How to Save a Life (2011)

Give a gift with a difference this Christmas 

Christmas is a time for giving, and what gift is better than the gift of life? Every year the NHS runs campaigns informing the public of how to save a life at Christmas. They propose that there is a higher demand for blood donations, and encourage people to come forward at this important time of year.

This year the NHS has announced that there is a low level of stocks 0- and B- blood types. They urged those with these blood types especially to donate in the run up to Christmas in order to maintain the necessary stock levels into the New Year. Constant supplies of blood stocks are needed in the UK in order to meet the demands for blood transfusions and treatments. Each donation can save the lives of up to three people.

NHS Blood and Transplant (NHSBT) are an England and Wales Health Authority, responsible for the collection and supply of blood. They collect around two million units of blood each year from 1.4 million donors. They suggest that only 4% of the population who are eligible are active blood donors, and that the number of donations falls around Christmas.

Claire Dolling, Media and PR officer for NHSBT, said: “Stocks tend to dip quite a lot this time of year. On top of the problems that Christmas can bring it is also a time when the winter weather can cause problems.” Last year the adverse weather conditions lead to the cancellation of many donation sessions across the country. Claire added that heavy snow can create difficulties for the transportation of blood, preventing it from reaching blood centres in time for storage.

Donors are less likely to come forward during the busy holiday time, but the demand for blood and platelets rises due to the needs of hospitals at this time of year. “Hospitals want to get as many people home for Christmas as possible, so many operations will be scheduled in the weeks leading up to Christmas,” she said.  

Claire has been a donor herself since she started at the NHSBT in 2009. She said: “Every day I am reminded that over 7,000 units of blood are needed to supply hospitals with the blood they need.” Donating was something that she had always wanted to do but never got around to, which could be the case for many of the 96% of people who don’t donate. She personally believes that donation is important as you never know when or where someone may need it: “It could be a member of your family or a close friend.”

According the NHSBT website the donation process takes less than an hour. Sessions take place across the country in community buildings or mobile sites. At the session you are required to read the relevant information leaflets and fill out a health questionnaire to ensure you are eligible to donate. If you are fit to donate then a drop of blood is taken to check for anaemia. During the donation itself one unit of around 470ml of blood is taken. This amount is quickly replaced by the body. Donors are encouraged to have a short rest and refreshments, such as a drink and biscuits, before leaving the donation session.

The decision to begin donating can be encouraged by many different experiences. For some it is the festive spirit of Christmas, or the experience of a loved one receiving a blood transfusion. For Andy Piana, from Crawley, it was the first Gulf War. He was unable to fight for his country but still wanted to show his support, so began donating in 1991. He said: “I enjoy the feeling that someone somewhere is on the road to recovery because I took the time out and spared a little blood.”

Another long term donor is Londoner Eric Clifton. He will be celebrating his 50th Anniversary of donating blood next year. He has donated an outstanding 108 times and said: “I hope to continue while fit until I am 80.” He recalled the proud moment when he was presented a cut glass decanter for his 100th donation. Each donor who reaches a milestone number of donations receives a special award to mark the occasion.

Donated blood is used for many different reasons. In cases of extreme blood loss whole blood can be used in a transfusion, but it is more common for the blood to be separated into its individual components. A regular supply from donors is vital, as red cells last only 35 days and platelets only 5 days.  

Red cells are used for the treatments of anaemia and sickle cell disease. They can also be used to replace the cells lost during blood loss from accidents surgery and childbirth. Plasma is often used following blood loss from childbirth and cardiac surgery. It can also be used to help produce antibodies in those with a diminished immune system, and to produce a protein which helps burn victims. The platelet part of blood is used in bone marrow failure, such as patients with leukaemia or undergoing chemotherapy treatment. This can be donated separately from whole blood up to 8 times a year.

NHS Blood and Transplant are often contacted by people who have received blood, and wish to express their thanks to blood donors. Claire Dolling said: “We find that re-telling stories like this really shows people how important it is to become a regular blood donor.” The NHSBT website shares the amazing stories of patients who have been helped by blood transfusions.

One story is that of baby Keira who needed dozens of transfusions to help her survive a rare blood disease. She was diagnosed with congenital neutropenia Kostmann’s syndrome, a rare blood condition that results in an abnormally low number of white blood cells. Donated blood helped save her life three times. She had a bowel operation, chemotherapy, and a stem cell and cord blood transplant. She received nine units of red cells, 44 units of white cells, and seven units of platelets. This was to combat anaemia from the operations, prevent bleeding and help her body fight infection. Her mother Louise said: “Thanks to donors and staff at both hospitals where Keira was treated, we will be having our best Christmas ever this year. I can’t wait!”

Blood transfusions can be life-saving, and help improve the quality of life for terminally ill patients. So this Christmas, consider taking a break from munching on mince pies and wrapping presents and see if you could save a life. Visit or call the donor line on 0300 1232323 for more information or to find a local session.

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