Transfusions on the Go

Transfusions on the Go

By David McLaughlin

As bombs fell and bullets flew, the wounded soldiers lay on the battleground. Without a blood transfusion, they would soon die.

Enter Dr. Norman Bethune, a University of Toronto medical graduate serving as a medic in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. Bethune set up a mobile blood transfusion service, inspired by his experience performing transfusions as the Head of Thoracic Surgery at Sacred Heart Hospital in Montreal.

The service transported blood donated by civilians to wounded soldiers near the front lines, saving countless lives.

Bethune had already seen battlefields during his service as a stretcher-bearer in the First World War. He later said the experience taught him the importance of helping the wounded quickly. In Spain, he put those lessons to work, locating a blood bank close to the fighting.

Bethune’s transfusion truck preserved donated blood with a kerosene-run refrigerator and sterilization unit. By 1937, the Servicio canadiense de transfusion de sangre performed up to 100 transfusions a day — many in the midst of battle.

Bethune later perfected his technique under similar conditions in China. In 1938, he was part of the Canadian-American Mobile Medical Unit that served the Chinese 8th Route Army in the Shanxi-Hobei border region. He encouraged civilians in towns and villages to donate blood and help save the lives of soldiers.

Medics now give donated blood to patients in trauma throughout the world in war and peace. According to the Canadian Blood Service, every minute, someone in Canada needs blood.

Bethune was a native of Gravenhurst, Ontario, who pursued his ideals as rigorously as he sought out medical advances. He was an early proponent of universal health care and established free medical clinics in Canada. In 1939, Bethune cut his finger while operating on a soldier in China. The injury led to blood poisoning, and he died on November 12.

To this day, Bethune is revered in China and Canada for his dedication to the sick and wounded. On May 31, 2014, the Faculty of Medicine held a gala in honour of the 75th anniversary of his death. Learn more about Norman Bethune through the PDF icon commemorative program from the event (also available in PDF icon Chinese) and the video below.