Traditionally Christmas is a time for giving, so why not give the best gift of all by donating blood and help to save lives. Words by Marissa Carruthers. Photography by Lucas Veuve.

Bun Von bows his head as he recalls the day his mother died. It was an evening in 1995 when, in the absence of a nearby hospital or clinic, she went into labour with Von’s youngest brother at their home in Veal village on the outskirts of Siem Reap.

“She gave birth to him and she kept bleeding,” the 27-year-old says. “We didn’t know why or what was happening, my father was drunk and the local midwife said she would be fine.” When dawn arrived, the bleeding had failed to stop so Von’s father and neighbours wrapped her up in a hammock and set off on the two-hour walk to the clinic in Siem Reap.

“About half an hour later, I saw them coming back carrying the same hammock,” he says. “My neighbours told us she had died on the way. When we heard that, we started crying so much and hugged her dead body. Why would she leave her eight children? How could we survive without her?”

Three months later, the baby died through lack of nutrition and breast milk, and was buried next to the crematorium that burned his mother. “From that day on, I decided I didn’t want to see any mother lose their children or a child lose their mother because of diseases or conditions that need blood to survive.”

In Cambodia, only four out of 1,000 people donate their blood, compared with the recommendation from the World Health Organisation (WHO), which states that as a developing country the figure should stand at a minimum of 10 out of every 1,000. In 2014, a total of 50,000 units of 350ml of blood were collected.

Although this year has seen an increase, with the National Blood Transfusion Centre (NBTC) receiving 21,100 units in the first five months of 2015 – a five percent increase on last year, more donations are needed. Hok Kim Cheng, director of NBTC, says, “Blood saves lives. One unit of blood can save up to three lives.”

In Cambodia, only 34 percent of blood transfusions come from the blood bank supply, compared with more than 90 percent in Thailand and Vietnam, while almost 70 percent come from relatives. The NBTC hopes to eventually eradicate family-to-family donations, with them all being pulled from an ideologically, well-stocked blood bank.

In June, NBTC was forced to issue an emergency appeal for donations after the national blood bank almost dried up. According to Dr Sek Mardy, WHO’s technical officer for transfusion safety, this leaves the country’s most at risk – victims of traffic accidents, women in childbirth and patients undergoing surgery – being denied blood. And with more than 3,000 Cambodians born each year with Thalassaemia, a rare blood disorder that requires bi-monthly transfusions, a well-stocked blood bank is essential.

“As Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in the world, and many children die every year and mothers who deliver babies, including my mother, lack resources, such as money, good health and knowledge, this encourages me to donate my blood,” says Von, who gives blood along with friends twice a year.

In a bid to bolster the blood banks, NBTC hosts donation events as well as encouraging businesses and groups of people to club together to hold sessions. In October, iCAN British International School in Phnom Penh hosted an event, which attracted about 20 donors.

Teacher Peter Sprawson was one. “It’s very quick and simple,” the first-time donor says. “In total, it takes about 10 to 15 minutes to give blood and is painless. It’s a very easy thing to do, especially when you are helping to save lives. I’m living in Cambodia so I want to do something for Cambodia.”

One major challenge in the Kingdom is swaying public opinion on the safety of giving blood. “Most Cambodians are frightened,” says Cheng. “They don’t want to give blood because they are afraid it will affect their health. This is not true and we need to change this way of thinking.”

As part of the process, donors must complete a questionnaire about their health. A test to determine blood type and red cells is carried out, as well as a blood pressure and health check. Collecting 350ml of blood takes between five and 10 minutes, and donors must rest for 10 minutes afterwards, eating high-energy snacks and drinking fluids.

“I can save someone’s life by this kind of donation,” says Von. “Furthermore, I don’t want to see the mother’s sadness or a baby not to see his mother because she has not survived so please give blood.”

For more information on how to become a donor, visit donatebloodcambodia.org.