In a country of a billion, only a few hundred people have the Bombay blood group. Here is how they band together in times of need
In June 2007, Pranjali Bhelave was a little less than four months old when doctors detected a hole in her heart. Her father, Ratiram Markand Bhelave, rushed her to Chennai’s Railway Hospital where he was confronted with worse news. Pranjali had the extremely rare ABO blood type, commonly known as Bombay blood group. From contacting blood banks to broadcasting messages on Radio Mirchi, the Bhelaves searched extensively for a Bombay blood group donor. After months of no response, a relative put them in touch with BS Shridhar from Bangalore. But he had recently rescued another patient, and couldn’t donate again for another three months. Ratiram feared that stalling his baby’s treatment could endanger her life, so he continued his search. On Pranjali’s first birthday there was still no sign of help. As a last-ditch attempt, Ratiram made another call to Shridhar, who was eligible to donate by then. Without much persuasion, he took the earliest train to Chennai, and Pranjali got a new lease of life.
In the last decade, Shridhar has donated blood 34 times. On some of those occasions, the 53-year-old engineer has had to rush out of work to go as far as Chennai, Vellore and Hyderabad, usually at his own expense, to rescue a patient. Mumbai resident Alex Fernandes is equally committed. Every three months, he dutifully reports to a blood bank in his area to make his contribution. Like them, there are a few other Bombay blood group donors thinly spread across the country, who never fail to come through for their community members in a crisis.
The first-ever case of this blood type was discovered at Mumbai’s KEM hospital in 1952, after which the name Bombay blood group was coined. For long, KEM had the most reliable registry of donors as they were the only ones who could detect this blood type. It is common for ill-equipped laboratories to mistake it for O positive. Experts say it is impossible to conclude how many people have this blood group but estimate that there aren’t more than 350-400 people across the country. However, the number of donors is far less as this estimate includes babies and elderly people.
Saviour with no name
In many cases, the donors remain faceless saviours as the patients are often located in a different city or even country. Vinay Shetty of Think Foundation, a Mumbai-based NGO, remembers a case in 2008 when a young man from Bangladesh came in search of a donor for his ailing 84-year-old father. After Shetty arranged for the blood from a local donor, it was neatly packed in ice and flown to Dhaka. More recently, Bangalore’s Sankalp India Foundation sent three units of blood to a cancer patient in Istanbul. However, when they get a chance to meet face to face, people do end up forging deeper bonds that are not necessarily need-based.
Last year, on his way to New Delhi for a business trip, Shridhar made a quick stop at Nagpur to meet Pranjali, now six years old. “She was only a year old at that time and had no recollection of me. Her father brought her to the Nagpur station to tell her who I was. Now she calls me on every festival to wish me,” he says.
Nitin Thenge, 29, from Mumbai makes an effort to track the progress of every patient who gets in touch with him. He proudly says that he now counts some of them as friends. “It feels great to be able to help patients in need. I feel happy to see the relief on the faces of the families. Some of them tell me I’m like a god to them,” he says. Three months ago, Thenge took his entire family to Nashik to check up on Smita Gaikwad, a fellow Bombay blood group member, and to bless her newborn baby. When Smita had developed a series of complications during her pregnancy, she was taken to Mumbai’s KEM Hospital where she had a premature delivery. Before the surgery, the hospital provided her husband Jayant Gaikwad with a list of people who belonged to Bombay blood group. Of all the strangers Jayant reached out to, Thenge was the first to dash down to the hospital to donate blood.
Yet, Ankita Agarwal of Sankalp India Foundation believes these acts of kindness are few and far between. She says that Bangalore alone has roughly 50 people of this blood group but only 15-20 are eligible to donate since some have health restrictions and many aren’t even aware that they have this blood type. Of them, not everyone agrees to donate, leaving her with less than 10 people. She holds meetings to give members of Bombay blood group a chance to get better acquainted. This way, she says, it will be easier for them to locate one another in an emergency. But so far, the meetings haven’t attracted more than six to eight people.
Earlier, NGOs like Think and Sankalp India barely got one or two calls a year from families in search of Bombay blood group donors. But now they battle nearly three such cases a week. A possible reason for the spike could be that more people are realising that they have this blood type. Another person on the list that KEM shared with the Gaikwads was insurance agent Vaibhav Aiwale. But due to miscommunication a few years ago, the news of his blood group never reached Aiwale. Until recently, he continued to believe that he was O positive. So when that myth was suddenly busted on the phone by Jayant Gaikwad, a man he didn’t know, he panicked. “I was so confused. I couldn’t understand what he was saying, and I think I still don’t know enough about it apart from the fact that is very rare,” says Aiwale, 31. But sensing the desperation in the voice on the other end, he went to the hospital without asking too many questions. On reaching there he was told that the Gaikwads didn’t need any more blood. Less than 15 days later, Aiwale got another frantic call from the father of a two-year-old boy with a heart condition in Mumbai’s Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital. He reached there in time to save the child.
Even Thenge learnt about his blood group by chance. Three years ago when his sister Sushma needed blood before her C-section surgery, it was discovered that she belonged to the Bombay blood group. Her doctor then suggested that the entire family get checked and sure enough Thenge also had the same blood type. He remembers visiting the homes of many donors, requesting them to help his sister. Now having bailed out so many people himself, he hopes that he never has to relive that trauma again. “I make it a point to be there for people in trouble. If ever I fall sick in the future, I hope they will help me too,” he says