blood and baseball

In honor of it being opening week across America I have decided to share my thoughts on how blood donation, or collection rather, is similar to the great American pastime of baseball.


I came to this realization last year and have started approaching each donor as the next game and myself as the pitcher.  Hopefully, even if you know nothing about baseball you are at least aware that there is a pitcher and what his role is and you are able to follow me into this analogy.

The body doesn’t want to give up its blood.  Arms are the batters I am staring down trying to slip the needle past to fill up the 450 ml bag.


Here are the different scenarios in this game:

Sometimes I have no issues.  Good needle placement, bag fills somewhat slowly but I make it to the full 450mls —> Win

Sometimes I have the perfect needle placement, the bag fills in record time, there is no splatter and are no mistakes and I have the full 450mls —> Win, No-hitter

Kansas City Royals v Boston Red Sox

BOSTON – MAY 19: Jon Lester #31 of the Boston Red Sox reacts after throwing a no hitter against the Kansas City Royals at Fenway Park on May 19, 2008 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Sometimes I know I missed the vein at first but am able to reposition and squeeze a full bag out of the donor —> Comeback win

Sometimes I miss the vein but am able to get help from another tech who can come in and reposition the needle to fill the bag —> Bullpen win

Sometimes I start off with the needle placed properly but the arm moves so the blood flow starts to slow.  After letting this happen for a while I reposition and am able to finish strong —> Rain delay, win


Rain delay Fenway Park in Boston Wednesday, May 18, 2011. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

Sometimes I get the needle in but the blood is flowing so slowly it clots in the line collecting only 50 or so mls in the bag —> Rain out, game postponed

Sometimes I miss the vein.  I try to reposition with zero success.  I call for help.  My other techs cannot get the blood.  We all finally throw in the towel and give up —> Loss


Those are the different situations I can find myself in while attempting to draw blood from our wonderful crew members.

In addition, I see veins as my different pitching options.

Center AC- Fastball, obvious choice but some days the batter will hit it out of the park all day long and in this analogy where I’m the pitcher the last thing I want to do is throw home run balls.  I’m forced to stick with the curve: the cephalic (side vein).  It doesn’t anchor well but for some reason is untouchable – like A 23 year old Beckett pitching a two foot breaking ball for the Marlins in the series against the Yanks in 2003.  I slide the needle right past and save the fastball for another day.

Florida Marlins celebrate

BRONX, NY – OCTOBER 25: The Florida Marlins hoist up pitcher Josh Beckett #21 the 2003 World Series MVP after defeating the New York Yankees 2-0 in game six of the Major League Baseball World Series on October 25, 2003 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, New York. Beckett pitched a complete game shut-out in clinch the series for the Marlins. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)


But the real connection comes with the mental game.

Pitchers get up on the mound, throw out the first pitch and see where the game goes.  The first pitch and first few innings often set the pace of the game.  If it goes well the pitcher is in the zone and continues to throw outs.

However, if it starts off poorly the batters can get into the head of the pitcher.  Each hit builds on the one before.  Pitches aren’t placed where they are supposed do.  The fastball doesn’t have enough on it.  The curveball hangs.  The pitcher looks over and sees the pitching coach on the phone in the bullpen.  He knows he’s on his way out.    Slowly the manager makes his way out to the mound.  The only things left to do is hand the ball over and hope for the best.


The pitcher is then left to sit with this for the next five or so days until he can once again stand on that mound and face the next batter.  Whether throughout the game or between games in a pitching rotation, success builds on success but failure tends to pile on failure.

The same goes with blood collection.  The more clean “wins” I get in a row the more confidence I have.  The more “losses” or even “bullpen wins” I get, my confidence slowly fades.  It gets to the point that I can’t even strike out a blind man, figuratively speaking.  I just have to say, “Take me out coach.”

At this point really, the only thing to do is just keep trying.  Hoping the next unit will go a little better.  Slowly, I make my way back.  The draws may not be pretty but each win is positive reinforcement and once I get into the zone a winning streak can last for weeks.

So thank you to my losses who put up with the errors and discomfort. Thank you for my rocky wins to let me back in the game. Thank you for my bullpen who have come in a saved the day and thank you to my no hitters out there who build my confidence more than anything.  This ship could literally not operate without you all.

Photo Credit Katie Keegan

Patient Sambany with 14 of his 17 total blood donors.  Read his story here. (Photo credit: Katie Keegan)


And remember, in life, baseball and blood collection – You win some, you lose some and some get rained out.









