Published 10 June 2020
When Tabitha Jackson’s son was born with five heart defects, this new mom knew there would be much to worry about over the next days, weeks and years, with multiple surgeries and talk of a heart transplant.
One thing she did not worry about, however, was the gift of blood from her longtime coworker and friend Debra Liggett. Debra’s blood was used during surgeries to repair little Ketch’s “special heart,” as the sweet 6-year-old boy now refers to it.
Once the two work chums discovered that Ketch and Debra had the same rare blood type - A-negative, shared by less than 7% of the population - “without even a hesitation of a heartbeat, Debra offered to donate her blood whenever he needed it,” Tabitha recalls. She never could have predicted that her friend would help save her son’s life.
“Knowing that we had Debra in our corner and that she cared enough to donate blood for Ketch made me feel less alone,” Tabitha says. “It reminded me of how selfless blood donors are and how special it is that I get to know one of the donors who helped Ketch.”
Debra is among the millions of blood donors recognized during World Blood Donor Day 14 June. Her blood was used during two of Ketch’s three surgeries - one when he was just 3½ months old, the other when he was 4.
“It was heartwarming to know that you could give somebody such a gift,” Debra says. “You're not only saving a life, but in Tabitha’s case, you're giving her a life. Her child wouldn’t have made it through all of these surgeries. And it took nothing on my part except to schedule time and go donate blood.”
A family’s harrowing journey
During a routine sonogram 20 weeks into her pregnancy, Tabitha learned that her baby would not survive without surgery. Along with other heart defects, Ketch had tricuspid atresia, which means he doesn't have a right ventricle. His heart would not be able to pump blood to his body.
Immediately after his birth, lines were inserted through Ketch’s umbilical cord to keep his heart valve open so that his blood could be oxygenated, as if he were still in the womb. The procedure kept Ketch alive until he could undergo his first surgery, at just four days old.
Ketch required two other major heart surgeries in his first four years, and may need a heart transplant in adulthood.
Not long after that first surgery, Tabitha shared the story of her family’s harrowing medical journey with Debra. The two scientists, who have worked in blood screening, had become close friends at work three years earlier.
“I was devastated, knowing what her son's condition was,” Debra says. “But when we discovered Ketch and I had the same blood type, I knew that I could do something to help.”
Ketch has depended on 19 units of safe blood products to survive his surgeries, with two units of Debra’s blood among them. He experienced severe bleeding during his second and third surgeries, and each unit was truly lifesaving.
“Of all the things that we had to worry about, knowing that Debra was donating her rare blood took a little weight off of our shoulders,” Tabitha says. “We knew that if there wasn't enough A-negative blood available, he couldn't have had these surgeries. I would have lost my child.”
Today, Ketch is an active, happy little boy who loves monster trucks, LEGOS, playing baseball and eating chicken nuggets.
“He’s full of life and energy,” Tabitha says.
“Ketch is just a perfect, happy little boy,” adds Debra, mom to Andrew, 21, and Sarah, 18. “He's adorable.”
Debra enjoys buying toys for Ketch, and made a lovely poster that hangs in his bedroom, in honor of his third surgery. The poster is signed by co-workers of the two moms, who are cheering Ketch on.
As a regular blood donor for more than 20 years, Debra has spent much of her life spreading the word about the importance of donating blood.
“But it really wasn’t until this happened that I realized just how important blood donation is, when you can put a face with it.”
And what a cute face this is.
“Donating blood is really special,” Debra says. “And it’s so easy. I’m glad I could be there for Ketch. I’d donate blood every other day, if I could.”