Blood Letting

Imagine my surprise, having, first, been told I have a genetic blood disorder, to learn the only way it can be treated is by bloodletting, a medical practice that’s been in use for more than 3,000 years, all the way back to Ancient Egypt.

These days, they call it phlebotomy and it’s not performed by barbers or dark alley quacks, but by specialist medical practitioners under hygienic conditions, in modern hospitals. Well, for the most part, anyway.

In modern medicine, it is used in the treatment of polycythemia (excess of red blood cells), as well as haemochromatosis (iron overload).

Bloodletting is one of the oldest medicinal practices and was practiced by Egyptians, Mayans, Incas and ancient Greeks. It was used to treat a variety of conditions, based on the belief the human body was made up of ‘humours’; blood, phlegm black and yellow bile.

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Depending upon the condition, measured often by the manifestation of these humours, a physician would decide where the incisions were made to drain blood and, ultimately, to draw the humours of the body into balance. In the Middle Ages, the task fell to the local barber, hence a barber’s pole, the swirling red and white, which represented the tourniquet, the blood and the rod gripped by the patient, during the treatment.

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US President George Washington was among bloodletting’s many victims. He had 3.75 litres of blood taken from him over a ten hour period. He had a throat infection. In the 19th century, although bloodletting remained popular, particular with the use of leeches, its effectiveness was increasingly in question, particularly as more people were dying from its use than were recovering.

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For people with an iron overload, however, bloodletting, venesection or phlebotomy is a good thing. As red blood corpuscles carry and distribute iron around the body, then removing blood can reduce the level of iron, too. The trick is to remove it faster than the body can replace it – an inexact science dependent on a whole bunch of factors – and that dilution will result in a reduction of the ferritin level in the body.

So two or three times a year, I have my blood tested for a ferritin count and if it goes beyond 150 then I must return for treatment, a weekly visit to a phlebotomy clinic where about 400ml/l of blood is taken from my blood, then I’m given a cup of tea or coffee and sent home.