Does anyone else know they saved the lives of more than 2 million babies? James Harrison does. Over six decades, the 81-year old Australian, donated his exceptional blood 1,100 times. His blood is precious for a critical antibody used in the blood plasma medication called anti-D, given as injections to mothers with a negative blood group whose blood risks attacking their unborn babies. Now he has given his last donation, for fear giving more blood risks damaging his own health.
In the UK, the NHS Blood and Transplant service is eager for new donors: although surgeons now use less, by cauterising bleeding, new donors are needed all the time to replace those who get pregnant, become ill or die. Needle-phobic? Amazingly, so was Harrison, but he overcame his fear after receiving a lifesaving blood donation.
I have been giving blood for years, partly because my blood group is O-negative, shared by just 7% of the population, which is valuable as the only blood that can be given in an emergency before knowing the recipient’s own blood group. A newborn baby or an accident victim can take an O-negative transfusion. The blood donation service tells me now, with a bank holiday approaching, is a good time to give: air ambulances carry O-negative blood.
Other groups urgently needed are African and African-Caribbean donors, since those with sickle cell disease need regular transfusions. Blood from smaller ethnic groups is also in short supply.
I like giving blood: an hour, often less, of sublime calm and friendliness in the donation centre at Margaret Street, just off Oxford Circus, with a chatty cup of tea and biscuits. You can feel virtuous with minimal effort – there is a certain cosy smugness among donors, lying with our feet up for the average 15 minutes it takes to extract the blood from your arm. There is no age limit, the average age is 45. Men can give four times a year, women three. It is satisfying to receive a text to say your blood has just been used.
The great sociologist Richard Titmuss, in The Gift Relationship, his study of altruism, used the blood-bank service as his prime example – where voluntary donation produces far better results than the US’s private blood market. It was his metaphor for the collective spirit of all public services.
For information on how to donate, visit blood.co.uk.