25 pints

Marking my 25th blood donationRecently I received through the post this small package from the Blood service: a letter, certificate and badge to mark my 25th blood donation.

The nurse had told me that something was coming. So I expected the package. What I didn’t expect was to feel so touched, so honoured and proud: the pride in what I had given over so many years; and the honour of being recognised for my faithfulness.

Not that I have been particularly faithful. My donation record shows lengthy gaps. I have tended to donate when the Blood service came to me – working on the Harwell research campus pre-university and later at the Met Office – or when the session is at a convenient venue at a convenient time.

When I am in the habit of going, it is just that: a habit. The Exeter Corn Exchange, my current venue of choice, is two steps from the studio where I work in town. I get an appointment early in the day, so I can regenerate as much as possible before I cycle (slowly) home later; and early in the session on the theory that they’re less likely at that point to be running late. Though it’s rare that they do nowadays; it’s an efficient operation. Then during my cuppa after donating I can book the next session for four months’ time. Very easy.

Occasionally, I haven’t been able to donate. The drop from my pin-prick test doesn’t always sink, and my follow-up sample doesn’t always meet the threshold for iron content. (I’m not anaemic; the threshold is set high because the recipient might be.) Last time I donated, I later developed a systemic virus, and my pint had to be binned. So the actual amount of blood that I’ve given is less than 25 pints.

In these senses, then, it’s ‘no biggie’. And yet…

When I’m lying in that bucket seat, hands and buttocks clenching and unclenching to encourage circulation, surrounded by the ambient soundtrack of bleeping monitors and Heart FM for privacy, and punctuated by the occasional check-up by a passing nurse, I have time to reflect.

My reflections take me back to the prompt for starting to donate again: a friend posted on Facebook about his chemo treatment for leukaemia, and mentioned in passing that he was receiving blood transfusions. Later I found out that another friend has rhesus incompatibility, and neither of her daughters would have survived to delivery without multiple transfusions. There is so much more need than the bleeding out shootings, stabbings and road traffic accidents that you see in TV drama.

I used to watch the nurse inserting the needle in my vein, and my blood accumulating in the plastic pouch as it rocked in its mechanised cradle. I drew a faint parallel with the incarnation of Jesus in human flesh and blood, and his crucifixion as the soldier speared his side and released “His dearworthy blood and precious water which he let pour all out for love.” My mild discomfort is only the palest shadow of the horrors of crucifixion. The logical and cynical side of my brain also provides a running commentary that I’m being brazenly corny, overly pious, and maybe verging on blasphemy. The deeper me knows the deeper truth, that the act and its symbolism are real. This is a way in which I am able to pour myself out and give life.

I was moved, in body, soul and mind, by the ending of Jesus of Montreal. The friends of the dead actor give permission for his organs to be donated. His eyes give sight to a blind woman sight and his heart gives vitality to a middle-aged man. Another of my friends, unable to give blood, tells me that she is on the organ donation register. Prosaically, we should all be on the register as a matter of course. It should be an ‘opt out’ rather than an ‘opt in’ choice, and hopefully soon will be.

Blood donation, on the other hand, should be ‘opt in’ and freely given. Although poor people can sell their blood in the US, donation rates are higher in the UK; duty is a more effective motivator than money. So I want to encourage everyone to see donating as a joy, a privilege and a beautiful act of compassion for a fellow human being. I am very grateful to the NHS Blood and Transplant service for making it possible and easy.

I imagine recipients of my blood being able to go on with their lives. I have become part of them, and in a way they are real to me. But in my mind’s eye they appear distant, obscured in a golden haze. I feel a duty to them and others like them. Even though I haven’t always been donating, I have still been conscious of the implications of my choices. I don’t take the ability to donate for granted. My health choices affect others, because my diet affects my iron levels. Having my ears re-pierced means six months before I can donate. Travelling to parts of the world where infectious diseases are endemic could take me off the register entirely. So this sense of duty, this need to be able to continue to donate, is one of the factors (another is climate change) affecting my choice of holiday destination.

I never try to imagine specific recipients as say mothers, miners and motorcycle couriers. I don’t need to know who they are. I am unknown to them too, probably one of a number of donors. All my offerings are labelled with a bar code. My right arm does not know what my left arm is doing. My gift is anonymous, and this is how it should be. To those who have received my blood in the past and will I hope in the future, I am very happy to be thanked by the Blood service on your behalf. You are all most welcome.