A spur of the moment decision led to me saving 140 lives

I hated needles – and still do – but I’d take that over standing under someone’s armpit on the Tube any day!

A spur of the moment decision led to me saving 140 lives
Left: Brenda Smith wearing winter clothes, sitting in front of Botley Hill Farmhouse on a sunny day, smiling at the camera. Right: Brenda Smith during a blood donation, sitting in the blood donor chair in an indoor sports hall, holding the bag of blood she's just donated and smiling at the camera. (Picture: Brenda Smith)
I like to give blood three times a year, which is the maximum I can give as a woman (Picture: Brenda Smith)

As I sat in a chair with a needle slowly drawing blood from my arm, I nonchalantly flicked through a magazine.

Suddenly, a random man burst into the pop-up caravan outside my local big Sainsbury’s and said: ‘You guys are f***ing brilliant! You saved my life. I was in a motorbike accident, and it’s people like you that really saved me.’

The roomful of fellow donors and I didn’t really know how to respond, so we just stared at him, slightly frightened. He was so overcome with emotion and we didn’t expect it at all.

Eventually, he was ushered out and I went back to reading my magazine – with a quiet sense of satisfaction that I was making a difference.

This is one of the more bizarre – but humbling – experiences I’ve had as a blood donor since I started over 30 years ago. In fact, I’m aiming to make my 50th donation next year.

My first time was completely spur of the moment.

In 1989 at the age of 21, I used to work in London Bridge so I would finish each day dreading my commute back to Croydon during rush hour.

One day, I saw a huge crowd going into the station, but just outside I saw a blood donation van. So I thought I’d kill some time there while I waited until the crowd calmed down.

I hated needles – and still do – but I’d take that over standing under someone’s armpit on the Tube any day! I found it all really simple and straightforward, so I just kept going back over the years.

Brenda Smith out on a walk in a forest, wearing wintry clothes and smiling at the camera.
I volunteer to talk to people at events to try to convince them to sign up (Picture: Brenda Smith)

The whole process is simple. If you’ve not done it before, the first thing that happens is that you register to be a blood donor online with NHS Blood and Transplant (NHSBT) and decide when and where you’d like to donate.

Once you arrive for your appointment, you read a consent booklet and fill out a questionnaire, which you go through with a staff member. You’re then given water to drink – around 500mL – in order for the blood to flow well.

After that, staff will do a finger prick test for haemoglobin (this is used to check that your iron levels are high enough to give blood) and if it’s at an acceptable level, you’re good to go.

The actual blood extraction takes up to 10 minutes and then comes the best bit – you’re invited to have biscuits, tea and coffee. 

They’re very reassuring throughout and it’s all quite efficient. The whole process takes around 45 minutes but they usually advise to allocate a full hour just in case.

For me, I actually look forward to the downtime. I like having a little chat with the staff or reading a magazine.

Others might spend their time differently. In fact, there was one occasion where I was giving blood at the same time as a young woman who simply would not look up from her phone.

Texting with one hand while donating blood from the other arm, she was just so relaxed. I thought to myself: ‘She’s just saved maybe three people’s lives and she’s just so casual about it.’

Brenda donating blood
Donating blood – especially as a person of Black heritage – is so important (Picture: Brenda Smith)

After my donation, I was driving and stopped at a zebra crossing to see her standing there still on her phone! 

I like to give blood three times a year, which is the maximum I can give as a woman. Men can give blood every 12 weeks and women every 16 weeks because the former generally have higher iron levels.

As a result, I’ve been donating pretty regularly since my late 30s. I’m 55 now and I’m actually due for my 48th donation next month. That means I’m planning to have donated 50 times in total next year, which you get a little gold badge for.

Once I reach this milestone, I bet I’ll immediately start to think about hitting 100. Hopefully I’m alive long enough to get there.

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I feel like it’s so important for me to do this work because not a lot of people know that there’s a dire need for donors of Black or mixed heritage.

This is because – to get the best treatment – people need blood that is closely matched to their own and this is most likely to come from a donor of the same ethnicity.

For people needing regular blood transfusions to treat sickle cell disorder, the importance of ethnically-matched blood matters even more. Some people with sickle cell need blood transfusions as frequently as every four weeks to treat their condition and extensive blood matching is needed to avoid complications.

It’s why I joined the Sickle Cell Society in 2020, specifically their ‘Give Blood, Spread Love’ project. I volunteer to talk to people at events to try to convince them to sign up.

After one such conversation, I received a random message from a woman on X (formerly known as Twitter) who had tracked me down to say that she’d found out that she was the Ro subtype of blood.

Brenda Smith (head/shoulders only) smiling at something off camera – a patterned cream-coloured wall behind her.
It’s something so simple that actually saves lives (Picture: Brenda Smith)

It’s incredibly rare, with only 2% of regular donors having it and demand is actually increasing by 10-15% each year. In fact, you’re 10 times more likely to have this subtype if you’re of Black African or Black Caribbean heritage.

She thanked me for urging her to sign up, which was very rewarding.

Through volunteering, I even met actor Sir Lenny Henry. He’s a patron of the Sickle Cell Society so he invited a few of us to a production of August in England – a play he wrote and performed about the Windrush scandal.

I met him after the show and he seemed very kind, as well as interested to find out how many people we signed up.

Donating blood – especially as a person of Black heritage – is so important. It’s something so simple that actually saves lives.

Have you ever donated blood? Have your say in the comments belowComment Now

I just want to get across how easy it is. It’s not onerous and you don’t have to sit in a seat for two hours or anything like that.

If you’re unsure, you can call the Give Blood donor helpline and ask any questions you need. I’m happy to chat too, but the best way to see if you can help is to just take the plunge and book an appointment.

If you do, you’ll be helping to save lives. There’s no greater reward than that.

As told to James Besanvalle.

You can find out more about Give Blood, Spread Love on their Instagram here.

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