What takes an hour and saves three lives?

10 min


Saving lives during a work break

When it comes to blood donation, a whole reem of articles could be filled with incredible facts and figures about the difference you could make to someone else’s life during your lunchbreak.

Perhaps one sobering figure to consider is that the NHS currently needs 450 new donors every day to meet the national demand for the red stuff. 

NHS Blood and Transplant saw a drop of nearly 5% in its donor base from April 2020 to April 2021. The number of people currently giving blood is around 785,000 a year and the NHS is aiming to boost the number to more than 800,000 by the end of March. 

‘Maintaining a safe and regular supply of blood to hospitals is our top priority,’ says Helen Duggan, Assistant Director of Donor Campaigns at NHS Blood and Transplant. 

‘Through the most critical time of the pandemic this was achieved thanks to a loyal club of existing donors – the smallest of the 21st century.’ 

‘As hospitals catch up on routine care, we are facing a critical crossroads to meet the rise in demand for blood and are appealing for new donors to step forward and join this amazing group of lifesaving people.’

‘The amazing efforts of donors kept the NHS supplied with blood over the pandemic. Now, as the NHS tackles the backlog, we need even more people to join those donors and give blood,’ says Sajid Javid, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care.

‘This new campaign will help raise awareness, especially among Black communities where there is a particular need for donors. I urge everyone who can to sign up now and give the lifesaving gift of a blood donation.’

A few years ago, a friend of mine was rushed to hospital with peritonitis. His appendix had burst, and he was fighting a severe infection which was threatening to kill him. Long story short: he pulled through. 

He was saved by the dedication of an incredible medical team. His survival also hinged on receiving quite a lot of blood. A few months later and we caught up over a coffee. He was on the mend, but still shaken from his experience.

We talked about the sheer volume of plasma and life-saving liquids which he needed to survive. 

He was in an induced coma for a week and required a significant number of units to survive (a unit is around a pint in volume). Blood donation was something I had done many, many years ago but life had ‘got in the way’ and so I stopped going to appointments.

Chatting with him made me realise that I could get back into the habit of giving a pint of blood every few months. There are strict time limits around the frequency of donations. For men, it’s once every 12 weeks, and, for women, it’s once every 16 weeks. 

I have a slight admission to make, I don’t like needles. And so, sitting opposite my friend, I made a (hesitant) promise to myself about re-registering with NHS Blood and Transplant. Doing so was quick and straightforward. Their app is very easy and quick to use.

Eat and drink before donating

An appointment was booked, and Yours Truly rocked up to one of the 23 permanent donor centres around the country. Free parking. Lovely staff. Warm welcome. Perfect.

A couple of quick notes here: you don’t get paid to be a blood donor, but you do get a free choice of biscuits after your donation. Also, for obvious reasons, you may like to think about wearing something with short sleeves.  

And finally, it’s a good idea to make sure you’re well fuelled before you arrive. Staff will ask if you’ve had something to eat and drink (for me, it’s a great excuse for a bacon roll before I go). 

The team give you a booklet to read and a questionnaire to complete. The form’s important as it’s the first part of a screening process which is designed to make sure you are okay to donate – and your blood is safe to use. 

They check that I’m in good health and haven’t been feeling under the weather. This isn’t about making small talk but about trying to ensure the safety of both donor AND recipient.

Plymouth is one of the UK’s permanent donation centres and it has small meeting rooms where a team member goes through the form with me before I sign it. 

A tiny droplet of blood is then taken from my finger and dropped into a test tube to check my iron levels. If the drop sinks, then all is good for the next step: donation! 

A larger room awaits with a series of donor chairs set out around its perimeter. TV sets are in the middle. The sound is off, and the subtitles are on. 

This is my favourite bit. Strange, I know, for someone who didn’t (past tense) like needles. But I feel I’ve become really used to the process now and so I don’t feel too bothered by them. 

Plus, big bonus point here, I get to turn my mobile phone off and watch a bit of telly while resting in the donor chair. Think how an astronaut is positioned in a capsule and you can quickly create an image of what it looks like.

Watching Bargain Hunt

A cuff is placed around my arm and the pressure is increased so the team member can work out which vein to use. It’s the same person who’s been through the questionnaire with me, which is really comforting, as, by now, they have built a strong sense of rapport with me. 

