Juliet Rowan is a reporter for Bay of Plenty Times Weekend

The Big Read: Donor decline

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Tauranga's population is growing but the number of blood donors is declining. Juliet Rowan visits the New Zealand Blood Service's donor centre and talks to those who go out of their way to give the fit of life-saving blood and plasma.
Tauranga Blood Donor Centre clinical nurse leader Annemarie Pidwell. Photo/George Novak.
Tauranga Blood Donor Centre clinical nurse leader Annemarie Pidwell. Photo/George Novak.

It's Tuesday morning and the NZ Blood Service donor centre on Cameron Rd is humming.

Plastic lunch boxes full of biscuits - chocolate, crackers and shortbread - wait for those donating blood and plasma.

Outside the sky is grey but inside the room is warm and inviting, a coffee machine whirring behind the biscuit-covered table.

A square of red chairs surrounds the table and the atmosphere is jovial, real estate agent Ross Steele sauntering in and immediately checking the treats on offer.

"I only give blood on a Tuesday," the 59-year-old announces. "It's sticky bun day."

Ross is wearing a cartoon tie and odd socks, each foot clad in different colour stripes.

He is a joker, as is Bronwyn Atkinson, who says "the choccy bikkies" are the reason she drives from Whakamarama to donate plasma once a fortnight.

Dennise Clark is manager of Jenny Craig next door and wisecracks that she had better say the donor centre staff are lovely because nurse Christine Gordon is standing over her.

Christine is about to remove Dennise's needle. "I'll pay you later," Christine tells her.

Above the reception is a sign that reads: "Thanks for going out of your way to save lives."

It is a reminder that beneath the banter, people come here for a serious purpose - to give blood to help others survive.

"For me, it's almost a charity," says Dennise, 40, who also donates plasma.

Dennise's mother had breast cancer and Dennise says knowing plasma is used in blood products given to cancer patients is a cause close to her heart. She has donated blood and plasma about 40 times, saying it is painless and costs her nothing.

It's an hour of your time and you really are helping to save someone's life.
NZBS' Askua Burge

Donating plasma takes longer than whole blood - 45 minutes to an hour, compared to five to 10 minutes for whole blood -and Dennise takes the opportunity to relax.

"It's a good way for me to be able to sit down and do nothing for an hour."

Dennise fits donations around her job and is out the door by 9.30am, saying she will work a little later that evening.

Bronwyn is still in the chair giving plasma and chatting away to a nurse.

"We were just comparing dog clothes," she says. "I quite often get put in the naughty corner because I talk too much."

Real estate agent Ross Steele, who is donating blood with the help of Jeffrey Legayada, sees giving blood as 'giving to the community'. Photo/George Novak.
Real estate agent Ross Steele, who is donating blood with the help of Jeffrey Legayada, sees giving blood as 'giving to the community'. Photo/George Novak.

The day marks her 90th donation, and she shows Bay of Plenty Times Weekend the total on a new Blood Service app on her phone.

To donate plasma, Bronwyn is hooked up to a machine via a single needle that separates the antibody-rich plasma from the rest of her blood.

The ale-coloured plasma drains into a bag, while the red blood cells and platelets are returned to her body.

Bronwyn, who turns 48 today, admits she dislikes seeing the needle but just looks away.

She says knowing that five litres of plasma is needed to make one vial of cancer-fighting blood products spurs her to donate a 650ml bag as often as possible.

The Tauranga centre has eight plasma collection machines, and it takes just 24 hours for the body to restore the lost fluid, and two weeks for the plasma to rejuvenate. Whole blood donors, by contrast, can only donate once every three months, and people cannot donate plasma until they have given whole blood.

Ross, the real estate agent, has given blood since the 1980s and calls it "doing my bit for the community".

He says he never feels any ill-effects, planning to play tennis that evening, and he challenges others to do the same.

"Get off your butt and come in the front door. There are friendly staff here and you get a sticky bun."

Plasma donor Dennise Clark donates plasma once a fortnight. Photo/George Novak.
Plasma donor Dennise Clark donates plasma once a fortnight. Photo/George Novak.

A shuttle-load of human resources staff from Tauranga Hospital are finishing giving blood as Ross arrives.

Rebecca Fisher, 57, was unable to give blood for many years because of illness but is donating again this year, while Diane Cockrell, also 57, comes every three months.

Sarah Blackie, 32, was spurred to try after seeing a TV programme about a shortage of blood supplies, and says she would definitely return. "It's an easy way to save lives."

