Kiran Johal always looks on the bright side of things. For example, her brush with death has given her a new appreciation for life’s little joys, like groceries.
The North Delta Secondary graduate had just started her first semester of college when she was diagnosed with severe aplastic anemia in late 2015, a rare condition wherein patients have less than 25 per cent of the normal amount of cells in their bone marrow and the stem cells that would become blood are damaged, creating a shortage of red and white blood cells and platelets.
Without constant blood transfusions, Johal wouldn’t have lived to see her 19th birthday.
“Isn’t it weird,” another patient at the hospital said to Johal, “how before we used to go through our life and we never thought about platelets, we never thought about blood, we never thought about white blood cells? We just went on with our day.”
She admits she had never really thought about it before.
But after nearly two years of visiting the Bone Marrow Transplant Centre at Vancouver General Hospital three times a week and more than 30 units of blood products, Johal has had plenty of time to contemplate.
Kiran Johal celebrates her birthday in hospital after being diagnosed with severe aplastic anemia. She may not have lived to see another had it not been for the generosity of dozens of anonymous blood donors. Photo submitted
These days, she is trying harder than ever to be present and to no longer let her loved ones take a backseat in her life.
“I was never really home and engaging with my family,” Johal said. “I realized I would’ve missed all of this that I have. I’ve never really sat down and kind of enjoyed the moment.”
Johal’s body is recovering and she hopes to finish her education and get back to the life she had before the hospital visits, but it will take a stem cell donation to overcome her condition.
“I sit here and I’m praying that I find a donor. I owe my life to this person, whoever would save it, and all we can do is just put our lives in someone else’s hands and [hope] whoever gets chosen will agree [to help],” said Johal, citing statistics that potential donors decline to go through with the operation about 20 per cent of the time.
She hasn’t found a donor yet, but Johal says she hopes people will continue to join the stem cell donor registry, which is in desperate need of a larger pool to draw on.
Trudi Goles, territory manager for stem cells in B.C. for Canadian Blood Services (CBS), said only four hundred thousand Canadians have registered as donors.
“When a patient is diagnosed, about 25 per cent of the time they will find a match within their family, usually from a sibling, but 75 per cent of the time they need a total stranger,” said Goles.
But with such a small group of potential donors, people like Johal can end up waiting for years to find a match – a potentially life-threatening scenario.
Goles said her organization is looking for additional sources for stem cells such as including umbilical cord blood, which, at the moment, has the benefit of being more readily accessible than donors.
“It can be a faster time between finding a match and getting the transplant to the patient than it is getting a donor prepared for a donation,” she said, adding that stem cells sourced this way aren’t a perfect solution, as the relatively small amount of blood drawn is sometimes not enough for larger patients.
Blood products are needed by hundreds of Canadian hospitals for patient care, which include patients waiting for a stem cell transplant. Currently, more than 800 patients in Canada are waiting for an unrelated stem cell donor to help save their lives.
David Patterson, director of donor relations in the B.C. and Yukon region, said those who aren’t eligible to join CBS’s OneMatch Stem Cell and Marrow Network can help patients like Johal by donating blood.
“Patients waiting for a transplant often need blood and blood products before and in some cases, even after the transplant,” he says. “February is the month of love. Love is universal and one great way to express it is by donating blood.”
New donors are critical to meeting Canada’s future blood needs and thanks to the support of Canadians, Patterson said, Canadian Blood Services is closing in on its goal this year of 100,000 new donors, but another 28,000 are still needed before the end of March. To that end, CBS is holding a donation clinic at the Cloverdale Catholic Parish Centre (17475 59th Ave., Surrey) on Sunday, Feb. 12, from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. with the hope of collecting 86 donations.
In addition, the Surrey Blood Donor Clinic (15285 101 Ave.) is open Wednesday to Friday from 1 to 7 p.m., and Saturdays from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
To book an appointment, locate a clinic, check your eligibility and more, download the GiveBlood app or visit blood.ca.
-with files from Katrina Pedersen.