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Giving blood: What it involves and how you can donate

From accident and burn victims to heart surgery patients and those battling cancer – a donation of blood is a lifeline in an emergency and for those needing long-term treatments.

Eddie Mason, from Lichfield, giving his 154th donation of blood at Burntwood Memorial Community Hall, pictured with Steve Barnes who was there to help with people donating
Eddie Mason, from Lichfield, giving his 154th donation of blood at Burntwood Memorial Community Hall, pictured with Steve Barnes who was there to help with people donating

Giving blood only takes an hour and can save or improve up to three people’s lives.

Every year thousands of people carry out this selfless act, but hundreds more new donors are needed every day to meet demand.

The NHS needs 6,000 units of 470ml of blood, which is just under a pint, each day to treat patients across England.

And NHS Blood and Transplant aims to hold at least six days of blood stocks at any given time to ensure it always has the necessary supplies.

This means new donors are always needed to replenish supplies, replace those who can no longer donate and meet the growing need for better-matched blood.

New blood donors from all backgrounds are required to ensure there is the right blood available for patients who need it.

This includes more blood donors of black heritage who are urgently needed as they are more likely to have the blood type needed to treat the increasing number of patients suffering from sickle cell disease.

Around two thirds of the blood donated in England is used to treat medical conditions including anaemia, cancer and blood disorders and nearly a third is used in surgery and emergencies, including childbirth.

Among the patients who benefit from donations of blood is 31-year-old Sadeh Graham, from West Bromwich.

She has sickle cell anaemia and has been receiving blood transfusions to treat the symptoms of her condition since she was 18 months old.

“I wouldn’t be able to count how many bags of blood I’ve had, it’s way over 100. Every time I received blood it was to prevent me from getting sicker or because I was really anaemic or to help me get over a period of illness.

“But as an adult I had a crisis that affected my lungs and I ended up in intensive care. I had a manual blood exchange which is where they take out my blood and replace with donor blood. They had to use 10 bags of blood.

“I made a full recovery. At that time I was at university and I was able to carry on with my Masters and qualify as a pharmacist. The blood exchange procedure takes place every four weeks and I receive eight to 10 bags of blood.

“For me it’s not just life-changing, it’s life-saving. It helps to maintain my life and helps me to have a quality of life. It’s a lifeline for me.”

Sadeh, who was chosen to carry the Queen’s Relay Baton ahead of the 2022 Commonwealth Games in recognition of her work raising awareness of her condition, says she will never stop being grateful to people who take the time to donate blood.

“I cherish every bag. Every single time I receive a donation of blood, I think about the person who sat in the chair to give it. I think it’s incredible that they have given up their time to give me blood. What better gift can you give? I always wish I could thank them.”

Eddie Mason has been giving blood for 57 years and last week donated his 154th unit in Burntwood.

He started when he was 18 but admits a desire to help others wasn’t the only reason why he attended his first session.

“A lot of people say they started because they knew someone who was ill who needed a transfusion,” he tells Weekend.

“The reason I started was to get a ride on a motorbike. A fella I worked with had a Norton Commando motorbike and said to me: do you fancy giving blood?

“I said: ‘does that mean we can go on the bike?’ He told me it did so I went with him to give blood.”

He went on to become a regular donor. “It’s just a good thing to do for others and you never know when you or your family might need to receive blood,” says the retired robot technician.

These days the 76-year-old, who lives in Lichfield, tends to attend donation sessions in Burntwood and Rugeley but has travelled further afield to give blood.

“The staff are always pleasant and it doesn’t take long to do. I’m surprised that NHS Blood and Transplant struggles to find new donors as it seems such an obvious thing that most of us can do to help others. It really does saves lives.”

During 2022 more than 26,200 people registered with Give Blood in the West Midlands but only around 7,300 of them have taken the next step and attended an appointment – meaning around four in five are yet to do so.

The first ever amber alert on blood stocks shortages during October sparked a huge response from the public wanting to help and led to 5,694 people in the West Midlands registering over the four weeks. Only one in five has donated so far. However, at that time there were limited appointments available for first-time donors because of staffing issues and the need to prioritise existing donors.

