This week, I toddled down to The Three Swans in Market Harborough, accompanied by The Boys, and handed over slightly more than a pint of The Wartime Housewife’s finest O Rh Positive. I say slightly over, because an extra donation is taken in order to extract platelets and plasma. I’m also on the Bone Marrow donation and the Organ Donation registers and all this information is logged on the little plastic card I carry round in my purse – for my own use and also in case I go under a bus and someone needs my kidneys.
I have given blood intermittently for years; intermittently because I couldn’t donate for a while after visiting the Far East and likewise after the birth of The Boys due to having caesarian sections. I usually take The Boys with me so that they see loads of different people doing it, observe that it’s easy and I hope that it will encourage them to do it themselves when they’re 17. They also get a drink and a chocolate biscuit which always goes down well.
In the UK only 4% of the population gives blood and yet many of us will need transfusions due to surgery, illness or accidents. Last year they collected 2.1 million donations from about 1.6 million donors. Although that sounds a lot, that is 4% of the population, giving two or three times a year.
8,000 units of blood are needed every day to meet hospital demand. Blood comes in four main types – O, A, B and AB – Group O is the most common which means it is in high demand. Blood can also be subdivided into its main components – red cells, white cells, platelets and plasma. Unfortunately red cells only have a shelf-life of 35 days, while the shelf life of platelets is only five days, so the stocks constantly need replenishing.
The history of blood and transfusions is interesting. The Greek physician and writer, Claudius Galen is a giant in the story of medicine. Born around AD130 he wrote some 400 treatises on medicine and his work on anatomy was seriously impressive. He understood that the heart regulated the flow of blood and although he had worked out that there was a venous and arterial system, but he thought the liver was the crucial organ of the blood and he never cracked the concept of circulation.
In the Middle Ages, blood was known to be a vital component of human health and it was thought that disease could be caused by an excess of bodily fluids such as blood. Blood letting became a main treatment and was often undertaken by barbers at public baths. Sometimes a vein was opened to release the blood but often it was extracted using leeches or cupping vessels to remove ‘the viscious humours’.
It wasn’t until 1628 that William Harvey established that blood circulated round the body and outlined the mechanics of the cardio-vascular system. The next major step occurred in 1665 by Dr Richard Lower who carried out the first successful blood transfusion in dogs. He noted that dark venous blood injected into the aerated lungs of the recipient turned bright red and thus he came close to understanding the modern concept of oxygenation of blood in the lungs.
However, when he started performing transfusions on humans, he couldn’t understand why people receiving the blood kept dying. In the early 1800’s a Dr James Blundell was attempting to transfuse women who suffered haemorrhage after childbirth; miraculously it sometimes worked, but not often. It wasn’t until 1900 when Dr Karl Landsteiner discovered the ABO blood group system, that doctors understood that patients need compatible blood. This discovery won him the Nobel Prize.
There were various small advances, particularly during the First World War when it was discovered that blood kept longer if it was kept in the fridge and also that by mixing it with sodium citrate they could prevent it from clotting. In 1921 members of The British Red Cross volunteered to donate blood, which was the first step towards a voluntary donation system. In 1936 the world’s first blood bank was opened in Chicago, USA, closely followed by Ipswich, UK.
The outbreak of the Second World War really focused the minds of the doctors and nurses treating the wounded and transfusion centres were set up all over the country. In 1946 The Blood Transfusion Service was born and when the National Health Service was established the following year, they immediately began to work in close partnership. It is now called The National Blood Service.
From then on the service went from strength to strength. Testing was introduced for hepatitis and HIV and more recently Nucleic Acid Amplification Technology (NATS) is used for detecting viruses in their early stages, making blood transfusion safer than ever.
If you make an appointment, giving blood can take less than 40 minutes. You fill in a questionnaire, a nurse will take a drop of blood from your finger to make sure that you are not anaemic (low on haemoglobin), and you are then taken to a trolley on which you lie comfortably while a needle is inserted into a vein. There is a slight prick as the needle goes in, but nothing more than that. You flex your hand gently to ensure good blood flow whilst you’re lying there, then, when it’s finished, usually after about 20 minutes, you have a drink and a biscuit. And they’re usually really nice biscuits. I had an orange Club.
For the sake of 40 minutes of your time you will have saved someone’s life. Fair swap.
Log on to the National Blood Service website now and find out where you can go to save a life.