Beauty and Restoration

Mercy Ships mission statement says that we are to bring hope and healing to the world’s forgotten poor by following the two thousand year old model of Jesus Christ.

What does this mean? What is hope and healing?

Healing is probably a little more obvious.

We perform lifesaving surgeries.

Tumors are removed that if left to grow can and often will kill the patient.

Photo Credit Katie Keegan - Patricia (MGC07074) before surgery

Patricia before surgery – photo credit Katie Keegan

Cleft lips and pallets are repaired allowing infants to eat properly and be restored to nutritious healthy lives.  We restore women’s lives by repairing obstetric fistulas that have caused them to be social outcasts in their communities.  We straighten the legs of children allowing them to live lives unhindered by what these deformities could cause.


Fifaliana before surgery – phot0 credit Ruben Plomp


We graft burn contractures that restrict or in some cases eliminate movement of necks, arms and legs.

We donate our own blood to allow for these surgeries to take place.

olivienne blood bags

blood used for a single surgery – photo credit Silke Kessing


That is healing but what does it mean to bring hope?

I have heard stories of patients who travel across the whole country because they have heard of a ship that may be able to help them.

Photo Credit Ruben Plomp

Patricia before surgery – photo credit Katie Keegan

This big white surgical ship brings hope just by entering a country providing the opportunity for sick and injured people to receive care that would typically be unavailable or too expensive to afford.  This is all before the surgery actually takes place but what about the hope that we bring after surgery.


There is hope in restoration.


OBF Dress Ceremony at the HOPE Center – photo credit Katie Keegan


Most of our patients have given up on a chance at a “normal” life.  The woman’s health ladies have often lost children in pregnancy, are left incontinent and often cast out of their homes.  Orthopedic children may not be aware of what lies ahead of them but even in these young, precious patients we can see a sadness about being “different” than the other kids with the inability to walk, run and play.  We know that as adults these kids would not be able to sustain the same kind of work with deformed legs.  Many of our tumor patients have given up on life completely watching the tumor grow larger and larger taking more of their ability to eat and breath.  We give these patients hope in new life.

But we do more than this

Joy is returned to these patient’s lives.


Beauty is returned to these patient’s lives.


Patricia at her final discharge appointment – photo credit Justine Forrest


Love is returned to these patient’s lives


Jesus came to restore the Kingdom of Heaven.  At creation the Garden of Eden was a place of perfection.  There was no hurt or pain or sickness or sadness or turmoil.  When Jesus says that he comes to seek and save the lost he isn’t just talking about salvation in redemption from sin, he is talking about redemption from a sinful world and restoration into perfection with him.

Are we making these patient’s lives perfect?  No.  But we are helping to restore some of the beauty that was robbed.

Beyond this, we are showing these patients the love of Jesus and the hope and healing that he brings.  We come and volunteer our time, money, sweat, tears and blood but we can only bring restoration to a point.  Jesus is the only one who can bring full restoration inside and out.


Fifaliana plays in the ward after – photo credit Katie Keegan

Jesus brings hope to a hurting world and light to the darkness.  He brings the promise of perfection with him in heaven and a love that will never fail or disappoint.

This Christmas let’s not forget what we are celebrating.  Christmas is so much more than presents and it is even more than families.  Christmas is about a way out of this broken life and a way into restoration.

This Christmas take time to look at your life and see how Jesus has brought hope and healing to it or how you can bring this hope and healing to others.  You don’t have to be in Madagascar or somewhere else in Africa or another third-world country.  Being a light of hope and love to those around you in the midst of darkness and hurt can be done anywhere.

One thing I have learned is that people are people no matter where they are and we can all use a little hope and healing, especially around Christmas.


saved by an army

For the life of a creature is in the blood – Leviticus 17:11

There is life in the blood – this verse took on new meaning to me when I became a lab tech and started to work in blood bank.  There are many things that have to function properly to keep you alive but one of the most basic is your need for blood.

The little complex cells carry oxygen to every inch of your body – every organ, every tissue – and nothing will work properly if there is no blood.  Luckily for us, God designed our bodies to be able to receive and use blood from another person.  All a patient must do is consent and let the army of blood donors take care of them.


With that in mind, this is the story of Sambany and his walking blood bank.

