For years fear stopped me from giving blood, so how did my first session go?
Northern Ireland author Olivia Rana had registered online to take the lifesaving step, but never went through with it. She reveals what happened when she finally went ahead and talks to other donors with inspiring stories
In the time it would take you to grab a bite to eat with a friend or buy a new outfit, you could be saving a life this Christmas by donating blood. The Northern Ireland Blood Transfusion Service (NIBTS) requires 115 new donors to come forward every week but Andrea Copithorne, senior marketing officer for NIBTS, says that while "a single blood donation can help save three patients, only 6% of the eligible population actually give blood".
Northern Ireland people are more likely to donate money to charity than any other part of the UK, yet when it comes to donating something that is readily available and doesn't cost us any money, why are we so reluctant to give blood?
For years I had been thinking about giving blood. I even registered online as a donor, but for some reason never got around to going through with it. I guess it was a combination of fear and lack of knowledge about what it would involve. Did I need to book in advance? How could I tell if I was a suitable donor? In retrospect, it would have been very easy for me to make a phone call and ask someone in the blood transfusion centre, but I didn't, and giving blood was always postponed until another time.
This Christmas, following the latest campaign by NIBTS to recruit blood donors, I decided to stop putting it off. With a click of a button all the information I needed was found on their website. No, I didn't need to book ahead, yes, as a healthy individual aged between 17-65 I was a suitable donor, and it would only take 45 minutes. Encouraged, I decided that there was nothing to prevent me from becoming a donor, other than my fear.
I'm not particularly afraid of needles as I have a diabetic son, and injections are part of our daily life, but it's that fear of the unknown. In order to rationalise my fear I tried to focus on the blood recipients, those children with leukaemia, cancer patients, victims of road traffic collisions and the many patients undergoing lifesaving surgery. Who was I to complain?
I'm fortunate that I live within a stone's throw from Belfast City Hospital and the headquarters of the Blood Transfusion Centre, so access to a donor centre was never an issue for me. This centre is open to donors Monday to Thursday from 9.45am to 8pm, and Friday from 9.45am to 4.45pm, with free parking offered to donors to allow ease of access. For those unable to travel to Belfast the service operates three mobile units at around 250 locations throughout Northern Ireland, and you can find a list of ongoing blood donation sessions online at www.nibts.org.
When I arrived at the centre I was directed to the second floor, where some personal details were taken about my medical history and general wellbeing. After a short wait a nurse took me through to a room where the iron levels in my blood were checked via a small and painless finger prick test. The nurse was very thorough in going through my medical history with me, and ensuring that I was indeed a suitable candidate for giving blood. It's important that, on the day of giving blood, you feel well, have eaten properly and aren't planning to do any strenuous activity later that day.
The room where you donate blood is much like a bay in a hospital ward, with beds laid out on each side. I was immediately put at ease by the friendly chatter of the nurses and, knowing that this was my first time to give blood, they were very good at explaining everything to me, as I lay up on a bed and placed my arm on a small cushion. The site on my arm was cleaned with antiseptic to reduce the potential of introducing bacteria during collection, and the actual process of getting the needle inserted took seconds and felt like a small scratch on the inside of my arm. Once in place, a nurse stayed with me to check on the flow of blood, which is collected in sterile blood packs, and the only thing I could feel was a slight pressure on my arm from a blood pressure monitor.
There were only two other people giving blood at the same time as me and, when I enquired about the low numbers, the nurse said that it is more difficult to get donors at this time of the year due to winter illnesses. This was verified by Andrea Copithorne, who said: "Unfortunately blood donation can drop during the winter months because of seasonal colds and flu, weather conditions and other activities in the run up to the festive period."
This makes it even more crucial that donors come forward during these difficult periods.
At each donation the standard amount of blood taken is only 470mls, which is less that a pint, and this is usually transfused to someone in need within three to four days of donation. For me, the time and effort it took to withdraw this amount of blood was insignificant, and when the process was finished the needle was carefully removed from my arm and I was asked to continue lying for 10 minutes in case I felt dizzy. When I finally sat up, I didn't feel any weakness and was offered a glass of juice and a biscuit in the relaxation area, which was a very welcome gesture. This also gave me the opportunity to talk to some of the amazing donors, and find out what their experience had been like.
