Robin Swann: How we all can give someone else the gift of life
Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann explains why he gives blood - and calls for NI rules on gay donors to be relaxed
Blood is the gift that you can give that costs you nothing more than an hour of your time, but can literally save a life. You never know when you or one of your loved ones might need blood urgently. Anyone of us - or a loved one - could be in need of it at some time.
I know first-hand how vital blood donations can be. My four-year-old son Evan has undergone open heart surgery in both Northern Ireland and England and my wife Jenny and I are eternally grateful for both the care he received from the doctors and nurses but also the anonymous individuals who took a short time out of their day to make a blood donation.
When you are looking down at a young child - your child - lying unconscious on a hospital bed recovering from major surgery, it puts life in perspective.
To those that took the step to make a blood donation, it might not seem like a lot at the time, but for the recipient it can mean the difference between life and death. And I have personal cause to say thank you. It is also the reason that I believe the requirements for donors should be standardised across the United Kingdom.
I started giving blood when I was at school in Ballymena Academy. I have to be honest and admit that it may have been the attraction of getting a free period off classes and an additional period to recover that may have played a role in my initial decision to make a blood donation, but no matter how it came about, I am delighted that I did.
I continued to give blood at school and throughout my working life. I try to attend as many of the donation sessions I am notified of, it's usually the Blood Mobile in my home village of Kells, but if time doesn't permit, I go to the HQ in Belfast.
I feel it is my duty to give blood - to try and help others.
It's good citizenship and I believe that we should all have more discussions about getting into the routine of doing it. When I mention it to others, the usual reply is: "Yeah I must do that." My answer is simple: "Yes, you should."
It is something which I have maintained throughout my life and I'm glad that I did. It only takes an hour to make the donation. Not a lot to help save a life! This week I made my 50th donation. I know that there are many others out there who have made a lot more than that but I'm only starting.
There are currently 64,000 donations made in Northern Ireland every year through three mobile units at 250 sites across Northern Ireland in addition to the Blood Transfusion Centre at Belfast City Hospital.
According to figures from The Detail investigative website, it is estimated that three lives benefit from every pint of blood donated.
Think about that - three lives saved for every pint donated! They also state that approximately 500 patients are in need of life-saving blood donations in Northern Ireland every single week.
It is absolutely vital that people understand the importance of this. Traditionally blood donations are lower during the festive period of Christmas and the New Year.
However, the same cannot be said of the need for blood donations.
And it could be any one of us who needs it. That's why I appeal to everyone to take a short time out of their day between now and Christmas and throughout the rest of the year to donate.
We must seek to maximise the number of potential donors. That is why we must also urgently address the disparity between this part of the United Kingdom and the rest of the nation when it comes to accepting donations from gay and bisexual men.
It should be brought into line with England, Scotland and Wales where the deferral period for gay and bisexual men donating blood has been reduced from 12 months to three months. It is frankly ludicrous that Northern Ireland should be divergent from the rest of the United Kingdom on this issue.
People need to be properly informed. We already import blood donations from the rest of the United Kingdom that will be applying those very same deferral periods.
And to be very frank, if I or a member of my family were in urgent need of a blood donation, I would be glad to receive that donation whether it comes from Northern Ireland or Great Britain. I wouldn't be asking what the sexuality of the donor was.
The reason I am so committed to this is because my son benefited from the generosity of anonymous individuals who gave up some of their time to make that vital blood donation.
As I stated right at the very start, it can literally save a life. I ask you to consider doing the same.