Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Bad blood

Andrea Dejean
Toulouse, France


Photo of idyllic French countryside

In France, churches, villages and vineyards are rarely very far apart. By Andrea Dejean.

The French Blood Agency (l’Établissement français du sang; EFS) organizes frequent blood collection campaigns in the small city where I live in southwestern France. These campaigns are often planned to take place before the start of school vacations or just before the end-of-the-year holiday season when many French families take to the roads. The accident rate soars as does the need to boost the stocks of blood. EFS volunteers place posters announcing any upcoming blood collection campaign in strategic locations: busy roundabouts, popular bakeries, and the street leading to the rugby stadium. These posters always produce the same mixture of frustration and sadness in me. The last few times I offered it, no one wanted my blood.

My earliest memory of giving blood dates back to my teen years in the American Midwest, where I was born and grew up. Back then, in the 1970s (and perhaps now), giving blood was considered a civic duty, the act of every good citizen, and I took it very seriously. My attitude toward donating blood was shaped from the start thanks to a simple, unwavering fact: I am rhesus negative, type O—a universal donor.

I continued the practice while studying for my Bachelor’s Degree at a university in my home state, though it happened more often than not that I was turned away, especially during my freshman year. Trying to find my way through that roiling, tumultuous first year of life as a timid and uncertain college student left me haggard. Once, after pricking the tip of my forefinger to produce a drop of blood that showed I had anemia, the volunteer Red Cross nurse ordered me back to my room in the female dormitory with strict instructions about getting some rest and a list of the iron-rich foods I needed to preferentially choose from the options offered in the campus cafeteria. In retrospect, perhaps I should have seen it as a sign of things to come in my checkered career as a blood donor.

After graduation, I signed on as a Peace Corps Volunteer and was sent to Central Africa where I contracted a particularly virulent type of chloroquine-resistant malaria. It was also where I met the man who would become my husband and whom I would follow years later to French-speaking South America. That move would prove to be another chapter in the tainting of my blood. While living there, I contracted one of the dengue viruses as well as the Zika virus. I also needed an anti-rabies vaccine after being scratched and bitten by an abandoned cat whose shots were definitely not up-to-date.

On the American Red Cross website1 under the heading “How to Donate,” it states that having a cold or the flu or another illness can be a reason for not being able to donate—at least during a certain period of time—as can anemia. Another reason is travel outside of the United States, especially in areas of exposure to malaria or the Zika virus. All of these cases have applied to me. It goes on to state: Persons who have spent long periods of time in countries where “mad cow disease” is found are not eligible to donate. This requirement is related to concerns about variant Creutzfeld Jacob Disease (vCJD). I have lived in France for almost thirty years and it is one of the countries concerned. Because malaria and Zika have kept me from giving blood in France, I am not certain what the policy is here on vCJD.

Rightly or wrongly, I have come to see myself as someone who has “bad blood.”

Then again, there is a lot of bad blood in my family’s history, though not the kind that comes from the exotic invaders I have hosted in my system.

There have been problems related to real hematology issues. My mother was also rhesus-negative. My father was rhesus-positive. The pregnancies issuing from that rather mismatched union were mostly problematic: several miscarriages and my own possibly premature birth (either that or a poorly calculated delivery date); my brother needed an immediate post-natal blood transfusion. Though I was never told exactly why, I suspect it had something to do with rhesus incompatibility. I was born supposedly two months early, my skin and face a bright scarlet red for much of my infancy.

There are also examples of figurative bad blood between family members. I remember attending the funeral of a great aunt and watching in horror as one of her sisters threw herself across the open casket, wailing in grief. She and her late sister had lived in the same town all their lives but had not spoken to one another in over forty years. It has been nearly thirty years since I cut off ties with my own sister.

