Thursday, November 21, 2013

5 Reasons Why You Can't Afford NOT To Give Blood

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And Join the Bone Marrow Donor Registry
Through my journey to recovery, I've said thanks countless times; to my doctors, my nurses, my parents and my bone marrow donors. But the other day, I realised that I must have had at least a hundred bags of blood pushed into my veins at some point in my treatment. That's on top of the two very vital bone marrow transplants I had.

It's staggering the lengths our health system will go to in order to save a life.

I guess only after getting sick and really needing those bags of blood did I understand the importance of blood donation. After volunteering at the blood bank, I realised how much goes into just maintaining proper stocks.

Most blood products have to be collected on a regular basis, as they can't be frozen. In fact, all of them can't, except for plasma.

I'd been brought up with the idea, the common misconception, that giving blood is a painful, time consuming process. But in truth - it was anything but.

I watched people walk in out within twenty minutes, smiling the whole time. Only 6 of which was actually spent giving blood.
But despite all the great work that thousands of Australians, and those in other countries of course, do every day in donating blood - there is still a critical shortage. In fact Australia, as a country, still has to import blood to keep up with demand. 

Only 1/30 people donate. These guys often donate regularly and are the reason we don't have to import huge amounts of blood. People don't give because they're afraid of the procedure, because they don't think it's needed, or because they don't care.     

But what if it I told you that the only pain involved was the initial needle prick... pain no more than a blood test? That it only took 6 minutes. That there is indeed shortages in giving blood, and in the bone marrow donor registry, particularly in the minorities, and during winter when regular donors get sick. And what if I told you that there are pretty awesome benefits of giving blood too - you get paid, you reducing your risk of major diseases like cancer and heart attacks and you even lose quite a bit of weight losing weight. So you're not only saving 3 lives every time you donate... you're helping yourself too.

Well - all of these are true. And I hope these ideas will make you see that you can't afford NOT to give blood.

5) It's a great way to lose weight and you get a guilt free meal each time you do it!

Here's a video I made outlining the benefits of giving blood - and why you can't afford NOT to do it!

1) The necessity is ever present and ever increasing.

Everyone's heard this stat. 1/3 people will need blood in their life, yet only 1/30 donate regularly. Yet - what people don't understand is that, as a first world, developed country, we will never have a shortage of blood as we are rich enough to buy blood in times of shortages. Their health systems suffer and people literally die when they don't get access to the blood they need and to boot... that money doesn't come from nowhere. We pay for it. Through our taxes. 

Blood donations have to be constant. As I said before, you can't freeze whole blood or platelets. And during cold and flue season in particular, regular donors are often sick and can't donate - so it's always needed and not something you can or should put off.

The increase in the amount of bone marrow transplant procedures done, as doctors realise it is a viable method for treating a variety of autoimmune conditions, such as diabetes, scleroderma and even AIDS, as well as blood cancers like mine, means that demand for bone marrow donors is higher than ever before. But the registry still remains sparse, meaning many people will not get a second chance at life, one that I did. Despite the scary name, over 95% of people who get called up to donate marrow (a 1/400 chance of that even happening) never actually have their marrow invaded. And joining the registry, only a small blood test, or a swab of the cheek. I'll explain how it works more in the next section.

Some cultures in particular lag behind others in regards of joining the registry, and giving blood. People of Indian, Asian, Black or Middle-Eastern descent in particular have much lower rates of participation on this front. This pie chart above, based on the American Bone Marrow Donor Registry, demonstrates this shortage for Asian and African-Americans in particular. 

A lot of this is due to cultural beliefs that blood is related to male virility, but a much larger part of this is due to laziness or being afraid of the actual procedure. Well, hopefully, the next point will change your mind about that.

2) It's easier than you think and involves little risk to the giver.

Many people relate the process of giving blood to intense pain and a lot of sacrifice on behalf of the donor. While it is a very noble thing to do, it is not something that people should be afraid of. 

Did you know, whole blood donations are done in 6 - 10 minutes?
Did you know that the only pain involved is the initial jab from the needle, not from the blood leaving the arm?
And did you know that a vast majority (over 95%!) have absolutely no side effects from giving blood?

