Blood is thicker than water

Cian MacLochlainn explains the process of blood donation and its history in Ireland.

About one in four people will require a blood transfusion at some point in their lives. Over a 1,000 Irish people receive blood transfusions every week and approximately 70,000 patients will have blood transfusions by this year’s end. Constant campaigns remind us that supplies in hospitals are always running low. Because different medical circumstances require different amounts of blood units, it is vital that blood supplies remain sufficient.

Donating blood is something that all of us who are eligible,are recommended to do on a regular basis. I donated blood for the first time in my local Irish Blood Transfusion Service (IBTS) centre last June, making me a third generation donor as both my grandmother and father are regular donors.

Before the donation can begin, those interested in donating must follow certain steps to ascertain eligibility. The process involves giving specific details; name, date of birth, residence, contact information. This is before a simple health screening where a medical form and questionnaire is filled out. This document is filled with questions which are asked on the basis of guaranteeing only healthy blood is donated. The questions revolve around sexual activity, travel history, drug use and overall physical health.

After this vital questionnaire is reviewed, those waiting to donate are taken aside by a member of the medical team who take a small sample of blood in order to test its haemoglobin and iron levels. During this time, further questions may be asked. Interested donors are constantly reminded to disclose their entire medical history. This is also relevant for those who feel it may not be necessary to disclose a medical condition that could lead to disqualification from the process. This comes from my own experience where I didn’t mention my Alopecia, the condition does not disqualify me but the medical team is to be informed regardless since it is an autoimmune condition.

Before the needle is inserted the medical staff need to find a vein. The donor has a further set of steps to follow to complete the process. Usually, one must lie down on a bed after the vein is found and the needle is inserted so the donation can finally begin. Those who are nervous should be comforted by the fact the pain from the needle lasts for less than half a second. With fear of needles one of the main reasons cited by non-donors, this myth of painful donation is one many involved wish would be banished. A member of the team will hand the donor something to squeeze to keep the blood flowing at a steady pace. This is also advantageous as it can also improve any numbness felt during the process.

Many people worry about how much blood is actually removed during the procedure. Howevers donor can rest assured that those involved in the process are professionals and never take more blood than they need. Naturally no large loss of blood will occur and the machine attached to the vein which extracts the blood is programmed to end its function once it reaches its target.

Once the donation is finished donors are free to take in some light refreshments such as tea, coffee and biscuits. It is recommended to avoid rushing to leave the centre after donation, especially if you are driving. It is advised to abstain from alcohol until the next day after donating. Furthermore, it is deemed necessary to avoid any strenuous physical activity for at least twelve hours as well.

While there are many ways to donate blood, contacting an IBTS centre and undergoing the experience similar to that above is arguably the easiest method of doing so. The history of the service goes back to 1900 when the St. John Ambulance Brigade in Ireland set up an ‘on call’ blood donor panel to serve hospitals in the Dublin area. In 1948, Noel Browne, the then Minister for Health, established the National Blood Transfusion Association in Ireland. Seventeen years later this would become the Blood Transfusion Service Board. The Cork Blood Transfusion Service was then absorbed into the Board in 1975, followed by the Limerick Blood Transfusion Service in 1991. The name of the organisation became the Irish Blood Transfusion Service in 2000.

Despite the vital service it provides, the organisation has not been immune to controversy. Between 1977 and 1994, a number of people unknowingly received Hepatitis C-infected blood. Clear evidence of this did not emerge until the mid 1990s. The Hepatitis C and HIV Compensation Tribunal was established by the Hepatitis C Compensation Tribunal Act, 1997, and amended by the Hepatitis C Compensation Tribunal (Amendment) Act, 2002, to compensate people who contracted Hepatitis C or HIV as a result of receiving blood or blood products from the Service. The Men Who Have Sex with Men (MSM) ban has also come under scrutiny. The lifetime ban on those who are MSM was changed to a twelve month ban from the time they last had sexual relations before donating blood and came into effect on January 16th of this year.

Trepidation in donating blood for the first time can be justified but once you have gone through the process once and the fear of the unknown is erased, it becomes much easier after that. There are annual appeals for blood donation, especially needed for the hospitals where supplies can dwindle during certain times of the year. It is not wise to assume that since possessing a common blood type can act as an excuse not to donate. All blood types, common and rare, are needed to continue the life saving work in hospitals. Although many people who are eligible to donate blood and who choose not to either by fear, or for their political stance regarding the restrictions of men who have sex with men (MSM) from donating blood for 12 months following their last sexual activity, this should no longer be an excuse.

Given that I bided my time before donating for the first time due to my objection to the MSM blood ban, it was after donating that I realised that I have a rare blood type. My blood type, though rare, can donate to the second most common blood group in Ireland as well as the rarest. Since donating I feel that I now have a responsibility, both moral and civic, to donate as often as I can, while I’m still eligible.

Cian Mac Lochlainn

Cian Mac Lochlainn is an Economics and Politics student, and a Contributing Writer for Trinity News.