Dr Cynthia Gladys Lopez, the former director of the National Blood Services Centre in Hospital Kuala Lumpur (HKL), passed way on July 30 at age 85.
Dr Lopez, a 1958 Universiti Malaya (Singapore) MBBS graduate with specialist degrees in clinical pathology from London and Australia, was instrumental in establishing the blood transfusion service in Malaysia as we know it today, developing our national haematology services and kick-starting treatment for inherited haemophilia and bleeding disorders.
The transfusion services in Malaya started in 1951 with blood collection once a week for directed transfusions to patients. Whole blood was collected in bottles and transfused, and the bottles were recycled. Only ABO blood grouping was done and the blood was only tested for syphilis. There were no diagnostic tests or treatment for haemophilia.
Twenty years later, Dr Lopez was posted as the blood centre director to HKL. She was responsible for the numerous changes in transfusion services since then.
Dr Lopez stopped the use of bottles and introduced disposable blood bags, and in 1976 introduced multiple (four) bags. Then, whole blood was separated to packed red cells, platelet concentrates, fresh frozen plasma (FFP) that was separated into cryoprecipitate (to treat haemophiliacs), and cryosupernatant.
Dr Lopez trained numerous healthcare staff – laboratory technologists, nurses and medical officers – in haematology. They were recognised and appreciated for their expertise in transfusion and haematology. Many of the medical officers went on to specialise in pathology and served many hospitals in the country.
Dr Lopez was, in short, responsible for ensuring that Malaysians had safe blood for transfusion. Before 1974, blood was not tested for hepatitis B or HIV. Transfused blood carried the risk of infecting recipients. Introduction of the HBs antigen test in 1974 made blood safer. Testing for HIV was introduced in 1986.
Dr Lopez championed many changes from using disposable blood bags to ensuring 100% voluntary blood donations, and screening all donated blood for syphilis, hepatitis B, hepatitis C and HIV, as well as quarantining all donated blood until the results of the tests were back.
Only those negative for HBsAg, anti-HIV 1&2 and anti-HCV were released for transfusion.
In those days, replacement donors (who were sometimes paid) were common, those who needed transfusion sent someone to donate blood for the patient. It was Dr Lopez who introduced mobile units that went to offices, shopping centres, universities and colleges.
Through education (talks) and motivations by donor organisers, more and more of the general population volunteered to donate blood. They realised blood donation was safe, painless and saved lives – anonymously.
Today there is adequate amounts of voluntary donated blood for patients. It is supplied free in all government hospitals in Malaysia. Blood is screened and safe for transfusion.
We appreciate all the work, dedication and contributions that Dr Lopez made to ensure safe and adequate blood transfusion in Malaysia. Dr Lopez was my boss, my mentor and friend since I joined the blood transfusion service as a medical officer and then as a haematologist. I became her deputy in 1974.
After she retired from HKL in 1987, Dr Lopez joined the World Health Organisation in Geneva. She worked to help developing countries in Africa develop their transfusion services. After that, she worked at the blood transfusion service at the University Hospital PJ (now UMMC).