Wednesday 20 June 2018

The gift of life - the heroic act of blood donation that changed these people's lives

Giving blood is a simple yet heroic act and a lifeline for those in need. Ahead of World Blood Donor day, Celine Naughton hears the heartrending personal stories of some of our most committed donors

Platelette donor John Egan with his son Jake, whose life was saved thanks to a donor. Photo: Tony Gavin
Platelette donor John Egan with his son Jake, whose life was saved thanks to a donor. Photo: Tony Gavin
Blood donor Gerard O Byrne pictured with a photograph of his late brother Lorcan who was murdered 36 years ago. Photo: Frank McGrath

Heroism is a quality normally associated with the few, but by freely donating blood and platelets, many more of us can be heroes - and not just for one day. While it is a singularly selfless act that literally saves lives, people's reasons for donating blood are as many and varied as there are donors.

Some are motivated by seeing a loved one recover from illness, others see it as a social obligation, while more think of it as a simple humanitarian act. For Gerard O'Byrne, it was witnessing the murder of his beloved brother over 36 years ago that first spurred him to donate.

On Sunday October 11th 1981, Lorcan O'Byrne was shot dead in an attempted robbery in the family pub, the Anglers Rest, in Strawberry Beds, close to Dublin's Phoenix Park. As Gerard, then 19, tried to process the impact of the senseless, violent act, he felt compelled to become a blood donor.

"I thought some good should come of it," he says. "I was a student in Kevin Street College of Technology at the time, and my friends supported me in giving blood too."

This month Gerard will be one of 156 'super donors' honoured by the Irish Blood Transfusion Service for donating over 100 units of blood and platelets. Surprisingly, only 3pc of the Irish population give blood, supplying a population of 4.8 million. Even more astonishing is that a mere 0.05pc donate platelets, blood cells which are used to treat premature babies, people with serious diseases like cancer or leukaemia, and those who have undergone major surgery.

"It shocked me to learn that there are only 2,400 platelet donors supplying all the hospitals in the country," says Gerard, a product manager in the GPO. "I don't understand it. Giving platelets is an opportunity to do something positive. I do it every 28 days in St James's Hospital. The process is simple. You don't feel a thing. It takes about an hour, which I usually spend reading a book, then cycle back to work.

"Because the shelf life of platelets is only five to seven days, and I have a rare blood type, sometimes there's a motorbike waiting outside to take the donation to a recipient in urgent need. Between Christmas and New Year I read a message in the clinic written by the parents of a very sick child, who said that thanks to whoever had donated platelets, they'd been able to take their child home and celebrate Christmas together as a family. That was a lightbulb moment.

"Platelets give sick people a new lease of life. It's such an easy thing to do, it costs you nothing but time, and you come away feeling brilliant because you're doing good. Like Dr Seuss said, 'To the world you may be one person, but to one person you may be the world.' None of us can change the world on our own, but we can do our bit."

Another platelet donor who has done more than his bit by donating 111 units of blood and platelets is father-of-four John Egan, whose second child Jake developed meningitis at 13 months of age.

"I didn't know about platelets until somebody else's donation saved my son's life," says John. "Jake was a bright, bubbly baby, and suddenly he became lethargic, so we took him to the GP who said, 'Take him straight to hospital.'

"Initial tests for meningitis came back unclear, but thankfully, one doctor said he'd seen it present like this before. Timing is crucial with this disease, and Jake was transferred to Crumlin Children's Hospital by ambulance.

"We were beside ourselves with worry, and felt helpless watching our child hooked up to a bank of machines. We had to stand back and let the professionals take over. All we could do was be there.

"We were very lucky that Jake made a full recovery. He's now 15, over six feet tall and doing his Junior Cert. He loves building his own computer games and plans to make a career in computers."

John uses every opportunity he can get to urge more people to donate platelets.

"It doesn't take much out of your time, and you're made to feel part of something special," he says. "We can all save lives, just like the person to whom I'm forever grateful for saving my son."

Lisa McGlynn has been donating blood for 30 years, but it was only when her husband Roger developed AML leukaemia that she saw at first hand how important those donations are.

"It's liquid gold," says Lisa. "Roger was so ill, he'd be lying in his hospital bed, white as a sheet, and when he'd get the transfusion I could see the life flow back into him. We'd been married only four years, and the nurses used to say, 'Come on, we'll get you to the fifth.' We're celebrating our 13th anniversary this year, and I have no doubt that without blood donors, I'd be a widow today."

Having been fit and healthy all his life - he played hurling, drank very little, didn't smoke, and had no family history of the disease - the diagnosis in May 2010 was a bombshell for Roger, then aged 41. He was treated with intensive chemotherapy and for a time had daily transfusions of blood and platelets.

"It was touch and go," he remembers. "I felt so sick from the leukaemia, I couldn't even get out of bed, and then I got pneumonia. It was very hard on Lisa too, a shared ordeal."

While the transfusions of blood and platelets made him feel physically better, he says they gave him a psychological boost as well.

"I felt that the people who had donated blood were willing me better," he says. "Knowing that people, strangers, had taken time out of their busy lives to help me recover made me want to do everything I could to fight the disease."

In December of that year, Roger received a transplant of stem cells, which was successful, and he made a complete recovery.

"I'm one of the lucky ones," he says. "This year Lisa will have made 60 blood donations, and through her I've attended events where I got the opportunity to thank blood donors not only for what they did for me, but on behalf of others too.

"It's very humbling to meet these people, and I thank them all. Without them I wouldn't be here today, it's as simple as that."

• 'Blood connects us all' is the theme of World Blood Donor Day, which takes place this Thursday. Hosted this year by Greece, the awareness campaign aims to encourage younger people to donate so that the donor population doesn't decline. It also highlights the need for regular donations in order to keep stocks and quality of blood high. See giveblood.ie

 

New campaign encourage Polish to give blood

* The Immigrant Council of Ireland, Irish Blood Transfusion Service (IBTS) and Forum Polonia are joining forces to launch 'Bloody Foreigners', a campaign highlighting the contribution of Polish nationals to the Irish blood bank and encouraging more to come forward.

The campaign will culminate in a day of action on Monday, July 30, when Polish blood donors, new and existing, will be encouraged to make a blood donation or register their interest to attend the next clinic in their area.

During the run-up to the event, the Immigrant Council and IBTS will be celebrating the contributions made by the Polish community and encouraging more Polish people to come forward and donate.

* According to Stephen Cousins, IBTS National Donor Services Manager, the Polish community is the largest population group in number after Irish nationals.

"We're thrilled more than 1,000 Polish people donated blood last year," he says. "We would love to see more people sign up and this campaign is a perfect opportunity."

Polish national Teresa Buczkowska says she is proud that so many Polish people living here regularly give blood.

"It's a very material way of giving back to the society in which we live," she says.

"I've just made my 10th donation, and am delighted with my commemorative pin from the IBTS. I will wear it with pride."

* Barnaba Dorda, Chair of Forum Polonia, has lived in Ireland for 13 years.

"Giving blood is one of those things - you might mean to do it, but never get around to it," she says.

"On a human level it is important to help others. It's a great way to show how much you value the people and society you live among."

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