Yes, that’s exactly what’s wanted at this time of year, when the roads are busy, people are partying and, well, there are just too many other things to do. But there’s never been a better time to log on to the National Blood Service and do something that’s as amazing as they claim, as well as very easy – so please give blood.
I had been giving blood on and off for about five years – since I started riding a motorcycle (medics call us organ donors, such is the accident rate) – when I signed up to the British Bone Marrow Register. I’d read a bit about it, as you do when you’re looking at the leaflets waiting your turn to be called from the waiting room in the blood donor centre, but I didn’t think I’d ever be called upon to actually do it! Because bone marrow donation needs a pretty exact match – a very close DNA signature or something like that – and lots of people on the register never get called. (More often, the donor is a family member of the recipient, but plenty of those matches aren’t close enough).
Twelve months or so later, I was called. After another blood sample (Nurse – “It’s just a little prick.” Me – “There’s no need to be rude!”) was analysed and the match with the unknown recipient confirmed, I had a two hour interview with a doctor going through the process and making me aware of lots of risks so I could sign the consent form with full knowledge – the risks sound scary, but it’s a medical procedure so they always do. I decided to use the stem cell harvest method since I’m a coward and the sucking out of bone marrow from my back sounded painful! Finally, I had a check-up to show that the heart, lungs etc were all working fine and, praise be, they were.
A week or two later, a nurse visited me at home and injected me with drugs that promoted the production of stem cells – those little building blocks open the door to miraculous medical treatments that scientists are only just beginning to explore. After another blood sample was tested to see if I had enough stem cells coursing through my veins for the harvest, I was called to hospital and spent the morning with two lovely nurses talking about football, Trinidad’s carnival and how children drive you mad. I was four hours hooked up to the apheresis machine as my blood left one arm, had the stem cells spun out of it, and returned to my other arm. Did it hurt? For two hours, my observation notes read – comfortable, asleep, asleep, asleep…. comfortable – so what do you think?
I felt no ill effects at all, but had to do a couple more hours of the machine the next day to fill the bag sufficiently with stem cells. I had taken two mornings off work and was riding the bike the next day.
Four years later, I was contacted again – not for stem cells, but for white blood cells required by the person who already had my blood in them, as their body worked against their disease. That was just another gentle couple of hours on the machine.
My story of donating stem cells is as typical as any I suppose. There is a cost in terms of time, but not much, and it’s made as convenient as possible by the National Blood Service. There’s no real pain, though you do have to be prepared to have a lot of needles stuck into you – but they sting for a second or two, if at all. And some people ache a bit (I didn’t) but it’s nothing compared with the aches one gets even with a heavy cold. So it’s not quite true to say that, like one candle being lit from the flame of another, there is no cost to the donor, but it’s minimal when one thinks of the weapons one has placed in the hands of doctors in their fight against man’s most bitter enemy – cancer. I don’t know who got my stem cells nor if they’re alive or dead now, but I can imagine what it must have felt like when they and their family heard there was a match and treatment could begin. And I don’t mind saying that I feel good that I played a part in that.