Giving blood can seem scary – lots of needles and ruby-red bags of blood can be off-putting. But in reality it’s easier than you think, takes just an hour, and also involves some unusual exercises that’ll keep you entertained. This is what the process was like for a first-timer.
A week ago, during National Blood Week, ChronicleLive ran a story encouraging people in our area to sign up to give blood. We heard from the NHS Blood and Transplant service how it wants a million new blood donors as it battles to meet demand. Writing that piece felt a little hollow – because I had never given blood. So I decided to fix that, and show how easy and – mostly – pain-free the process is.
So on a baking hot Thursday, I walked into an old school hall in North Shields and nervously asked the first person I saw where the needles were. It turns out that’s not how this works.
Read more: ‘She was like the song you want on repeat’: Balloons to remember much-loved County Durham woman Natalie Marshall
First of all, you go through a detailed form which flags up any medical reasons you might not be able to give blood. Exotic travel, drug-use or worrying medical conditions might mean you can’t donate blood – but luckily for me I’ve been outside of the UK for about three days in four years, don’t fancy injecting anything exciting, and have managed to avoid pesky infections like the West Nile Virus. (Surprisingly, you can catch that in Italy, which is quite far from the river Nile.)
That said, it’s important not to turn up with a cold or the flu – not to mention Covid-19.
Then, once I’d passed the initial screening, my “donor carer” Sharon skilfully distracted me and pricked my finger to test my blood haemoglobin levels. Too low and you’re sent away and can’t donate (though they do tell you to try again), but luckily for me everything was absolutely fine, so we move on and I would swear I could see Sharon eyeing up the veins in the crook of my arm.
So after the confidential medical chat and quick chat with charge nurse John Townsend who’s in charge, it’s time to sit in the chair. This is the bit I’d been both apprehensive and excited about. Apprehensive because no-one really enjoys being stabbed with a big needle and excited because, well, that’s literally why I was there.
Sharon told me it’d be a bit like a fairground ride. With rather more glamorous Hoppings on just up the road, I took a look around and had to, I admit, hide my skepticism. It turns out she just meant the chair would recline. When it does, it’s showtime.
Finding veins is not as easy as TV shows like Casualty make out, but Sharon’s clearly got a knack for it. She tightened the blood pressure-style cuff around my arm, asked me to make a fist a few times and rapidly, she had acquired a target just in the crook of my right elbow.
The “site” is then cleaned and sterilized, and I was given a card explaining the exercises you’re supposed to do while 470ml of blood is pumped from your body. The idea is to stimulate muscles near some of your major blood vessels – which makes sense. But I’d be lying if I said I was expecting to have to clench and unclench my bum and thighs constantly for the next ten minutes.
And that’s when the needle – which is nowhere near as big as your nightmares might suggest, promise, is inserted and things really start. It hurts about as much as any minor injection or vaccination – that’s to say you feel a pinch for a second and then it’s absolutely fine. Looking around the donation center, people were playing on their phones, reading and just nattering to the nurses and donor carers looking after them.
It really is nothing more taxing than being sat getting your hair cut. However, after being told that most people take between five and eight minutes to donate the required amount of blood, I’m disappointed to have only filled my bag in just over 11 minutes. I’ll have to do better next time.
The only thing left to do is to convince the staff at the center that I’m feeling well. They take care not to make sure you eat and drink before you leave and donors are told to take it easy, refrain from alcohol, strenuous exercise and even hot baths for a few hours. I grabbed a bag of crisps and a couple of free shortbread biscuits and left with a promise that, all being well with my blood, I’ll be back in a few weeks.
Signing up to give blood is easy. There is a dedicated, if ominously-named, website at Blood.co.uk. The NHS now has an app for this too, just search Give Blood in your phone’s app store. There is health and lifestyle criteria that you must meet, but once you’ve done that, it’s a smooth process.
The NHS Blood and Transplant service has a new five-year strategy to boost both the number and diversity of blood donors. NHSBT said last week it wants to recruit 1m new donors around the country, and called for 5,000 more in Newcastle alone.
The NHS Blood and Transplant also wants to double the number of donors who have the rarest blood types – it’s especially urgent for more Black African and Black Caribbean people to come forward, as there are shortages of blood from people with the blood subtype Ro. Blood transfusions of that subtype are required to treat the life-threatening condition sickle cell, which mostly affects people of Black heritage.