May 20, 2013

The Bloody Wars: When War Advanced Blood Transfusion

Dr. Norman Bethune

Scientists and physicians in the warring nations during World War II struggled to save soldiers bleeding to
death on the battlefield. Dragging injured soldiers back to field hospitals resulted in too many lost lives. But what other alternative was there?

One of the early medical innovators of mobile blood transfusions was Dr. Norman Bethune, a Canadian surgeon, who wondered: why risk men’s lives by bringing them back to hospital when blood should travel to them? Funded by an organization, he went to Madrid at the outset of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, where he developed a mobile blood transfusion service. With charismatic enthusiasm and caring, he wrote: “This is great! Isn’t it grand to be needed, to be wanted!” He had a high proclivity to risk-taking and civil duty: he was involved in the war-time evacuation of families and children. He was always concerned with the socioeconomic consequences of medical services on the plight of the poor, and pushed for socialized medicine.

In Spain, he seized on this innovative idea: to take the blood donated by civilians in bottles to wounded soldiers near the front lines. Being highly adaptable and effective, Bethune’s service is regarded as one of the most significant military-medical achievements of the Spanish Civil War. A benchmark in
the history of mobile medical achievements, his work later inspired MASH units.

This was not the first time this idea was proposed, but it was far reaching. A similar service had been established in Barcelona by a Spanish hematologist, Dr. Frederic Duran-Jorda, and had been functioning just months before.

The more precise and cautious physician, Duran-Jorda ran a sophisticated operation in Barcelona. He collected only O blood; oxygenated the bottles; and ensured high standards of safety by testing rigorously. He had vehicles fitted with refrigerators to transport the blood to front line hospitals. In February 1939, Duran-Jorda fled to England, where he helped the British develop their blood banks for the front line.

And the Germans, who had practiced the highest level of medical research in the world, regressed into medical myth
when the Nazis came to power. Blood now represented racial purity—with the belief that only pure German blood could be used in German soldiers to save their lives. This would cost the Germans thousands of lives.

Fantastic Book I Just Read
Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

I had long heard that this story was a classic in travel reading. The story of Saint-Exupery’s flights over Africa as a mail carrier for the French postal service, Aeropostale in the 1930s. Told in the first-person voice, Saint-Exupery shares his views from the airplane seat, and from his fertile mind. The text is lyrical, mesmerizing, fluid. An adventurer, he writes: “The call that stirred you must torment all men. Whether we dub it sacrifice, or poetry, or adventure, it is always the same voice that calls. But domestic security has succeeded in crushing out that part in us that is capable of heeding the call. We scarcely quiver; we beat our wings once or twice and fall back into our barnyard.” His crash and struggle to survive in the Sahara is riveting. A rousing five/five stars. Read it!

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