People who registered during 2022 may have found it more difficult than in recent years to make their first appointment as the NHS experienced a challenging year with low blood stocks. Existing donors are prioritised at these times as their blood type is known and they are more likely to complete a successful donation, which means appointments for first-time donors are reduced.

Blood stocks have since stabilised and there are now more slots available for new donors. NHS Blood and Transplant is urging new registrants, who have not yet donated, to take the next step and book an appointment.

There is an urgent need for more donors of black heritage as they are more likely to have the blood type needed to treat sickle cell patients – the country’s fastest growing genetic blood disorder. The demand for ethnically matched blood for these patients is on the rise and has already doubled in recent years.

David Rose, Director of Donor Experience at NHS Blood and Transplant, said: “We always need new people to join our amazing community of lifesaving blood donors and help meet the needs of patients right now and in the future.

“If you are one of the nearly 19,000 people in the West Midlands who registered last year but are yet to attend an appointment, or you’re thinking about signing up to donate, please make 2023 the year you save lives.

“More slots are now available for first-time donors but if you can’t find an immediate appointment, don’t worry. Please book for further in the future as we need lifesavers every day. It doesn’t matter if it’s months or weeks ahead – every donation counts. Giving blood is quick and easy, and you will feel amazing afterwards.”

Giving blood is quick, easy and safe. The appointment generally takes up to an hour, though the actual donation usually takes around 10 minutes.

Mobile blood collection sessions run across the region at community venues like church halls and sports centres. They are always popular and often have limited availability so NHS Blood and Transplant recommends booking to donate in a few weeks’ or months’ time.

There are also 25 permanent blood donation centres including one in easy walking distance of Birmingham New Street Station. Donors are encouraged to check for latest availability. Staff always do their best to make it as pleasant an experience as possible for every donor.

At the start of the appointment, there is a health screening to make sure it’s safe for them to give blood and it’s safe for someone to receive their blood.

Donors are given 500ml of fluid such as orange squash just before they give blood. Drinking this over about five minutes will help with their well-being during and after donation.

Staff will test a drop of blood from their finger to check the iron levels (haemoglobin) in their blood.

If the blood sinks to the bottom in a set time, they can give blood. If the blood floats or takes too long to sink, they will offer you a further test using a HemoCue machine.

The haemoglobin result helps staff to decide if they are able to give blood or if they need to wait some time before returning to donate blood.

When they are called to the donation chair, donors are asked to confirm their name, address and date of birth by a member of staff, who will place a cuff on their arm to maintain a small amount of pressure during donation, find a suitable vein and clean it with an antiseptic sponge.

A needle will then be inserted to collect the blood into a blood bag with each person’s unique donor number. A scale weighs the blood and stops when it reaches 470ml.

The needle will be removed and a sterile dressing applied to the arm.

Afterwards it’s time to choose from the selection of drinks and snacks available at the refreshment table and relax for 15 minutes.

It doesn’t matter where you donate, your blood can go to a hospital anywhere in the country.

NHS Blood and Transplant has also launched the second phase of its first ever mass home blood type testing campaign to help identify 5,000 individuals with the critical O negative blood.

O negative blood is the universal blood type that can be given to any patient in an emergency or where their blood type isn’t known.

The campaign is part of a trial by the NHS to use home test kits on a large scale to identify people with a certain blood type and book them on to priority appointments, and is one way in which new donors can fast-track to book their first appointment if they have this blood type.

This is part of an ongoing focus by the NHS to collect enough of the right blood types, instead of collecting as much blood as possible.

Over the next six weeks, 36,000 home testing kits will be sent to people who have recently registered but have not yet made an appointment. Those found to have O negative blood will be offered priority appointments. If needed, the search will widen out and kits will be posted to up to 100,000 people registered with Give Blood over the coming months, until enough people with O negative blood are identified and booked on to donate.

Last summer NHS Blood and Transplant announced a five-year strategy to recruit one million new donors of all blood types to ensure better matched blood for patients in the future and reduce health inequalities.

To register or book an appointment visit, use the NHS Give Blood App or call 0300 123 23 23.

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