Updated 08 August 2014

Virgin blood donors

We rely on teenage donors to keep our blood banks full. But with kids involved in exams and school holidays, SA faces a dire blood shortage. Why aren’t the grownups giving?

SA blood services have sent out a desperate appeal for donors as supplies threaten to run dry - just when our need is greatest as we head into the not-so-festive accident season.

Justice Mohale, communications manager for the South African National Blood Service, says that the current shortage is "very critical", and that it's not just because of holiday road accidents:

"The primary reason is because we really rely on the 16 to 19-year-olds, who donate during blood drives at schools. Also, research has showed that this age group has the safest blood in terms of sexually transmitted diseases. But from November-December, the kids get involved in exams, take study leave and start to go on holiday.

"We need the adults to come forward."

A nation of virgin blood donors
Over 99% percent of South Africans don’t give blood. Yet at least the same percentage of us would most definitely expect to receive it should we need a transfusion.

Recently a small platoon of Health24 staffers who could no longer live with this disgraceful moral contradiction made their way with grim determination to the local blood donation centre in Loop Street, Cape Town.

It was really rather nice there.

One expects a hospital-type atmosphere, but the centre is more reminiscent of a fairly upmarket hair salon: impeccably clean, with La-Z-Boys for the donors and a tastefully muted colour scheme, enlivened by splashes of bright red – the nurses’ cardigans and other non-scary items like posters and cloths. No obvious vampires.

The Blood itself was also not all that blatantly in evidence, which suited some members of the Health24 contingent just fine.

And then of course the staff is pleased to see you, in a restrained manner. (If you think about it, an overly effusive response might be a little… weird). But no question about it: we felt welcomed. Needed.

Here, in order of how close each of us came to the noble goal of becoming a donor, are our experiences:

Leandra Engelbrecht, junior writer

Leandra had never given blood before - and couldn’t on this occasion either - because she doesn’t weigh enough: you need to clear 50kg to donate.

She says, “I felt very disappointed because it’s something I really wanted to do. But the experience once again opened my eyes to how important and necessary blood donation is and that we all can play a part by giving.”

Tandeka Bafo, intern

Tandeka got as far as the finger-prick test which is done on all new donors to check for blood iron levels:

“I’d never really thought of donating blood. For me it felt like I was wasting my own blood and also, having been born prematurely and having had a hernia op, I was discouraged.

“I really wanted to give blood but then I was told I had a blood iron level of 10.8, which meant I had anaemia. I’m thankful for that because now I’ve changed my eating habits to take in more iron. I still plan to donate blood to those in need in the near future”.

Wilma Stassen, content editor and writer

Wilma was the only one of us who’d actually donated before: “There was a centre right there in the mall I used to frequent that made it very convenient for me to donate. Then I moved away and didn’t know where to go to donate blood in my new neighbourhood.

“I was glad Olivia dragged me out of the office to go and donate blood. Basically I could find out where to donate, and also make my first deposit while there. Unfortunately my blood pressure was too low on the day to be allowed to give blood, but at least now I know where to go in future.

“I lost a close friend in a tragic car accident when I was younger. Anyone who has experienced such a loss knows just how precious life is, and although I’m not a medical doctor or a paramedic, I still try to do my bit to save a life.”

Olivia Rose-Innes, EnviroHealth editor

Seeing as we’re telling it like it is here, I may as well own up to a particularly pathetic (and girly) justification for not donating I’ve used most of my adult life: I am soon going to lose so much weight I will weigh under 50kg and thus be barred from giving blood. Dilemma resolved!

Unlike Leandra, however, I do not weigh under 50kg, not even close, and there was absolutely no reason I couldn't give blood.

Except that, according to the nurse, I was "very nervous".

"I am not!"

"Your pulse rate's so high you're going to have calm down before I put the needle in."

Added to this mortification, once the needle was inserted, she covered it discreetly with one of the crimson cloths – I suppose to spare my delicate sensibilities.

A couple of minutes went by. I started to feel a little lightheaded – just a very little, and I’m not even sure now it wasn’t psychosomatic – but thought it responsible to mention it to the nurse. She had the needle out of my arm in a flash: game over. I still felt entitled to my juice and cookies afterwards though. I'll be back...

Carine van Rooyen, Diet & Natural Health editor

Carine, seen here relaxing in the La-Z-Boy, scores the big live-action photo because she was the only one who actually made it through successfully to the final round:

“I’d tried to donate once before (about 10 years ago), but my iron levels were too low. As I’ve had iron deficiencies on and off most of my life, I suppose I used it as an excuse not to try again.

“I must admit I was also a bit squeamish about the whole thing: I hate seeing blood, I’m not a fan of the finger-prick test and I didn’t really like the idea of losing 500ml of blood.

“But I felt really proud afterwards! It was great to overcome the slight fear of going through the whole donation process and it felt fantastic to know that the pint of blood I donated could benefit, and perhaps help save the lives, of four people. I also know that I’ve got type O-negative blood, which is the kind that’s always in short supply.

"What’s more, the procedure was relatively painless, I didn’t have to look at the blood, and I felt fine afterwards. I slept like a baby that evening and I was happy to know that by the next afternoon, my body had replaced the lost blood. The added benefit was that I got a free iron check – plus a few yummy cookies. I’d really recommend it.”

Excuses, excuses
The South African National Blood Service cites the following as the top six excuses people give for hanging on to their blood:

  • "I am afraid of the needle." Well yes. But you’re a grownup and you’d better get over this one because there is no way you're going to get through life without a member of the medical profession needing to give you an injection or take blood sooner or later. Mohale adds that some people say they're worried about getting HIV from the needle when donating: "But that's not possible: we use a new, sterile needle each time, and you see the nurse opening it in front of you. The blood bags are also brand new; they don't get washed!
  • "It will hurt and I will faint." It will hurt a little bit, of course it will, but only briefly and much less than, say, stubbing your toe or getting a paper cut. As for the fainting, you can reduce the chances of that happening considerably if you just make sure you’ve had something to eat and drink beforehand. And if you do still faint, it’s most likely to happen when you’re already seated and surrounded by solicitous health professionals.
  • "Other people are giving enough." Less than one percent…
  • "My blood isn’t the right type." Nice try. Regular donations of all blood types are needed.
  • "I had an illness." OK, this might be legit, but it might very well not be, especially if the illness happened twenty years ago. You can easily find out by asking the staff at your local blood donation centre, or phoning the South African National Blood Service (0800 119 031) or the Western Province Blood Transfusion Service (021 507 6300 for Western Cape donors) beforehand.
  • "I don’t have enough blood to spare." It's my blood, I made it, I need it. No, actually you don't, not all of it all the time: the average adult body contains approximately five litres of blood and a donation is only 480ml i.e. less than 10%. And there's plenty more where that came from.

- Olivia Rose-Innes, Health24, updated December 2008

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