Monday, June 17, 2024
HomesingaporeIt’s my duty: How Singapore's worst industrial accident led to these men...

It’s my duty: How Singapore's worst industrial accident led to these men donating blood hundreds of times

SINGAPORE: Duty – it is a word that Mr Gerard Thomasz, 63, uses when he talks about blood donation. 

A veteran of more than 300 donations – that is on average a donation every month for 25 years – he would understand it better than most. 

He was among the hundreds who queued outside Singapore General Hospital on Oct 13, 1978 to give blood after Singapore’s worst industrial accident.

The day before, an explosion on Greek oil tanker Spyros at Jurong Shipyard killed 76 people and left dozens more injured.

The blast, which happened under a bunk filled with men, tore large chunks of the ship. As oil and water flooded in, a fire swept through the engine and boiler room.

After the explosion, dockside workers tried to jump onto the ship to rescue their co-workers.

A total of 57 people died on the day of the explosion, many from severe burns, carbon monoxide poisoning, suffocation, drowning or other complications.

More than 80 people who suffered injuries were rushed to Alexandra Hospital and Singapore General Hospital. Of those taken to hospital, 19 died of their injuries.

As word of the incident spread, families waited outside the hospitals for news of their loved ones. 

Hundreds of people came forward to donate blood, as doctors and staff worked overtime to attend to the wounded.

Seeing the crowds of people waiting at the hospital to hear about their loved ones made Mr Pang realise how severe the situation was.

“It was definitely something which I realised was … desperate because there were a lot of people and they were milling around, the relatives,” recalled Mr Pang.

“I remember going to take a look (around) and I went to the mortuary without realising it.

“I saw the dead bodies and it was terrible, really terrible.”

The horror of seeing the burnt bodies stays with him to this day.

“If I close my eyes, I can still recall snippets of it very vividly. In fact, I had a phobia after that when I (go back to the hospital), because you don’t see dead bodies like that … And then you hear the weeping and wailing of the loved ones.”

Mr Pang, who has given blood more than 120 times since that day, said that he felt it was the right thing to do and that “something inside me drives me” to carry on.

GIVING BLOOD 300 TIMES

Mr Thomasz, who is now retired, is among a small number of donors in Singapore who have given blood more than 300 times. 

While his first donation was during a time of great need, the hundreds of donations after were voluntary. He was also inspired by his father, who gave blood dozens of times.

“I got to do my duty, I never thought of how much my blood can be used, for what purpose and for whom,” he said.

He started making full blood donations – which can only be done once every three months – before moving on to apheresis donations, which can be done monthly.

Apheresis is an automated process where machines draw blood from the donor, and extract the plasma, platelets or red cells, before returning the remaining components to the donor.

It takes longer, with each donation taking 45 minutes to one-and-a-half hours.

These days, Mr Thomasz meets friends or former colleagues and they go to the blood bank together to “do our duty”.

He added: “Looking back, I think it has been a worthwhile journey. Giving back to society was a part of me … I could just give without any attachments.

Mr Pang, who eventually came to know Mr Thomasz, said giving blood has become a habit.

“I look at it this way … You give, they live. You don’t, they die. I mean, it sounds terribly unforgiving, but that’s the hard truth,” he said.

Blood stock levels

In Singapore, blood is required daily, not just for those with injuries or surgeries, but also for those with blood disorders or other medical conditions.

About 54 per cent of Singapore’s blood usage goes to surgery, while 31 per cent is used for general medicine. About 9 per cent is estimated to be used by those with blood diseases, and 6 per cent in accidents and emergencies.

When blood stocks hit critical levels, elective surgeries will have to be postponed to conserve stocks for lifesaving emergencies.

These are the current blood stock levels as of Oct 13:

Low: O+, AB-

Moderate: B-

Healthy: A+, B+, AB+, A-, O-

According to the Health Sciences Authority, Group O is the universal blood type for red cell transfusions. It is used during emergencies when patients’ blood groups are unknown.

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There have been times when blood stocks in Singapore have dipped to low or critical levels. 

When it hits critical, it means there is less than a six-day stockpile and it is enough to support only emergency cases.

The only way Singapore replenishes its blood stocks is through donations.

A SUPERAGED SOCIETY

While droves of people came forward to help replenish blood stocks during times of emergencies and during the COVID-19 pandemic, this number drops dramatically in peace time.

Today, about 1.8 per cent of Singapore’s population donates blood.

By 2030, almost one in four Singaporeans will be over 65 years old. With the population ageing rapidly, the demand for blood is increasing.

When the country gets to that stage, 1.8 per cent will not be enough, said Mr Menon.

“Right now, it is still manageable. But in the next five to 10 years, you will see the usage of blood growing, increasing, and therefore you need more donors to come forward,” he added.

“You definitely need to go past 2.5 per cent to 3 per cent in the next five years.”

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There are promising signs – of the total number of blood donors in Singapore, about 17 per cent are youths aged 16 to 25.

The Singapore Red Cross is working with schools to educate younger people so that they will understand the importance of giving blood and make donations “a lifestyle choice”.

Mr Menon calls it a “social responsibility for everyone”.

It is a view that Mr Pang shares.

“At the end of the day, somebody needs your blood. Besides that, if you were to look at it the other way, the day may come when you or your loved one is going to need the blood. You never know,” he said.

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