As the blood was available, and because it wouldn’t make logistical sense to fly a second consignment if Francisca needed more than four units, the U.K. blood services agreed to send six bags of blood. All six U.K. donors who received a phone call and were able to donate did so within days.
In Rochester, England, it was James’s 104th donation. He first donated as an 18-year-old in the army in 1957, when he was told his O-negative blood was “good for blue babies.” In 1985, he got a letter explaining his blood was rare (although not how rare) and asking whether anyone in his family would donate so their blood could be tested. The family members he asked were reluctant, however, believing they “needed their blood for themselves.”
A few years later, in the early 1990s, James got his first phone call from the blood services, asking whether he would mind “popping down to the local hospital to donate blood for someone in Holland.” There, he was told that a taxi was waiting for his blood. He didn’t think this particularly unusual, saying that it was all in a day’s donation.
He wasn’t surprised to be called up again, but he didn’t know that his blood was going to Cameroon. And previously, he hadn’t known he was Lutheran B-negative, as well as O-negative. He was surprised and mildly intrigued to learn that there were only 550 known people with the same blood in the world.
The bag of James’s blood joined the five bags from the other donors, and all six were couriered to Tooting in south London to start their 4,000-mile journey.
This was when Walter discovered how remote the hospital really was. Kumbo, in the mountains of northwest Cameroon, is more than 250 miles north of both Douala and Yaoundé, the sites of the country’s major international airports. The blood would have to travel for several hours to get there, bumping over a dirt road in the March heat. Even packed in ice, it would be hard to keep it at the cell-preserving 4 degrees Celsius.
Francisca Akata’s blood landed at the international airport in Douala and was cleared through customs by noon on Friday, March 21, 2014. A helicopter, supplied at the last minute by the hospital to avoid the lengthy road journey, was waiting outside. Her blood flew the rest of the way to Kumbo and arrived at 2 p.m., just after Francisca had been wheeled into the operating room.
The operation was a success, and the Catholic Diocese of Kumbo found her somewhere to recuperate before flying home. Walter still marvels at the efforts of so many people—on three separate continents—to save one life, “just like the shepherd who left 99 sheep and went after the one that was lost.”
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Since his blood can be given to anyone with a negative Rh blood type, Thomas could save countless lives. But if he ever needs blood himself, he can receive only Rhnull blood. If he donates a unit for himself, he has to permit it to be used by anyone else who might need it.