as Dad loved his beer.
Mum was pretty fit most of her life, walking to the shops daily, carting the groceries home in heavy shopping bags and spending time in the garden. When she was in her mid 60s, she became very unwell. She tried to ignore it but the lethargy, addle-headedness and numbness of the extremities became too severe to ignore. She ended up in hospital. Burnt her legs while sleeping in front of a heater.
The diagnosis was type two diabetes and cirrhosis of the liver. She went onto a very ascetic diet and starting an array of medications. She passed through various hospitals. As the only child, I was often called upon to facilitate her progress through the medical system. Several times I was taken aside by medical staff and asked about her drinking. No one would believe that she wasn’t a heavy drinker; that liver was so damaged.
She struggled on through a series of mini-strokes. She passed in her sleep well short of her 67th birthday.
A decade and a half after her funeral, I was approaching my 50th birthday. Like Dad, I liked a drink but I was cutting down. A couple of drinks on a Friday meant a weekend lost to a debilitating hangover. I was run down and losing weight even though I dined at McDonalds at least three times a week. The first doctor told me I was getting old. He recommended a book on ageing.
The next doctor told me that all that pain in my stomach was a hernia.
The third doctor saved my life. He noticed that my skin was discoloured and ordered a batch of blood tests. They came back positive. I had cirrhosis and was pre-diabetic; and I had two copies of the C282Y gene.
I was pretty unwell but it wasn’t so much the damn booze, it was the bloody genes. I had a hereditary disorder, haemochromotosis, which stops a body processing iron. It stores it. All that iron flowing in the blood builds up in the liver, eventually wrecking it. At last I knew what had happened to Mum.
Treatment, if detected early, is simple. Regular blood donations. Too easy! Typically every 500ml of blood taken removes 250mg of Iron. The body creates fresh blood that is free of iron, thus lowering the concentration and reducing the build-up in the body.
Haemochromotosis. Iron overload. Worldwide, one in 300 people have it. In Australia the rate is one in 200; in Ireland one in 100. Many people don’t realise that they have it until too much damage has been done. Men usually show the symptoms around the age of 50; women around 60-65. People, like my mother, can die through the effects of chronic liver disease caused by iron overload.
We are encouraged to test for diabetes and various cancers. People should also consider testing their iron levels. Early diagnosis can mean a long, healthy life and the odd badge to put in a bedside draw.
I think I’ll dig out that old VHS tape for Sunday.
The Red Cross mobile blood donation team visits Wonthaggi and Leongatha every three months. They need all the blood they can get.
(NB: The three doctors mentioned above were not of this area.)