Thomas has a very rare blood type, known as Rhnull. Rh negative blood is only missing the Rh D factor, while Rhnull blood is missing all 61 Rh antigens. There are only 43 people in the world known to have Rhnull blood. Thomas, and others with very rare blood types, are encouraged to donate blood so that it will be available for others with rare blood types who need it, but the logistics of distributing rare blood globally are extremely difficult. For example, a woman with a rare blood type in Nigeria needed heart surgery. The surgery wasn’t available in Nigeria. It would be too expensive in the U.S. The United Arab Emirates could do it, but the country had no blood of her type, and prohibits imported blood. Cameroon could do the surgery, but had no blood to match. Finally, the logistics were worked out to fly in six bags of blood from English donors. The surgery was successful.
The difficulty of shipping blood across international borders is such that it’s easier for donors like Thomas to travel internationally than to ship blood. But donors cannot be paid, even for their travel expenses. And what if the donors, who the world depends on, ever need blood themselves?
Over tea, he described the impact of his blood on his life. As a child he couldn’t go to summer camp because his parents feared he might have an accident. As an adult he takes reasonable precautions: he drives carefully and doesn’t travel to countries without modern hospitals. He keeps a card from the French National Immunohematology Reference Laboratory in Paris, confirming his Rhnull blood type, in his wallet in case he is ever hospitalised. But one thing that is in his blood – and that of almost everyone growing up in the shadow of the Alps – is skiing. Abstaining seems to have been an option he never even considered.