Three weeks ago, I hung up my community Santa hat and said a very bittersweet goodbye after 14 years of working at the “silver bells” nonprofit people naturally affiliated my name with. Exchanging a red crest for a red cross, I embarked upon a new adventure that, to be perfectly honest, completely terrified me. Mostly for vain reasons, I'll admit.
Over the years, I had learned every nuance of my workplace, knew every program cover to cover, cataloged hundreds of best of humanity/worst of humanity cases both in my columns and in my memory.
Giving up that warm and cozy chorus of a bar song that had surrounded me for years (go ahead and sing the “Cheers” jingle with me here: “where everybody knows your name...”) to become the clueless, unknown newbie at an entirely different operation left me wide-eyed awake many a night wondering what kind of oblivion I was walking into.
My departure had no ill will, no bad blood (pause here for hopefully one person to catch that pun) but from a gift that had been given to me years ago from an organization that truly didn't know my name. They gave to me because I needed it to live.
I want to give a warning here for anyone who has lost a child. Regardless of how many years ago you experienced your loss, that sharp reminder never seems to dull even when you're hearing of another's loss. I am about to speak openly about losing mine.
It was all of the cliché words that are so poignantly truthful that I understood why so many people had used them before me; heartbreaking, gut-wrenching, painfully raw in all of its unfairness that such a tiny soul who was loved so much would never take her first breath. The doctor told me her heart had stopped beating while she was inside me, it was “one of those things that was no one's fault.”
Our family went home to grieve the loss of our daughter, but as fate would have it, the hospital would admit me just a few days later as my body was hemorrhaging.
The memories I have are dull and out of focus; I faded in and out of consciousness as doctors worked hard to stop the bleeding. The pain was blinding and my weak brain unable to comprehend the seriousness of what was happening against the pounding in my ears and the freezing cold that I couldn't seem to escape. Nurses kept having trouble with my veins. The creases in their brows noticeably deepened every time they came back into my room trying to explain to me what was happening.
A very serious doctor abruptly entered and blatantly said to me, “I am going to discuss with you some options. You are going to bleed to death, so listen closely.” There were papers signed, a flurry of activity down the hall to an operating room, a mass of people in scrubs, then sudden sleep.
When I awoke in recovery, the pain was gone. The room was warm, quiet. I still felt loss in my heart, but there was a sense of peace that I hadn't known before that moment as I looked up at an IV bag, watching the life flow through me.
I never forgot the little girl I lost, but I also never forgot what I was given. Aside from the set of twins I delivered the next year (delivered by the same doctor who saved my life that night), I was given a living gift from someone I would never meet, who would never know my name, through a donation of blood.
Last month, The New York Times cited the crisis U.S. blood banks are experiencing with the largest shortage since World War II. Less than a one-day supply of critical blood products in recent weeks, well below the ideal five-day supply, has forced doctors to make difficult decisions about which patients receive transfusions and who will need to wait. Hospitals are forced to decrease transfusions and delay or cancel surgeries, compounding overwhelming understaffing issues. As a generally well-known nation of riches, we've gotten so comfortable with life-saving assistance being readily available that we've ignored the very dire precipice we're teetering on of losing it.
I think of how lucky I was that night that it hadn't happened during a pandemic, when the number of healthy donors was decreasing and the struggle to keep blood drives staffed and supplies replenished was an ongoing struggle.
My family never had to hear “we're sorry, we don't have the supply to save her,” and honestly, before now I never thought of what that night would have looked like, what other families like mine may be facing should this become the case.
Every two seconds, someone in the U.S. is in need of blood, not just for situations such as mine, but also cancer treatment, chronic illnesses and traumatic injuries. I was part of it then, and full circle, I'm part of it now.
I'm now part of an organization where America gets 40% of its blood supply, where I'm seeing firsthand the costs of testing, treatments, research and a million other factors from just one of the many facets of our mission. I can tell you how important every dollar donated is to saving lives, to easing suffering during a time when it's looking beyond bleak. Most importantly, I can tell you how I was unknowingly a part of the mission then, and how fortunate that I can tell you my name now.
My name is Jama Smith. I'm part of the American Red Cross.
Jama Smith is regional philanthropy officer for the American Red Cross.