Mark O'Neill, a teacher at Derrychrin Primary School, Coagh, told me that he has been donating blood for 35 years, and has gained a silver badge from the NIBTS for his achievement. As he has a rare blood type, which is therefore in short supply, he had been contacted by the transfusion centre in Belfast and travelled all the way from Cookstown to donate blood. Mark's own dad benefited from a blood transfusion several years ago, which has encouraged him to continue donating.
Similarly, another donor, Eric Dawson, from Lisburn, started donating blood after his wife underwent a blood transfusion. Eric has now progressed to donating platelets, a process that requires donors to attend a donation session every four weeks. Hooked up to a machine, Eric's platelets were being harvested from his blood, and then his red blood cells returned to his body.
This process takes around one hour, and, such is the demand, Eric had been advised on this occasion that someone in the cancer unit was currently waiting on his platelets. A true hero, this was Eric's 98th time to donate, and he assured me that he feels absolutely no pain or discomfort during each session, and is happy to relax and read the newspaper during this time.
I was completely in awe of these two donors, who have given so much time and effort in order to do something for other people. As Mark said 'You never know when you or someone in your family might need blood', which of course is true, and their first-hand experience of having family members who needed blood transfusions supports this outlook.
From speaking with the nursing staff, it was clear that the commitment of these donors is very much appreciated. They understand that it can be difficult for people to make the decision to become a donor, but everyone at NIBTS is there to make the process as simple as possible.
Many of the staff in the blood transfusion centre, and also those operating the mobile units, work tirelessly in collecting, testing and distributing more than 56,000 blood donations each year. One nurse told me that while the unit may be scheduled to close at 8pm, if there are 20 people waiting to donate blood at that time, they continue to work. An eligible donor will never be turned away.
Giving blood was a straightforward and wholly rewarding experience for me, and I felt pleased that I'd finally taken that step, particularly at this time of the year when we should be thinking more about giving gifts that really matter. I also felt a little guilty that it had taken me so long, as I could have been donating blood for years.
However, it's better late than never and, as a female donor, I can now donate blood every 16 weeks. Next time I will have no hesitation.
If you have considered becoming a blood donor and have any questions please phone the NIBTS on 08085 534 666 or to register text 'BLOOD' to 60081. Olivia Rana's debut novel, Elastic Girl, is available at amazon.co.uk in paperback or Kindle version
The importance of blood donations
Facts and figures
The Northern Ireland Blood Transfusion Service (NIBTS) collects, tests and distributes more than 56,000 blood donations each year.
The NIBTS operates three mobile units at around 250 locations throughout Northern Ireland.
At its headquarters at Belfast City Hospital, almost 1,000 donation sessions are held each year.
During a donation session, approximately 470ml is taken - just under half a litre.
This lost fluid is quickly made up in the body - plasma in 12-18 hours, cells in a few weeks.
It takes only about 10 minutes to extract the blood. However, 45 minutes is allowed for the overall process which includes completing a form and questionnaire, a health check and a short period of rest after giving blood.
Female blood donors can give blood every 16 weeks (every four months or three times in a 12-month period).
Male blood donors can give blood every 12 weeks (every three months or four times in a 12-month period).
How your blood saves lives
Massive blood loss caused by traffic accidents and severe obstetric haemhorrage are the clearest indication for the transfusion of red cells.
In cancer care, blood transfusion therapy is very important and includes the use of specialised blood components such as platelets to address low platelet counts following chemotherapy or radiotherapy treatment.
Blood transfusions can also be used when modest blood loss occurs during surgery.
Blood transfusion therapy and the ready availability of banked blood have enabled surgical procedures to be adapted and the range of surgical procedures to be extended.
Another important use of blood transfusion is in the care of very premature, severe low birth weight infants.