I won't kid you, the needle is larger than most. But the fact that you're required to drink a litre of water before donating, and the fact that you've got the best phlebotomists (the fancy word for blood takers) working on you means your chances of having severe pain from a blood donation are very small. In fact, in his greater than 20 years experience in donating blood, my father has only had one "two-arm-specials," where they had to jab him twice. IN OVER 200 DONATIONS! I've had a MUCH higher rate of blood takers missing veins in my 3 years of treatment, that's for sure... That statistic is a true testament to the skill these guys have.

Here's a picture to put it in perspective. The one they use in blood samples is the blue or purple one standing up. The one they use in taking blood donations is the light blue or black one lying down. Yeah, it's a little bigger, but when you know that the pain only lasts an instant, not throughout the whole donation, it doesn't make much of a difference.

Relaxing during a blood donation. Over 200 (300 now since I wrote this) done by this man alone. 

Joining the bone marrow donor registry doesn't involve extra pain. In fact - NEVER does someone actually take a sample of your bone marrow!

To join the registry in Australia, you have to donate blood and be under the age of 45, so that if a match is found, you don't get the unfortunate situation of a person refusing to donate their stem cells due to fear of the procedure. 
Even then, joining the registry only involves the taking of an extra 20mL of blood, which they use to figure out your "tissue type," which is used to match the recipient to a donor.

When you consider you're giving 475mL of blood at the time anyways, that isn't too much. To join up - next time you donate blood - ask to join the blood donor registry, and someone will hand you a form to do just that.

In America though - it's even simpler. It only involves buying a $5 kit and sending in a sample of your DNA taken from a cheek swab to join.

Once you're on the list - you're on there forever. 
And there's only a 1/400 chance of being a match for someone in your lifetime.

Even the procedure of donating marrow is nowhere near as painful as it sounds. In 95% of cases, it's actually STEM CELLS that you donate. The process takes 3 hours and basically involves taking blood from one arm, siphoning off the stem cells they need, and pumping it back into your other arm. Even if they need to take it from your marrow, you're under general anaesthetic, so it's nowhere near as painful as it sound (in fact, that 5% of people who do give via that means, often do so because they'd prefer to not feel anything and take a while to recover than have to take the other option).

For more info on how to join the registry, click here:


3) It's a free health check-up for you. And it reduces your risk of heart disease, cancer and diabetes.

Every time you give blood, they need to assess whether your blood is healthy. So giving blood every 3 months is essentially a free, quick health check-up, at least for your blood counts (though I wouldn't recommend not getting physicals/check-ups done on this basis). It's a great way to catch diseases early.

Indeed, in my case, I would've known I had myelodysplasia syndrome (MDS) a long time before it developed into its deadly form, acute myeloid leukemia (AML). And MDS is much easier to treat than AML, which I found out the hard way.

I'm not saying that you're at risk of getting such diseases if you don't give blood, but you will definitely pick up on any abnormalities you may have earlier, making any conditions you may develop much more easily treatable if you do.

But early detection isn't the only benefit. Giving blood regularly has been shown to reduce the risk of heart attacks in men, as well as the ability to slow insulin resistance which leads to diabetes.  A study of nearly 3000 men in Finland showed those who did give blood regularly had an 88% lower risk of heart attack than those who didn't! That's HUGE! Donating blood has been known to reduce the buildup of toxic elements in your blood, including iron, making it not only a free detox, but a good way to reduce your risk of cancer!

4) You're missing out on a lot of benefits - including money.

While talking to a few donators at the marrow centre, I realised that a lot of them were there not only to give others a second chance at life, but also to help themselves fiscally.

A lot of the donors were actually school kids. I wondered why. Apparently, they came as often as they could over the year in order to miss a few periods of class. While having our high school students skipping class isn't an ideal situation, it's probably the best, most productive way you can procrastinate academically... I know I would've been on that bus every 3 months if I'd known that during school...
It's not just school kids who benefit. A good chunk of people donating were actually being paid to do so by their employers. There are many schemes and benefits out there where you can donate blood and actually be paid for the time it's taken out of your day by your employer. And I'm sure sitting in a chair for 10 minutes is much more preferable to slugging it out at work! Depending on where you live, there may be tax benefits eligible for donating. And indeed, in some countries, they even pay you for donating blood!

Here's a link to a video of how you can do this in America:

5) You miss a chance at losing weight and have a chance at eating great food without guilt.

