The Blood Donor
The accident happened on Monday in the section where we build fiberglass containers. The news crisscrossed the factory with the speed of light, but all of us, to the last apprentice, kept working as if some previous covenant had bonded us together and we had to stifle our curiosity and silence our outrage under a huge common lid. The General Manager and the Chief Engineer ran immediately to the scene. Minutes later we heard piercing sirens and ambulances drove up raising clouds of dust. Soon afterwards, a black limousine carrying members of a fact-finding commission arrived as well.
Industrial fiberglass tanks, drums and barrels, large and small, round and square, are stored on metal racks reaching all the way to the ceiling. Young women in white gowns quietly carry laminating tools and fiberglass spools, push heavy molds on carts, drive motorized lifts and clean debris. Here and there, a supervisor, usually a woman in her thirties, presses buttons at a control console. Since no man enjoys the privilege of working there, we call that unit facetiously, ‘the library.’
For some unknown reason, a round container at least 6-foot in diameter had rolled from its place high on the rack and come crashing down. In its way, it struck a group of four women. Two were literally crushed and one died instantly. The second one, the youngest of them, died before the ambulance arrived. The third victim passed away on the way to the hospital. The fourth remained in critical condition and chances were she would never walk again.
It’s easy to understand why everybody in our small town was horrified by the accident. The account, in its different versions, circulated from the farmers’ market to the post office, and from the steak house to the Cultural Center. That’s how I uncovered some of the details, and heard a number of well thought-out pronouncements about the value and unpredictability of life, the difficulty of managing large numbers of people, and the inherent risks of working in a factory. I got home later than usual slightly dazed from the four beers I had knocked back with my buddies. I hugged my wife and kissed my children, perhaps more passionately than at other times, thinking that it was just a matter of luck that I didn’t work in a more desirable place, like, for example, ‘the library.’
The next day at the plant everyone continued to display a rather somber demeanor, while the official version of the accident took shape. Automobiles drove on the alleyways between the buildings, and we had the rare opportunity to see the leadership of our county up close. Unexpectedly the family of one of the victims showed up as well.
At lunch, after a moment of silence, the following announcement was read on the loudspeakers: “Comrades, a terrible accident has taken place severely affecting four of our colleagues. Three have lost their lives, and the fourth is at the hospital in critical condition. Due to heavy blood loss, our surviving colleague was in need of multiple transfusions. The blood bank must be resupplied. We are looking for a large number of volunteers to participate in a blood drive. It will take place this Thursday, at the Medical Center. The volunteer donors will be granted the day off, and, after the procedure, they will get a free meal consisting of a beefsteak and beer. We trust that our appeal will not be in vain.” A sad folk ballad concluded the broadcast.
Like on most days, I had to file a production report and went from department to department to collect that information. People talked about the blood drive and most saw it as a noble and humane undertaking. “It’s for the poor girl,” they remarked, their voices strangled by grief. “Who knows if it’s not too late, and if our blood will save her?” “Nonsense,” responded the skeptics. “If she’s not out of danger already, nothing we do will help her. Don’t you know how things work? One cuts himself and needs a blood transfusion, and somebody else comes along and says, here you go, brother, take my blood and replace it. There are many blood types, and as many variables.” Then there were those who had gotten the correct message. “Hold on, all of you,” they argued. “Our hospital has used a large amount of blood that needs to be replenished. It’s for the next victim we’ll be donating now — for the blood bank, and in case of other emergencies.”
Paradoxically, the attention seemed to have shifted. The accident that had troubled us so deeply had become a simple footnote in the debate about the blood drive. Moving from one person to another, and discussion after discussion, I didn’t even realize that my workday had come to an end.
At home, I told my wife about the announcement.
“You can’t bring them back to life, but it’s worth donating for a day of vacation and a good steak. When is the last time I found steaks in the stores, anyways?” she said.
That sounded new to me, as I hadn’t thought about the rewards until then. I hesitated. “I’ve never donated blood before,” I said, not in the least eager to become a participant.
“So?” she said. “What’s the big deal? Just a needle in your vein and you’re done.”
It didn’t help. On Wednesday, the management repeated the announcement, read the names and praised those who had already responded. A friend of mine who was quite heavy and had donated before on account of his high blood pressure insisted that I volunteer. I finally agreed, mostly to demonstrate my team spirit. Honestly, just the thought of blood made me queasy, and the prospect that the next day I would willingly allow eleven ounces of that precious red liquid to be drawn out of my body bordered on devastating. But I knew better than to share my fears with anybody.
