Tuesday 22 January 2019

John: I'll keep on rolling up my sleeves

David Medcalf had a chat with Dunlavin man John O'Reilly, who has given blood 100 times and who would like to see more people doing the same at clinics organised by the Blood Transfusion Service

John O' Reilly.
John O' Reilly.

Irish Blood Transfusion Service chairman Anthony Staines loves meeting regular contributors and discussing with them their experience of his organisation. And he reckons that many of the donors he speaks to become involved out of family tradition while others are swayed by personal experience of the benefits of having blood in stock.

Recently the chairman had the pleasure of presenting County Wicklow man John O'Reilly with a ceramic pelican to honour his 100th donation at a ceremony in the Crowne Plaza hotel. And John certainly fitted the profile, following in the footsteps his late mother to the IBTS clinic and also influenced by the experience of his late father during his final illness.

Sixty-three-year-old John is Dunlavin born and bred, proud to have lived most of his life in the town, apart from the 20 formative years he spent in Dublin. His wife Catherine hails from Baltinglass and he spent much of his working life in the employ of the family building firm.

His exposure to blood donation dates back more than half a century when his mother brought him with her when she paid a visit to the Imaal Hall. The nurses of the transfusion service had set up shop and he was fascinated, his boyish interest copper-fastened by the bottles of fizzy minerals which were handed out so liberally.

He moved on to reside in Dublin where he gained professional qualifications as an engineer specialising in the field of heating, ventilation and air conditioning.

He worked on the building of offices springing up around Stephen's Green in the seventies and he loved rubbing shoulders with some of the country's best architects.

The Baggot Street office where he had his desk was not far from the transfusion service's then headquarters in Leeson Street at Pelican House where there were regular clinics.

Passing by on his way from work one day, he succumbed to their offer of a free bottle of Guinness - 'it seemed a good idea'.

The beer - alleged to be effective in replacing the iron sucked from the arms of donors - is no longer on the menu. But, stout or no stout, John was hooked, and the new recruit discovered that he was of particular interest to them.

His contribution was analysed and turned out to be of the O Negative type - the much prized universal donor. He saw it as his duty to turn up to Leeson Street four times a year, enjoying his bottle of stout and a few biscuits for reward.

When the full-time clinic moved to nearby Mespil Road, this was not a problem and he continued to call in.

After he married Catherine and their four boys began to arrive, he made the effort slightly less often but never quite called a halt.

They moved back to Dunlavin, so he attended passing clinics that occasionally visit all the local towns rather than reporting to head office.

The immaculate record keeping of the service eventually detected that he had hit the 50 donation mark and the milestone was marked with a gold emblem.

By now he was working for the family building business run by his brothers, which had been set up by his father, Larry O'Reilly.

It was in 1992 that Larry was diagnosed with the leukaemia that claimed his life at the age of 80 within a matter of a year after diagnosis.

The treatment for the disease featured the use of blood transfusions: 'That made me determined to keep going, to keep donating,' says John.

Life has moved on since and his work circumstances have changed dramatically, given a jolt into a fresh direction by the Celtic Tiger crash.

'The recession came very suddenly and we did not see it coming,' he says. 'There was such a turnaround from 2008 into 2009.'

He moved from the battered remnants of the construction industry to become a first aid instructor, drawing on his experience as a member since 1980 of the Red Cross through the Glen of Imaal mountain rescue service.

He has also been involved in the pioneering work of the Dunlavin Community First Responders - 'that's my passion, my hobby.'

The idea is to support people who may be on the verge of heart attack or stroke with the help of neighbourly volunteers.

The reality is that an ambulance will not roll up to the door of the patient for at least half an hour after the 999 call is made, or much longer if the paramedics have to drive all the way from Dun Laoghaire.

Into this worrying gap step the First Responders with their defibrillator, who can be on the spot within very few minutes.

The former engineer is one of 14 volunteers who take it in turn to hold the phone dedicated to the service, primed to spring into action whenever the alarm is raised…

A‌long the way, the record keepers in the IBTS noted recently that John had reached the 100 donation mark and sent him out an invitation to dinner. He found himself in the Crowne ‌Plaza enjoying a very pleasant meal in the company of more than 30 others who had attained the same impressive landmark.

All the centurions were called up one by one to receive their mementoes.

The man handing out the ceramic pelicans at the Crowne Plaza was Transfusion Service chairman Professor Anthony Staines.

The professor is full of admiration for John O'Reilly and others who have chalked up 100 donations.

And he has a confession to make to these stalwarts of the organisation that he heads.

He reveals that he is not himself a donor, being barred as someone who received a transfusion during a past illness which required extensive surgery. The rules are very strict and this legacy from a spell of poor health has ruled him permanently offside.

Such rigidly enforced guidelines reflect an organisation which is devoted to meticulously high standards.

The chairman, who lectures in public health at DCU, acknowledges that failure to take precautions can lead to fatalities and has done so in the past. The scandal of hepatitis infected supplies of blood products was a disaster, still remembered with horror a generation later.

Most of the problems at that time were imported from the United States where donors were often paid to roll up their sleeves.

Now the American service has fallen into line with the way it has always been in Ireland, relying on volunteers. 'We give a cup of tea and a chocolate biscuit,' is how Anthony sums up the approach which has always been the policy in this country.

More than 80,000 donations are taken each year, enough to keep supplies of all blood types in stock throughout the country's health service.

'Our donors select themselves and they are a very committed group. It is quite an achievement to reach the century,' comments the professor. 'If you give blood regularly for 35 years of so you'll be at the 100 mark - at three per year.' The amount taken each time is fairly close to a pint - a precisely measured 450 millilitres in fact. 'For an adult in good health, losing that much blood is not of any consequence.'

The precious liquid is usually split up into red cells, plasma and platelets at a facility in Dublin at St James's Hospital, with the white cells thrown away. Some of the blood is required to deal with surgical emergencies, bowel haemorrhages and crisis births. But the greatest demand of all comes from cancer units, combating the side-effects of chemotherapy in a way that allows more effective treatment of tumours.

Donors really do make a difference and there is always room for more of them in the clinic, whether they donate once or donate a hundred times like John O'Reilly.

'We encourage people to come and to bring a friend,' says Anthony Staines.

Ironically, after all the applause and the dinner and the fuss, John O'Reilly has been stood down as a donor - though only temporarily. A one year bar was imposed after he attended a family wedding on the island of Santorini. The expedition to Greece automatically triggered the 12-month disqualification on the off chance that he (and his precious O Negative blood) might have been exposed to malaria.

However, he is told that there is no age limit on donation once all other criteria are met, so he looks forward to rolling up his sleeve once more in the near future. One incentive to do so is born of sibling rivalry, as it might be nice to surpass the record of his brother Larry junior who has also clocked up 100. And he needs to maintain his lead over his sister Maebh who is fast approaching three figures, making the O'Reilly family one of the transfusion service's most remarkable supporters.

'I still hate needles,' John reveals. 'I feel the pinch and I look away.'

Bray People