When you donate blood, your body needs to replace what was lost. In fact, it takes at least 650 calories to replace a pint donation ofblood. That's the equivalent of going on a 5km run! Feel a split second of pain in your arm and sit on a chair for under 10 minutes or run 4 or 5 k's, you decide.

I know which one I'd choose...

Not only that - but after giving blood, you're given a chance to go crazy over a veritable buffet. At the centre where I volunteer (Liverpool) there are sausage rolls, pies, soups, milkshakes, coffees, toast and more - and it's served by chirpy, good looking volunteers (well, at least when I'm on duty).

When I'm feeling too lazy to cook one day, or stressed during my exams or indeed, if I was homeless, this would be where I'd be going to get a free meal. Indeed, the fact that you know your body will have to work to make up for what you've lost will mean you can have a guilt free meal. Be warned though - too much donating can result in a figure like this:

Dad going to TOWN on some freebies. Remember - this is only the COLD food they provide. Add to this sausage rolls, pies and milkshakes, and that's what's on offer every time you donate! Some centers have other meals on offer too, including lasagna, pies, and even give out additional meal vouchers for restaurants.

So - now that you're convinced that you've got to go out and give blood - remember these things:

Before giving blood, make sure you have a meal and drink a litre of water within 3 hours of donating. It's a requirement and you don't wanna be turned back on the day!
Try and include high iron foods and things like orange juice (which increases iron absorption) to ensure your iron and haemoglobin levels are sufficient. A tip from the nurses there - spinach and orange juice in the meal before you donate increases iron levels into the healthy range for those who find themselves turned back for being too low.
Make sure you haven't travelled to areas with infectious diseases in the past 3 months and make sure that you can prove any recent tattoos you've had were done in sterile situations.

After you're done giving blood - make sure you drink a glass of water before eating or drinking anything hot, just in case, as it reduces the already small chance of vaso-vagal syncope.

To find and make an appointment to give blood at your local blood donation centre, click here:

How can you help if you can't donate blood?

Unfortunately, a small chunk of women, and some men, can't donate blood as their iron levels are not high enough. And there are other reasons why people can't donate too.

But if you can't give blood and join the bone marrow donor registry, you can still spread the word and encourage others to do so! Whether you mention it next time you catch up with friends or just post it on your Facebook wall - these things all count and if it helps 1 extra person get into donating blood, well, you've already saved 3 lives!

If you are donating - make sure you "check in" on social media each time you give blood. Letting people know what you're doing is not boasting (even though it's definitely something you should be proud of) when it gets others to donate too!

You can also volunteer at the Red Cross like I do, either by helping out and giving snacks to the donors, or by driving a car or van that picks up donors. It looks great on your CV and you're just as vital a cog in the great machine as the donors themselves. Click here for more info.

Participating or donating to people in the World's Greatest Shave or events like the Leukaemia Foundation's "Light the Night Walks" also helps in a similar way.

Here's a speech I gave at the most recent Light the Night event about how I stayed happy during my treatment, and how the Foundation helped me during my treatment:

Other things you can do include donating to the Red Cross or to the Leukemia Foundation, which can be done through the links below. These organisations are trying to find a cure and save people from having to go through this pain in the first place! 

And make sure you share this with others and on your Facebook Walls so as many people as possible join up and so more lives can be saved. <-- If you or a loved one needs help or if you enjoy my blogs or if you're interested in medicine, like my page on facebook =]


  1. 1. Some Blood Donor Centres also offer vehicles to collect groups from their work places/homes and drop them back after donations - inquire with your local Centres.
    2. You must have heard this before (to excel in whatever you are doing) "Always give 100% unless you are giving Blood.....Good Luck people. Thanks Nik for bring this to our attention AGAIN.

  2. Good point - ill add that in there actually =]

  3. I've been a donor for many years including 6 of those at the Liverpool clinic also. I am so happy to see a blog on the facts that Red Cross only just skim the surface of. Hopefully, now with increased knowledge of the how's and why's I can help more people realise the benefits of giving blood.

    1. Great that you've seen it and happy that you've got more power in convincing people to give blood =]

      Share it around with your friends via social media or any other means and be proud of being a blood donor/registered on the bone marrow donor registry. Your pride/ sharing / checking in when you donate isn't boasting if it gets others to do it too so don't be ashamed =P

  4. I found it interesting how your notes only focus on website..

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