Sambany is a name I first came across when his CBC (complete blood count: measures your red blood cells, white blood cells, platelets, hemoglobin and hematocrit along with some other things) came into the lab from screening and admissions down on the dock.  Sambany’s hemoglobin was 3.8 g/dl.  Just as a point of reverence a normal hemoglobin is 12-16 g/dl and is a measurement of the oxygen carrying capacity of your blood.

3.8 is by far the lowest “walking hemoglobin” I have ever seen.  By that I mean this patient was not brought in by ambulance bleeding out in the emergency department.  He walked (or was carried/driven) to the ship.  He walked up the gangway and walked down 2 decks of stairs for his CT and admission into the ward.  When I see a number like that I wonder how it is possible.  At home I would question contamination from an IV line since surely this man was not standing upright with a third less hemoglobin than normal.


Without knowing anything else about this man or why he was coming to the ship I asked my techs to get a quick blood type on him just to see what we were dealing with.  Luckily he is an A positive – a blood type that is very common.  We reported the hemoglobin back down to the dock and found out if the doctor was planning on transfusing any blood and if so how much.

Sure enough, three units of blood were ordered for Sambany.  By this point I found out that this patient had been traveling for three days with a tumor twice the size of his head which he had been living with for 19 years.  The next step for us in the lab was to see how many units of Apos blood were collected and banked, how many donors were already tested and ready to collect and how many donors had volunteered.


Here on the Africa Mercy all of the blood for the surgeries is donated by crew members and it is part of my job to manage this unique blood bank.  At home when I realize I am going to need more blood for a patient or a particular surgery I call local hospitals to see if they can spare any or call the Red Cross and have them express deliver the exact amount of units to the hospital.  Here when I need blood I go up to the café or dining room or pool or into the hospital and start tracking down my donors. “Has anybody seen ________, I need his blood?”

Over that night and the following few days 5 units of blood were given which raised Sambany’s hemoglobin to 8.9 g/dl.  Once surgery was scheduled we started planning for how many donors we would need.

Initially we were asked to crossmatch 8 units of blood – some fresh (donated the day of surgery) and some banked.  I started lining up donors and setting up appointments for them to come in the day of surgery beginning at 0830 in the morning.  Throughout the day the anesthetist was slowly requesting unit by unit.  The surgery was going well and despite being a vascular tumor the bleeding was under control.  As the surgery continued we waited patiently for the tumor to be out.

Photo Credit Katie Keegan

After dinner things started to pick up.  We had arranged for two more donors to come in and donate more as a precaution overnight but those units quickly were brought to the OR as well and they asked for two more.  At this point most of my donors who had been “on-call” during the day had scattered and I started finding anyone on the ship I knew was an Apos.  Luckily we have an early curfew and everybody has to be back onboard by 9pm.  I found a few more donors however these units were quickly picked up by the anesthetist and brought into the OR.  It was almost 10 o’clock at night.

Rachel, the maxillofacial team leader, who was also waiting for Sambany to be out of surgery so she could admit him back to the ward walked past the blood drawing room.  I looked at her and said “Rach, you’re Apos, can we take your blood too?”  She enthusiastically agreed and as we were collecting her unit the anesthetist came for one more unit and to inform us the tumor was out.  After Rachel the last unit I drew was from Kirstie, our hospital director, who I called in her cabin to come down at 1030pm to donate her blood.

Over the course of that day Sambany received 11 units of blood in the OR – 8 fresh, 3 banked.  He received another unit the next morning to bring his total from time of admission to 17 units of blood all donated by our amazing crew members.  These 17 units came from crew from six different countries (US, Canada, UK, Australia, Norway and Malaysia) working in departments on the ship ranging from hospital to hospitality, sales to security and things in between.

Photo Credit Katie Keegan

Sambany with 13 of his blood donors

Sambany with our lab team

Sambany with me and my lab team

After the 7.46kg (16.45lb) tumor was out and we were finishing up in the lab I was thanking Rachel for donating when she looked at me and said, “Thank you.  You guys are the ones who kept him alive.”  While this is possibly the nicest thing that has ever been said from a nurse to a lab tech and I appreciate it more deeply than she understands it is the amazing crew who kept Sambany alive.  Without their blood he would have died.

Photo Credit Katie Keegan

first time seeing himself after surgery

The life of a creature is in the blood.  While this verse is talking about sacrifice, atonement and foreshadowing Christ’s own blood given as a sacrifice for all of our sins, the fact remains the same – the life is in the blood.

Thank you to the army of blood donors who helped keep this patient and all our patients alive and who make these life changing surgeries possible.

Photo Credit Katie Keegan