Not long ago, a precious packet of blood traveled more than 7,000 miles by special courier, from America to Australia, to save the life of a newborn. Months before the delivery date, a routine checkup of the mom-to-be had revealed that the fetus suffered from hemolytic disease.
Doctors knew that the baby would need a blood transfusion immediately after delivery. The problem was, the baby’s blood type was so rare that there wasn’t a single compatible donor in all of Australia.
A request for compatible blood was sent first to England, where a global database search identified a potential donor in the United States.
From there, the request was forwarded to the American Rare Donor Program, directed by Sandra Nance. The ARDP had compatible frozen blood on hand, but Nance knew that a frozen bag might rupture in transit.
So her organization reached out to the compatible donor, collected half a liter of fresh blood, and shipped it across the Pacific. When the mother came in to give birth, the blood was waiting. “It was just magic,” Nance says.
You’re probably aware of eight basic blood types: A, AB, B and O, each of which can be “positive” or “negative.” They’re the most important, because a patient who receives ABO +/– incompatible blood very often experiences a dangerous immune reaction.
For the sake of simplicity, these are the types that organizations like the Red Cross usually talk about. But this system turns out to be a big oversimplification.
Each of these eight types of blood can be subdivided into many distinct varieties. There are millions in all, each classified according to the little markers called antigens that coat the surface of red blood cells.
AB blood contains A and B antigens, while O blood doesn’t contain either; “positive” blood contains the Rhesus D antigen, while “negative” blood lacks it. Patients shouldn’t receive antigens that their own blood lacks—otherwise their immune system may recognize the blood as foreign and develop antibodies to attack it.
That’s why medical professionals pay attention to blood types in the first place, and why compatible blood was so important for the baby in Australia. There are in fact hundreds of antigens that fall into 33 recognized antigen systems, many of which can cause dangerous reactions during transfusion.
One person’s blood can contain a long list of antigens, which means that a fully specified blood type has to be written out antigen by antigen—for example, O, r”r”, K:–1, Jk(b-).
Try fitting that into that little space on your Red Cross card.
163 years after his death, Honoré de Balzac remains an extremely modern-sounding wag.
Were he alive today, he’d no doubt be pounding out his provocative observations in a coffice, a café whose free wifi, lenient staff, and abundant electrical outlets make it a magnet for writers.
One has a hunch Starbucks would not suffice…
Judging by his humorous essay, “The Pleasures and Pains of Coffee,” Balzac would seek out a place that stays open past midnight, and the strongest, most arcane brewing methods.
The Bucket of Black Snakes was his Green Fairy. He was that most cunning of addicts, sometimes imbibing up to 50 cups of coffee a day, carefully husbanding his binges, knowing just when to pull back from the edge in order to prolong his vice.
Coffee — he called it a “great power in [his] life” — made possible a grueling writing schedule that had him going to bed at six, rising at 1am to work until eight in the morning, then grabbing forty winks before putting in another seven hours.
It takes more than a couple of cappuccinos to maintain that kind of pace.
Whenever a reasonable human dose failed to stimulate, Balzac would begin eating coffee powder on an empty stomach, a “horrible, rather brutal method” that he recommended “only to men of excessive vigor, men with thick black hair and skin covered with liver spots, men with big square hands and legs shaped like bowling pins.”
Apparently it got the job done. He cranked out eighty-five novels in twenty years and died at 51.
The cause? Too much work and caffeine, they like to say.
Other speculated causes of death include hypertension, atherosclerosis, and even syphilis.