Over the years, I’ve grown fond of the team members. Christmas is particularly special as you often see them wearing a bit of Festive sparkle.

The skin is thoroughly disinfected, and the needle is broken out of its sterile packaging. My name, address and date of birth are checked again before the collection bag is placed in a cradle next to me. My blood group is included on the paperwork (there’s four types, O, A, B and AB).

The cradle will gently rock backwards and forwards as the blood is collected. The motion will help to stop it coagulating in the bag. I hear the words ‘sharp scratch’ before the needle is placed into the vein and the blood starts a long journey from my arm to the eventual recipient. 

A couple of sample test tubes are also filled with blood. These are the ones which will be tested for a broad variety of infections. The rest of the blood starts to flow through a tube and into the bag itself.

The beep of a stop clock marks the start and I’m encouraged to undertake some very simple seated exercises to make things easier. My eyes rest on the telly. 

Blood bags type O negative

My visits always seem to coincide with Bargain Hunt.  It’s certainly not deliberate but there’s always something very reassuring about the presence of Eric Knowles and Anita Manning.

I’m aware of the calm efficiency of the team around me as other donors come and go. There’s a relaxed feel to the place. One of the team pops over to check to see how I’m doing and asks what snack and drink I would like once the donation has finished.

A few minutes pass and an alarm from the cradle sounds to let the staff know that the correct weight has now been reached and they can remove the needle. The bag and test tubes are taken away for the next part of my blood’s journey. 

What happens next to the donor’s blood?

A couple of plasters are applied with instructions for how long they need to stay on. I quietly rest for a few minutes (mandatory) and sip my orange squash and munch on my snack, which, for me, invariably consists of chocolate biscuits. Anita and Eric continue their on-screen chat. 

I’m provided with an ‘after donation’ leaflet with the NHS Blood and Transplant telephone number for any queries.  And for the donor, that’s it. The whole thing has taken less than an hour and my blood is now joining the other bags collected during the session. 

They’ll be sent from the Derriford Donation Centre (Plymouth) to Filton in Bristol which is one of three manufacturing sites in the country. The other two are in Manchester and Colindale in London. 

Around 250 staff work 24/7 at these sites. All of them have the same combined goal: to ensure different components of blood products are available for patients. 

These include those all-important red blood cells (viable for 35 days). They contain haemoglobin which distributes oxygen to where it needs to go in your body. 

This is the stuff which’ll help people experiencing blood loss following incidences, including surgery and trauma. It can also be used in transfusions for patients with certain blood disorders. 

The teams also collect platelets which are needed in the blood clotting process and often used for patients receiving cancer treatments. 

Plasma can also be extracted from the donation. Its’ role is crucial in helping to maintain blood pressure and provide the body with vital proteins for blood clotting.  One of its main usages is in the production of medicines which are relied upon by 17,000 patients in England alone.

The processing centres can also obtain a specific type of white blood cell (granulocytes) to help patients fight infection. 

It’s an incredible logistical feat as around 5000 donations are received every day across the three sites. They all need to be processed within 27 hours to ensure the quality of the product remains high. 

Without going into too much depth for how blood is processed, there’s a series of procedures which are undertaken. This includes hanging the packs, in ambient temperature, to allow white blood cells (leucocytes) to be removed by a filter. This is called Leucodepletion. 

For the UK, this is mandatory. The process is designed to remove pathogens. And that’s good news for the recipient as their risk to experiencing an adverse reaction is greatly reduced.  

Spinning around

Once this stage is completed, the blood needs to be separated into its component parts and that’s when it’s spun very fast in a centrifuge. 

Different parts of the blood are collected in a series of connecting bags which can be passed to different patients, dependent on their own need. And that explains our headline figure for one donation helping three people.

The blood is safely stored until all the tests on the blood are completed. Once all the paperwork is in order, the final product is dispatched, and the donor receives a text to let them know which hospital has received their donation (always a nice touch).

A survey, carried out in December 2021 and published by NHS Blood and Transplant, found that more than 2000 adults in England felt donating blood or organs was the Number One act of altruism.

It’s incredible to think that simply by giving up an hour of your time, once every few months, you can create real hope for someone who’s receiving much needed care. Plus, for me, it’s a good opportunity to catch up with Eric, Anita and the Bargain Hunters.

All photography courtesy of NHS Blood and Transplant.

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