It’s February 14th. You can’t pass a shop, turn on the tv or open a newspaper without being bombarded by hearts, roses and an insistence that you have to swap your usual persona for one gushing about romance and ‘lurve’. Which, of course, can only be shown, we’re told, by spending ridiculous amounts of cash on fragranceless roses or sitting in an overpriced restaurant with your loved one, gazing into each others eyes and pretending to ignore the other carbon copy couples crowded around you.
Nah, not my thing.
First off, the story behind St. Valentine isn’t exactly slushy. Secondly, it just seems a bit unfair to steamroller couples into following the formula every year just because it’s “the done thing.” What if they have hayfever so can’t have flowers? Heaven forbid, what if you don’t have a partner?
Then I came across the #rollupyoursleeve campaign by the Welsh Blood Service on Twitter. For the cynical/Twilight-wannabe-bloodletter, what could be more appropriate on Valentine’s day than to give your blood to keep someone else’s real life, flesh and blood heart beating? Much more rewarding surely? I decided to go along and find out.
Where does your blood go?
– One donation of blood can save the lives of up to 8 premature babies
– One donation can save up to three adult lives
– One in three people in Wales will need blood in their lifetime
What happens when you first go in?
When I got there, a lovely friendly lady gave me some leaflets to read, to make sure I was aware of how blood donation worked. I’ve given blood before, so it was fairly familiar, but if it’s your first time then they take some details from you and will talk you through everything and let you ask any questions.
One new thing this time is that they now give you half a litre of water to drink before your donation (you can have squash if you really hate water!) I asked why they had introduced this: research showed that people who had a drink before donating blood turned out to be less likely to feel faint and ill afterwards. But don’t worry, you still get a drink and a biscuit afterwards too!
You also have to fill in a short questionnaire about your health and lifestyle. It’s really important to answer this honestly. You won’t get into trouble about your answers; it’s to protect both you as the donor, and the potential recipient of your blood. Basically, they want to make sure that giving blood won’t make you ill (eg if you have had ME/CFS then you don’t want to risk a relapse after you’ve recovered.) They also want to ensure that your blood won’t cause problems for the person who receives it. (Imagine that you were on anti-blood clotting medication and forgot to mention it – the person who got your blood might have bleeding problems because of it!
The Qualifying Stage
Next, you have a chat with a nurse in a private cubicle. They go through your answers and they will ask you in more detail if they have any concerns about anything. When I do this bit, we always have to talk about an operation I had years ago to fix a broken ankle. It’s important to discuss this each time as guidelines on who can donate are regularly reviewed and can change, or they might need more information about something to assess whether you can donate. The last thing that happens in the cubicle is that you have a test to see if you have sufficient iron levels to donate blood – you can’t do it if you’re anaemic.
To perform the iron test they have to take some blood from your index finger, squeeze it into a little glass tube and drip a drop of it into a test tube of blue solution. If it sinks then you get through to the next stage (ooh it’s a bit like X-Factor but with nicer judges!) This test does hurt a little bit, but you do get a plaster over it afterwards.
The Main Event
After the iron test, you’re asked to lie down on a bed/bench and roll up your sleeve. They try to find a good vein to take your blood from, and to help with this, they use a blood pressure cuff and you have a squidgy bandage to squeeze (which is quite comforting if you’re nervous!) Don’t worry if they can’t find a vein at first. This is fairly common. They might ask you to swap sides as some people find that they have better veins on one arm than another. It doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you, or that you’ll have problems in future. The other important thing to mention here, is that they try to find a vein by looking for it. On the outside. Through your skin. There’s no cutting you and digging around to ‘find’ a vein. I always worried about that until I was set straight this time!
Next they put the big needle in to collect your blood. If you’re nervous, then look away. It looks quite big and it’s hollow. But… and I say this as an abject coward… as someone who had a total panic attack when I had my BCG jab at school and had to be held down by 3 school nurses to have it… it’s really not that bad. It’s nowhere near as painful as grazing your knee. It’s more like a papercut that feels a bit duller and deeper, I suppose. You can feel a bit of a weird, tugging, draining feeling sometimes when you give blood, but that doesn’t hurt, it just feels a bit odd, and having a chat to the person looking after you normally works well to distract you.
They’ll take a sample tube of your blood as well as a little bagful of about 3/4 of a pint of blood. It usually takes between 5-15 minutes. It’s not a race and you don’t get a prize for being fastest, so don’t worry if it takes a while. After you’re finished, you’ll have your arm bandaged and you’ll be asked to rest lying down for a short time, before sitting up slowly and resting a bit more.
After that, you can have a drink and a biscuit and feel warm and glowing that you’ve helped save someone’s life!
Top Tips for Donating Blood
1) Give yourself about an hour for a donation session – it’s much nicer if you set aside enough time and don’t feel like you have to rush off afterwards
2) If in doubt, mention it! Whether you tick the relevant box on the questionnaire or have a quiet word in the cubicle, it’s much better to raise any concern rather than leave it and hope everything will be ok – better to give donating a miss than to waste your own and the blood service’s time collecting blood that can’t be used, or worse still, risk hurting someone who receives your blood.
3) Wear lots of light layers. Donation sessions are frequently in community centres/church halls which can have temperamental heating – being too hot or cold isn’t fun so wear something comfy that makes it easy to adjust your temperature
4) Speak up if you’re nervous. It’s really common to be nervous about giving blood. You’re not being a wimp, and nobody will be cross if you mention it. The staff see lots of nervous people and are understanding and usually have some tricks up their sleeve to distract you. In fact, if you are nervous of needles, donating blood is a really good way to keep the nerves under control – the more you do it, the easier it gets!
5) Wear at least one layer of short/loose sleeves. It’s really annoying to have to spend ages fumblingly rolling up a long, fitted jumper sleeve so you can get the pressure cuff on!
6) Tell your friends! It’s much more fun when others donate with you, and can be comforting if you are nervous.
Want to donate & don’t live in Wales?
You can get more information on how to donate blood in: