It only takes minutes to give blood, but one pint can save three lives
Ahead of World Blood Donor Day next week, Laurence White talks to those who have benefited from life-saving blood transfusions, a donor who became a recipient, and a man who has been giving blood for over 50 years.
Every year in Northern Ireland around 64,000 blood donations are received, and with three lives saved for every pint of blood it is critical that donors keep on giving.
World Blood Donor Day next Tuesday is aimed at raising awareness of the importance of much-needed blood in a bid to get more people to donate.
As the red blood cell element of donated blood has a shelf life of up to 42 days, the need for donors is ongoing.
After a donation session the blood is collected, tested and distributed to all of the province's hospitals and clinical units by the Northern Ireland Blood Transfusion Service where it is banked ready to save lives.
The NIBTS, which was established in 1946 as an independent, special agency of the Department of Health, also operates three mobile units which visits 250 locations here. And, along with staff at the NIBTS headquarters in the grounds of the Belfast City Hospital, account for almost 1,000 donation sessions annually.
Ahead of World Blood Donor Day, which aims to encourage more people to give vitally needed blood, we talk to three people who have witnessed the life-saving benefits of transfusions and to a man who is leading by example as he prepares to give his 100th blood donation.
‘It is an absolute miracle that Cooper and I both survived’
Jodi Stones was alone at home on the night of January 9, 2013, when she collapsed. She managed to summon up enough strength to get to the telephone and contacted her sister, who came round to Jodi’s home at Articlave, outside Coleraine.
“I had gone into early labour,” Jodi (33) recalls. “The baby was not due for another seven weeks and the pregnancy had gone fine. I hadn’t been ill at all and then suddenly this happened.”
It wasn’t just early labour, however, as Jodi’s uterus had ruptured and she was also bleeding.
“My sister rang for an ambulance which took me to the Causeway Hospital in Coleraine. I was later told that if I had been another 10 minutes later I would have died,” she says.
“They delivered the baby but they could not stop my bleeding. My husband, Ross, had been on the night-shift and he rushed to the hospital when he was contacted. Staff came out of the theatre and told him he had a son, but added that they were desperately trying to save my life.
“As fast as the surgeons repaired the ruptures, I continued to bleed.
“Quite simply if it was not for blood donors I would not be here today. In all I received seven transfusions.”
Jodi, a childminder, was given a general anaesthetic for the operation and just remembers waking up the next day in the intensive care unit at the Causeway.
But her new baby boy had been transferred to Antrim Area Hospital which had appropriate intensive care facilities for newborns.
“I was in intensive care for three days and then I was also moved to Antrim,” she says.
“That was the first time I got to see my baby.
“We spent three weeks together in hospital. To me it is an absolute miracle that both he and I survived.
“Up until that day I had never thought that I would need a blood transfusion.
“Now I realise it is a true gift of life.
“While I am not allowed to give blood after receiving transfusions, I have got family members and friends to become donors.
“No one ever knows when they might need a transfusion”
Now her baby, called Cooper, is three and a half and a bundle of energy.
Jodi is still in awe of the work of the medical teams that saved both their lives.
“Years ago a baby as premature as Cooper could well have ended up with complications,” she says. “I might not have lived at all, so I am just so grateful to all who helped us that night and the days and weeks later, including the donors who gave the blood that I received.”
‘It wasn’t a chore ... I always donated whenever possible’
Tomorrow week, June 14, will mark a very special occasion for Denis Broderick, who lives outside Maghera in Co Londonderry. For on that date the 69-year-old will give his 100th blood donation.
He has a little book which records every donation he made — many of them abroad — and which he says “is like the story of my life”.
His first donation was on December 30, 1964, in Belfast when he was just 17. “At that time you had to be 18 to become a donor, but you could give blood earlier if accompanied by a parent. My mum Thelma came along even though she was not a donor.
“My dad John was a regular donor. He had a fairly rare blood type, Rhesus Negative, and he would be called up quite frequently. I remember a taxi being sent for him because they needed blood in an emergency.
“He had been in the Army and he recalled lying on one table and blood being taken from him and passed directly into another soldier on a table beside him.”
Denis admits it was his dad’s example which encouraged him to become a donor. “I have worked in a few countries overseas and donated there whenever possible. The Northern Ireland Blood Transfusion Service gave me credit for those donations.”
Denis recalls living in Canada for a year in the Sixties. Everyone had to pay for their medical treatment, but blood donors did not have to pay for their own transfusions if they needed one. On another occasion he was working in Saudi Arabia where blood donors were paid. Denis decided to put his payment to good use and bought an expensive Tag Heuer watch which he still owns.
