12/06/2013 07:23 BST | Updated 11/08/2013 06:12 BST

Bleeding Them Dry


I can't help it. I have generous blood. My body doesn't waste time making lots of extra proteins that stick out from the surface of its blood cells, just asking to be neutralised by an overwhelming immune response. I'm 'O' Negative, which makes my blood safe to give to anyone in severe trauma who needs blood in a hurry when there's no time to type them. I'm a 'universal donor'. Totally harmless. It's official.

This means my blood is in demand, and as a declared altruist, I've donated blood since my postgraduate days, twice, and now, three times a year, just because I like to think that I might be able to do some good without much effort on my part. There are 28 units on my donation record, and I suspect there are lots more donations I gave in a different part of the country that have been missed from the current total. I must have been stressed in my last job, because I used to positively enjoy a little lie down in the middle of the day, and the 'tiny scratch' when the transfusion assistant sticks the needle in has never felt like a problem. Besides, just think of the calories I'm giving away!

NHS Blood and Transplant (NHSBT) is careful to remind me to attend each session. While I'm having my tea and shortcakes after donation, they are already booking me in for four months' time. As the date approaches, I get a letter, a phone call and a text message reminding me not to miss my appointment. Quite often, at Christmas time, peak holiday season, or during prolonged spells of inclement weather, NHSBT actively campaigns on facebook and on their website for eligible donors to come forward, particularly ones who share my blood type. They are desperate. Stocks are low. Patients will suffer.

NHSBT recently held National Blood Week. They have a campaign to recruit 100,000 donors in 100 days. Apparently, the NHS needs 200,000 new registered blood donors every year to keep donor levels stable. (If you are able to donate, do you? If not, why not? You might be grateful one day that somebody has given blood for your benefit.)

So yesterday I went along at the appointed time to give my 470ml. There was a bit of a wait to begin with. The set of chairs near the entrance to the donation session was pretty much full. The transfusion nurses seemed to be zipping about in a huge hurry, but, despite that, not all of the six beds were occupied all the time. As I waited, the lady on reception was turning away willing donors who had not booked an appointment. The session was now closed. The assistant who pricked my finger for the anaemia test apologised for the delay. But my turn came and I reclined on one of the brand new plastic deck-chair style seats and gave my donation.

When the blood bag was full, I chatted to the assistant who pulled the needle out, wrapped up the bag for storage, and stuck a plaster on the inside of my elbow. It seemed really busy today, I said.

'We're short staffed,' she admitted. I asked whether somebody was off sick or on holiday. The answer was no. 'There used to be eight donor sessions per week in the Oxford area,' she told me. 'Now there are seven sessions, and each with fewer staff. I suppose they are cutting down on salary costs. We have to get home at a reliable time, so we just close the session to any unexpected donors who come in.' I hazarded a guess that, if the NHSBT is so often short of stocks, and begging new donors to come forward, it might be a bright idea if their production line didn't prevent people from giving their donation. And if they get all the new donors they are calling for, wouldn't it be a problem to cope with them all in the new, cut-down sessions?

'You might think so,' she replied, hustling me off the bed and to the tea station, so she could prepare for the next patient.