Many people don’t know that my car accident and resulting six-week coma was actually the second significant accident in my life. Back in 1982, when I was in grade 13, my school had just switched to the semester-system and we were trying to iron out the difficulties. At that point I was president of the school’s athletic council: as well as being the classic math-geek and (as much as one could in that day) a computer nerd. It happened that my algebra class conflicted with enriched gym. It took a week or two to figure out the details, so I ended up starting the phys-ed class a few periods behind everyone else.
What does this have to do with blood donation? Read on…
This class, enriched gym, was intended to develop both physical activity and leadership skills. We both planned and participated in the activities of the class. So the first day I started, the class had planned a winter carnival, and we were… carnivaling. The first event was a piggy-back race, where I had to get another young man on my back and run down the field, turn, and race back. I remember distinctly that the rule was that if we fell, we had to start over. So I started, zipped down the field (“zipped” is probably something of an exaggeration in hindsight) and promptly tripped and collapsed. I tried to get up (that darn “start over” rule) and discovered I couldn’t. I had broken my leg. And not just the tibia/fibula break (the bones below the knee: the usual bones that someone breaks) but the femur: the largest bone in the body.
Organization ensued. Seriously: with thirty of the school’s oldest and most advanced students in physical education, it seemed everyone knew exactly what to do. The problem was identified (my leg bent in two places: not difficult to figure out), coats were layered on me to reduce shock, and the ambulance was called. Everyone helped. I was taken to the hospital, and one of my friends from the class who wanted to be a doctor stayed with me through as much of it as she could.
My leg was put in traction (a painful experience, believe me) and the doctors decided what to do. The new methodology at this time, as I understood it, was to put a steel rod down the middle of my femur, giving the necessary support until it healed. The structure of my bones would not allow this, so they chose a 12-inch plate on the outside of the bone, screwed in to give that support. (It’s still in there… the X-rays of my leg look wicked.) I missed several weeks of school, got lots of compassion from my school-mates and had a walking cast for the next four months.
Oh yes, and the relationship to blood donation: to put in the steel plate, they had to operate. The result was a scar from my hip to my knee (a long way for me: and it’s still visible when I wear shorts) and I used four units of blood. Even back then, I had a certain sense that I did not want to “owe” anyone, so I determined to give that blood back over time. I’m not very good with blood, so it took a while. When I got to Penn State, I worked with the Graduate Student Association and their blood drives: helping to run them as well as donating. I fainted once after giving my unit, which resulted in concern about me giving in the future. And then I came out: the question about fainting became academic more than anything else because they no longer wanted to take it.
This ban on blood from gay men stems from the same time that I had my first accident, the early 80s, when the AIDS/HIV crisis was at it height. At that time, HIV was particularly easily transmitted among gay men, and there was only the most moderate testing available. The world was scared and angry, and they demonised gay men as being the source of the problem. It was deemed to be important to “keep the blood supply safe”, and so a number of different groups were banned from giving blood. Those original bans have stuck: and for at least one of those groups today the reason stems more from perception than from hard data.
The group is gay men, and the perception was that we are more promiscuous than straight men. Probably because there was no risk of pregnancy, this used to be true: and probably still is for many. But with the AIDS epidemic and the maturing of some aspects of the gay community, it has changed. The US CDC has said, “Abstaining from… sex altogether or having sex only with a mutually monogamous, uninfected partner are the only ways that individuals can be completely protected from the sexual transmission of HIV.” This is true no matter your orientation. According to the Global Coalition on Women and AIDS, the virus is “now the leading cause of death and disease among women worldwide between the reproductive ages of 15 and 49.”Although only one fifth of all HIV+ cases are the result of heterosexual contact, the rate has been rising. One third of new diagnoses in 2007 were attributed to heterosexual contact.
As a result, the perception of blood donation is changing. A newer paradigm is emerging, allowing monogamous gay males to be able to donate blood. (I’m still not sure I want to receive blood from a promiscuous heterosexual man any more than a homosexual one, but that’s just my opinion.) Testing for blood-born pathogens is better, lowering the risk even further. It is becoming time to allow men like me to be able to participate in this aspect of our social responsibility.
According to a study by a group at Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital and the McGill University AIDS Centre, “We’re not asking for all gay men to be able to give blood. If someone’s a gay man and promiscuous, we say `Exclude them.’ We’re trying to be balanced and moderate here,” said lead author Dr. Mark Wainberg, head of AIDS research… “The current policy is one that discriminates against all gay men in a permanent way and that seems a bit … not only unfair, but it seems to be counter to the best interests of the blood agencies that chronically encounter shortages.”