“I suppose I can say I have something for all the blood that I have given. However, I never saw it as a chore. I felt that if I could make a contribution then I should do it,” he adds.
And this altruistic nature had passed down another generation as his daughter and two sons are also blood donors. His wife Patricia cannot give blood as she had jaundice as a young girl.
So does he get anything for notching up his century of donations? “I said to the lady doctor the last time that I should get a kiss, but she remained very non-committal,” he jokes.
‘Rhys is loving, brave, strong and he will never complain’
Tracey Boyd and her husband Alaistair have more reasons than most to be thankful for blood donors. For their nine-year-old son Rhys depends on the blood transfusion he receives every three weeks to keep him alive.
He was born three weeks early on March 31, 2007, at Antrim Area Hospital. It had been decided to deliver him early because of a dipping heart rate. He weighed just 5lb 6oz.
But that was not his real problem as mum Tracey, a 42-year-old housewife, explains: “Rhys was born with a life-long rare blood condition called Diamond Blackfan Anaemia (DBA). The condition is caused by a failure within the bone marrow and is characterised by the inability to produce red blood cells which are needed to transport oxygen around the body.”
She adds: “The condition is extremely rare affecting only around 125 people in the UK and less than 1,000 worldwide, and there is no known cure. Some people with DBA need little or no treatment, others just require steroids or, like Rhys, they are dependent on blood transfusions. Rhys’ first blood transfusion was at birth and to date he has received approximately 164 transfusions.”
A typical transfusion week for Rhys requires him to attend the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children’s haematology department on a Monday for blood checks, grouping and cross matching, and then returning on the Wednesday for his blood transfusion.
But while the transfusions are life saving, the main side-effect of this therapy is iron overload which could poison his system.
He therefore needs to take an oral medication at the same time every day to help the body reject the excess iron.
Tracey describes her son, a pupil at Ballyclare Primary School, as “a loving, brave, strong little boy, but most of all he is always smiling and despite everything he has gone through and continues to go through he never complains”.
She adds: “He is just at an age now where he is starting to ask questions like why he has to get blood and why his doesn’t work right.
“We as his parents just tell him that he is special. He always smiles when we tell him this.
“When he is at hospital having his blood transfusion and it comes to taking his cannula out, he will even do it himself if the nurse allows him. When his dad and I watched him do this for the first time, we felt so proud of him because as much as we already know he is special to us, he just never ceases to amaze us.
“We would just like to take this opportunity to thank everyone from the bottom of our hearts who donates blood to keep on doing so because without you giving up your time to do so we wouldn’t have Rhys. You are all contributing to keeping our son alive for which we will be forever grateful.
“We also hope that by reading Rhys’ story, it will encourage more people to give up a little bit of their time to go along to the Northern Ireland Blood Transfusion Service to sign up and donate blood.”
‘I am just glad that blood was available when I needed it’
Adrian Moat always realised the importance of people donating blood. He and a friend Dale Hooks started an awareness campaign on Facebook last year. They ran three marathons to encourage people to give blood and then put a selfie of their donation session up on the Facebook page.
“We got somewhere between 400 and 500 people to donate,” he says. “For many it was their first time and I hope that most will become regular donors.”
But it was while running marathons earlier this year to raise awareness of another good cause — organ donation — that Adrian became the beneficiary of blood donations.
“We were running six marathons in 14 weeks and had completed four by the beginning of May. I ran one on Sunday, May 1, and at the end of it did something very simple like cough. But that was enough to tear a hole in my oesophagus. I was not aware of the injury or that I was bleeding internally.
“The next day was the day of the Belfast Marathon, the final race in our series. I didn’t feel great and although I completed the course, it was in a very slow time.
“I went to my GP and he referred me to A&E at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast where the problem was diagnosed. They had to clamp the hole and give me two units of blood and I was kept in hospital for a few days.”
Adrian, a 42-year-old single man from Belfast, is himself a blood donor. He went for the first time after seeing an advertisement appealing for donors. “I saw how quick and easy it was. It just takes 30 minutes and now I donate around four times a year. I am glad other people take the same attitude because there was blood available when I needed it.”
Some things you may not know about blood
- Red blood cells are the more frequently used component and have a shelf life of 35-42 days at refrigerated temperatures
- There are no storage solutions for keeping platelets for extended periods of time; the longest period is seven days
- Plasma can be stored frozen for an extended time period and is typically given an expiration date of one year so maintaining a supply is less of a problem
- The limited storage time means that it is difficult to have a stockpile of blood to prepare for a disaster. The subject came into focus after the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001