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Friday, 29 June 2012

Do something amazing today...

Today, for the first time in my life, I donated blood. I've been signed up to the organ donor register since I first got my driving licence. It seems like a no-brainer to me. If I die, and any bit of me is any good, and could help someone out, then please, by all means, help yourselves... But donating blood is different. Donating blood means letting someone stick a needle in your vein, and then having to lie there for I-don't-know-how-long, whilst the stuff that keeps you alive is pumped into a little plastic bag. Not, I'm sure you'll agree, the most appealing prospect. In fact, I'm feeling slightly light-headed just writing about it.

Nonetheless, I'd always been secretly ashamed of the fact that I was basically too scared to go and face the needle, and 30@Thirty seemed like a good opportunity to put that right. But I cheated. I put a vote at the bottom of this blog page, offering people three options. Should I: A) Go and recite a piece of a poetry at a poetry evening? B) Give blood? or C) Pose naked for a life drawing class? I knew perfectly well what was going to win the most votes, and getting my kit off seemed a lot more appealing than facing the needle. And then, a few days ago, something amazing happened. Someone I didn't know, a Canadian woman called Kirsty, wrote me an email about my blog. She'd seen it, she'd liked it, and, at 49 years old, she had been inspired to have a crack at 50@Fifty. She wrote to me asking if I'd mind. If I'd MIND! I was delighted. I was incredibly touched. The intramaweb had sprinkled a little of its fairy dust on me. It was quite a feeling. Just before Kirsty signed off her email she said this:

Also, I voted for giving blood--it's really not that hard, and makes you feel so good afterwards!

At that moment, I decided I wasn't going to let my fear of the needle hold me back anymore. I registered as a blood donor that evening, and found an appointment for myself at the end of the week. I was nervous, but excited. I texted my friend Julia (she of triathlon fame), to tell her about it. I would like to state now, for the record, that she was slightly less helpful than Kirsty. Please see the below text message, and tell me if you don't agree...

I gave blood once. My veins were 
really uncooperative and 
kept collapsing 
so they only got half a bag. 
Then I fainted from the loss 
of blood when I stood up. 
I still think it's a really 
important thing to do!

Thanks for that. Anyway. Today, after lunch (I had been firmly instructed to eat lunch) I made my way to the imposing Freemasons' Hall near Covent Garden. At the back entrance about four people were already perched on the stone steps, waiting for the afternoon donation session to open.

A nervous wait outside the Freemasons' Hall in Covent Garden

At last the doors were unlocked and in we trooped. No one else looked at all nervous, so I kept my smile plastered on and pretended that I was fine too. There was a health questionnaire to fill in, in which I had to confirm that I had never injected illegal drugs or been paid for sex. And no, before you suggest it, I have no intention of adding either of those to the 30@Thirty list. Behave yourselves.

My fellow donors were a mix of sexes, and mostly, but not exclusively, white. I was a bit surprised to see so many young men in suits show up. Why was I surprised about that? I'm still not sure. I was asked some extra questions by a young 'donor carer' called Ali, who distracted me with chatter whilst he pricked my finger and used a tiny teat pipette to dribble drops of my blood into a magical blue liquid that told him if I was OK to donate. When the red blob sank to the bottom of the test tube, and Ali told me that I was "confirmed to join the save-a-life club", I was both happy and horrified. Apparently, despite the dubious fact that my mother had been born in a South American country rife with blood diseases passed matrilineally, I was good to go. They would have to take a bit extra, in order to screen me for said blood diseases, but that wasn't going to stop them getting their bag of blood from me now. Oh no.

A few minutes later I found myself on a blue gurney-type-thing, reading once again about the exercises I should do to keep the blood flowing nicely, and having the crook of my elbow vigorously disinfected by a nurse named Carlos. I was incredibly, incredibly relieved when the needle at last went into my vein. It was the moment I had been dreading since I first made the appointment, and increasingly since I'd arrived. I'm not ashamed to say that I did not watch. 