On Thursday morning I took my time shaving. Despite an unpleasant awareness of what was coming, I felt like on holiday. I put on my nicest casual clothes and took the children to school. That’s how, all dressed up and deluded by a false feeling of being on vacation, I started my walk to the Medical Center. There were only a few people there, and two members of the medical staff in their light blue gowns were hanging a welcome sign above the door. The word itself — Welcome — or the large black letters did not make a positive impression on me. I walked through a long passageway to an inside court. The sun was barely visible above the roof.
People started arriving after 9 o’clock. The courtyard became crowded and new arrivals filled the passageway and the sidewalk. I spotted two of my coworkers, as well as my chubby friend who had convinced me to participate in that heroic drive.
“How do you feel?” he asked. “Don’t tell me you are afraid.”
I formed a soundless ‘no’ with my lips, and shook my head. The truth was that the unpleasant feeling that had risen up as soon as I had scribbled my name on the list was still there and didn’t leave me for a moment.
“Listen to me,” my buddy said, clearly doubting my sincerity. “You won’t feel a thing, except, maybe, the prick of the needle for a second or two.”
Soon a doctor showed up. He made his way through the crowd and climbed the few steps in front of the back entrance. “There are more of you than we had expected,” he announced. “Therefore we will split you into two groups, both here and at the steakhouse. I will read the names of those who form the first group. The others, please return in two hours.”
Because we had entered our names late, we were part of the second group. We went into the street and walked slowly to the town center. By now, the sun was high up in the sky. Next to us, and on the sidewalk across the street groups of donors were walking together, like marchers.
“They’ll have a good harvest,” my friend grinned.
The word ‘harvest’ didn’t seem amusing to me. “Any news about the cause of the accident?” I asked.
“Nobody’s going to jail, if that’s what you mean. They’ll claim that the women didn’t follow the safety rules. That’s how it’s always done — blame the victim.”
For a second his eyes sparkled with malice, and I didn’t know what to think.
“You’re right,” I responded.
At about eleven we started back. We passed the steakhouse where the early donors were already enjoying their steaks and drinking their beer. A waiter was posted at the door to let in only those on his list. Large windows opened to the street. “How was it?” my friend asked somebody through the window, in sign language. “Great,” the man signaled back, and I wondered if he meant the food or the blood drive.
As we approached the Medical Center three women were leaving the lab. Their sleeves were rolled up and each pressed a piece of gauze on the crook of the arm. One of them removed the gauze and wiped herself clean with her handkerchief when a few drops of blood trickled down.
That brief encounter unsettled me. We entered the lab and the smell of alcohol and chloramine increased my apprehension. Waiting to be called, I collapsed into an armchair with the yellow light of the electric bulb dancing in front of my eyes. When my turn came, I silently rolled up my sleeve.
“Don’t be afraid,” the nurse said.
I nodded and stretched out my arm while looking away. Actually, there was nothing to see.
The prick of the needle sent a shiver all the way to my ankles. Weakness overtook my body and I realized that my fear and that strange impression of a vacation day had deserted me. I didn’t want anything, except, maybe, to be left alone sitting there prostrated, with my eyes closed and my blood leaving my body until the end of times.
“Done,” the nurse announced after a few minutes.
“Time to eat,” my friend said, standing in front of me.
“Go see the doctor and get your paperwork,” the nurse added.
I moved slowly, feeling drained. There was no disinfectant smell in the doctor’s office, and the room was bright. He crossed our names off the list and gave us our donor cards. They were white, with a red heard imprinted in the upper left corner. Then he shook our hands. “Thank you, Comrades,” he said. “Get your reward at the steakhouse and then go home to get adequate rest.”
In the street I felt gradually better. We caught up to a large group of fellow workers and walked to the steakhouse together. “Did you hear?” one man asked. “There were so many of us, that they ran out of storage space and had to stop drawing blood while they drove back and forth to the hospital. Back and forth…”
The waiter at the steakhouse treated us with respect and ushered us to a large table. We had done our part and there was nothing else we could do. Those poor women were gone anyhow, and an unexpected half day of vacation was ahead of me, along with my beautiful bloody steak and the oversized mug of beer.
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