Increasingly, I find myself thinking of the humors—the black and yellow bile, the white phlegm and red blood—that the ancients believed were contained in the human body. What if the minor slights I have allowed to fester over the years, the major resentments that have stewed into bilious substances I am tempted to try to suck out using leeches, or the unexpressed and possibly even irrational anger I have kept inside, have all coagulated into a black emotional miasma also capable of tainting my blood? Or is it simply the inability to forget, much less forgive? Does blood go bad if not used to its proper end of being a life-giving and life-loving force? Is this the antithesis of modern thinking, a blind refusal to accept what is based in fact? As Jerome Groopman writes in his article “The History of Blood”2: Such primitive associations appear to be impervious to advances in scientific understanding.


I grew up influenced by certain family members who readily mixed science and superstition, where religious faith and rational thought were often chokingly intertwined. Perhaps none of us actually believed someone could do us harm by giving the “evil eye” but a bird smashing into a window of our house and killing itself left us worried and wary for days on end. We prayed at mass on Sunday and then made hopeful wishes on every falling star in the summer night sky.

I “left” the Catholic Church years ago, although the verb may be too strong. Like others, perhaps, I started drifting away as a young adult and now look at the rituals of the church from a certain emotional distance. But the doctrine of transubstantiation—that the wine of the Eucharist becomes the blood of Jesus Christ—continues to fascinate and befuddle me.

The historian Mack P. Holt3 believes that in France especially during the Wars of Religion, the push by vintners, particularly those in the Burgundy region, to encourage the faithful to partake in the Eucharistic ritual had less to do with faith than with market economics. The more believers accepted the idea that they could be cleansed and forgiven by drinking Christ’s blood (that is to say, the Eucharistic wine), the more the vintners could tie their livelihood to the dominant theological beliefs of the time.

The Bible makes references to Jesus Christ curing people of illnesses such as leprosy, afflictions such as blindness, and even raising Lazarus from the dead. In one instance4 a woman is healed of an extremely high fever, causing medical historians to wonder whether influenza was prevalent during that time. Malaria, of course, also causes those afflicted with it to have a high fever and has been known to exist since prehistoric times, although in a summary of her book5 Rosemary Margaret Luff states: there is no evidence that it was a serious problem in the first century, and certainly there is no evidence for the deadly falciparum form.

Nonetheless, how irreverent is it to wonder if Christ’s own blood was infected?

The EFS scheduled a blood drive in my town several days ago. I did not participate although perhaps enough time has passed since I was infected with any of the diseases forcing me to defer my blood donation. And while I am a permanent resident of a country where there have been recent isolated cases of “mad cow disease,” measures have been taken to prevent a recurrence of the horrible outbreak France experienced in the 1990s.

As far as cleansing the “black emotional miasma” I worry may also be tainting my blood, I am still working on that.


End notes


  1. Groopman, Jerome, “Pumped”, The New York Times, January 14th, 2019
  2. Holt, Mack P., The Politics of Wine in Early Modern France: Religion and Popular Culture in Burgundy, 1477-1630; Cambridge University Press; August 2018. Holt, Mack P., The French Wars of Religion, 1562-1629; Cambridge University Press, New Approaches to European History; 1995
  3. The Amplified Bible, (Luke 4: 38-39), Zondervan Bible Publishers, Grand Rapids, Michigan, January 1985.
  4. Luff, Rosemary Margaret, Health Hazards in First Century Palestine; Cambridge University Press; July 2019



ANDREA DEJEAN received a B.A in English from Michigan State University (1982) and an M.A. in Applied Anthropology from The American University (1990). She was a Peace Corps Volunteer (1982–1984) in “Zaïre” (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). She is the translator of the book On the Origins and Dynamics of Biodiversity: The Role of Chance, (Alain Pavé, Springer 2010) and has published her own creative writing in independent and university-affiliated literary journals. Her first novel, Sphinx, is set in French Guiana where she has also lived and worked; it is forthcoming from Middle Creek Publishing & Audio.


Submitted for the 2019–2020 Blood Writing Contest

Winter 2020  |  Sections  |  Blood

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