Over the next seven minutes I read a few pages of a book on my telephone, and asked one of the other nurses to take a photograph of me, much to the amusement of several staff members. At one stage I forgot to keep clenching my fist, and the blood flow slowed enough to set the machine beeping. I learn fast, and didn't stop wriggling my fingers until Carlos came back and slipped the needle out with a friendly "c'est fini". I have no idea why he spoke to me in French, but I replied in French. Over the next few minutes we spoke a strange mixture of French, Portuguese, and Spanish, all of which he spoke impeccably (and only one of which I really speak). It was completely surreal, and I loved it. I was already feeling the heady elation of having faced a fear, and done something good. Something really good.


Once I was done I sat at a nearby table and munched my way happily through a packet of cheese & onion crisps and a small mountain of custard creams. Completely unabashedly I took the proffered sticker saying 'Be nice to me, I gave blood today' and stuck it on my chest. I even asked for another one. I cannot tell you how wonderful I felt. 

Only one thing really struck me as strange. In all the time I had been there, waiting outside, queueing to collect my form, sitting on the waiting area chairs before being called, sitting again in a holding space before going to the gurney, and afterwards at the snack station: In all that time I did not exchange one single word with any of my fellow donors. Nor did I see any of them talking to each other. We were terribly British about the whole thing, each of us in our own little world, facing our fears and our demons alone, enjoying our little personal triumphs alone. So I have come away wondering: why were the others there? What drove them to give blood today? What personal tragedies or miracles inspired their donations. Or are they simply, decent, kind people, who want to put something back in, for no reason other than that it is a good thing to do? I will never know. But I do know this. My pint of blood (assuming, of course, that it is clear of the aforementioned Venezuelan lurgy) will most likely reach someone who is very ill, and might just help to save their life. One day the thing that keeps me alive will, I hope, do the same for someone else. And I am extraordinarily proud of that fact. But I also know that it is not enough. One tiny unit of blood is not enough. So I will be going back later this year, joining the queue, looking away as the needle slips silently into my vein. And if just one of you reading this does the same, well, wouldn't that be bloody marvellous?

Four down, twenty-six to go...


  1. I'm so proud of you! As I think you already know, a complete stranger donated blood that helped save my son's life. Immediately after he got out of hospital, I called my local Blood Donor Centre to donate. The only fear I had was that I would be denied from giving blood as my blood tests always show anaemia. This is exactly what happened, and I was so disappointed not to be able to give back. Second attempt three months later, I was able to. The thing I remember most is flexing my calves and clinching my bottom (the nurse told me to).

    I often think about the stranger who donated the blood that ran through my little guy's body, and I only hope that somebody is giving him/her something wonderful in return. You can't know the extent to which you may have impacted a life by what you did today, but assuming the Venezuelan lurgy isn't evident in the blood, you should know that you impacted someone's life in a positive way. I really am proud of you!

  2. As the -thus far alleged- carrier of the Venezuelan “lurgy”, I would like you all to know that I have donated plasma in the past, and had to undergo several tests before doing so… My blood was bloody perfect! If JoJo’s blood is found to have something wrong with it, I shall blame it on the paternal side of the family...

    Well done for overcoming your fear of the needle, JoJo, and also for not having ever injected drugs or receiving payment for sex… Proud of you on all three counts, and so much more!!!

  3. Well done! I forgot to mention that I never watch the needle go in either. I'm so happy it worked out so well for you!

    I've been talking up my plan for 50@50, and hope to launch soon. I'll keep you posted--and thanks for the inspiration.


  4. Good for you for doing it and for planning to go back. I went for the first time last year. Hated it, but did it, because I agree that it's a really important thing to do.

    I got pretty nervous beforehand - couldn't even look at the needle! Made it through in one piece... then promptly passed out. Sigh.

    Still, it's a bit of discomfort vs saving someone's life. Like you say, totally worth it.

    Can't believe you're smiling in that pic btw ;)

  5. Update: No Venezuelan blood lurgy, or any other lurgies, in my O rh+ blood! Hooray!