Clinical nurse leader Annemarie Pidwell says the centre's staff of 11 do their best to reassure new donors who are apprehensive and the enticement of a nice treat afterwards helps.

Two local companies donate food - Blomquists Bakery of Greerton on Tuesdays, and Cafe Alfresco on Thursdays - and Annemarie says it is nice to have the community support.

While there is a welcome buzz in the centre that morning, the number of donors in Tauranga is declining.

Annemarie says there are times in the middle of the day when the centre is empty and particular seasons can be quiet. "Winter we struggle a bit with flus and colds, and sometimes January and school holidays because people are away."

According to the NZ Blood Service's national office, the number of whole blood donors in Tauranga has dropped from 4101 last year to 3837 now.

While there has been a slight rise in plasma donors, total donor numbers fell from 4650 to 4571.

The decline is happening as Tauranga's population grows, reaching 117,600 in the 2013 census and estimated to have swelled to 130,000 by June last year.

With the increase in people comes increased demand for blood and blood products - and a constant need to recruit new donors.

Nationwide, only 4 per cent of eligible people donate blood, despite 3000 donations being needed to supply hospitals each week.

Steve Dalgety, NZ Blood's recruitment team leader for Waikato/Bay of Plenty, prefers to phrase the 4 per cent statistic another way: "Ninety-six per cent of people who are eligible don't," he says.

Steve was employed by the service after 21 years in sales and marketing, and wants to encourage more companies to allow their staff to donate during work hours, saying it is "a corporate responsibility".

Steve also organises the service's mobile blood drives around the central North Island and has encountered a misconception that most blood is used to treat car-crash patients.

"People think donating blood is just when you lose blood. In fact, the biggest use is in the treatment of cancer."

Donor Bronwyn Atkinson jokes that the 'choccy bikkies' keep her coming back to donate plasma. Photo/George Novak
Donor Bronwyn Atkinson jokes that the 'choccy bikkies' keep her coming back to donate plasma. Photo/George Novak

Bay of Plenty District Health Board oncologist Richard North says the reason is simple: "Accidents are relatively uncommon and cancer, unfortunately, is very common."

He says although most cancer patients do not need many transfusions, there are a lot of patients. "And if people are having protracted courses of therapy for their cancer then it is common for them to need a blood transfusion at some point in their cancer journey."

Dr North says blood donation is vital to the ongoing, safe functioning of every haematology and oncology unit, and without blood donations, oncologists could not safely treat people with chemotherapy.

"Many haematology patients, whose bodies no longer make adequate blood supplies, are kept alive for many years through these generous donations."

The bone marrow of patients on chemotherapy could also be affected, leaving them temporarily unable to produce enough blood and in need of support with donated blood.

"Finally, patients with advanced, terminal cancer are often anaemic and the support of blood transfusions significantly improves their wellbeing and quality of life, allowing them to gain more enjoyment from their limited time."

Dr North encourages more people to donate blood, saying it doesn't just help obvious cases like accident patients and children with leukaemia or haemophilia.

"There are many more applications for blood products. All of these are just as laudable, being life-extending and quality-of-life improving."

He adds, "Doctors use these blood donations as infrequently as possible as we know it is a limited and precious resource."

NZ Blood's national manager of marketing and communications, Asuka Burge, says there are about 110,000 donors nationwide but the number fluctuates and more are always needed. Plasma donors are particularly sought after because plasma can be turned into 13 different blood products.

"It's really valuable," Asuka says. "It's an hour of your time and you really are helping to save someone's life."

The need for blood
- Blood only lasts for 35 days
- Less than 4 per cent of the eligible population donates
- Three thousand donatoins are needed every week to meet hospital needs
- Each donation can save up to three lives
- A total of 42,000 New Zealanders are treated with blood or blood products each year

Donor centre nurse Christine Gordon and plasma donor Dennise Clark. Photo/George Novak.
Donor centre nurse Christine Gordon and plasma donor Dennise Clark. Photo/George Novak.

There's an app for that!

Whole blood donors who download a new app will receive notification when their blood has been used to help another person.
To mark World Blood Donor Day on June 14, the New Zealand Blood Service launched a mobile phone app to alert donors to blood drives across the country.
More than half of blood donations are made through mobile blood drives and the app allows users to access maps of all blood drives nationwide and book appointments online. It also alerts donors when their blood type is urgently needed and tells them how long before they can make a donation again.
See www.nzblood.co.nz for more information on the app.

- Bay of Plenty Times

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