Blood Bikes Wales was awarded the Organisation of the Year Award at WCVA Welsh Charities Awards in November 2019. Fiona Liddell, WCVA’s Helpforce Cymru Manager, met with Nigel Ward, Chair of Blood Bikes Wales Chair, to find out more.
How it began
The Blood Bikes movement began in London in the 1960s. ‘It was recognised’ said Nigel ‘that the fastest way to negotiate traffic was by motorbike. Sometime hospitals do not have the right blood for a patient’s blood type, or they have the right blood in the wrong place. That is where Blood Bikes Wales can help.’
In 2010, a small group of bikers from Wales met the Nationwide Association of Blood Bikes at an exhibition stand and was inspired to take things further. After discussion in a Cardiff pub about whether and how this could work in Wales, £10,000 was raised, bikes obtained from other Blood Bikes groups, volunteers recruited and trained, charity registration sorted and procedures put in place. Health Boards were approached with a view to establishing a service level agreement.
Two years later Blood Bikes Wales was up and running, beginning in Swansea and soon spreading to other parts of Wales, with the latest (the eighth) group being launched in Powys in September 2019.
Blood Bikes Wales works to nationally agreed standards for riding and training and offers a service that is free to the NHS. The NHS has its own courier service and the Blood Bikes service complements this.
What volunteers do
Volunteers take on one of two operational roles: riders and controllers, but behind every bike is a team comprised of fundraisers, trainers, administrators etc. In Wales there are more than 50 controllers and around 100 riders – including men and women.
Controllers take referrals from NHS and liaise with volunteer riders. An online rota is drawn up for scheduled assignments and on-call cover. The progress of individual jobs is tracked to ensure they are fulfilled in a safe and timely manner.
Riders transport not only blood, but also x-rays, medication and breastmilk as required. For long journeys a relay approach is taken, sometimes involving coordination between several Blood Bikes groups to get across the country. Wales blood bikers covered 275,000 miles last year, or 5,000 miles per week.
Fundraisers play a crucial role in organising events and encouraging public donations and corporate sponsorship – all of which sustains the work.
Making a difference
‘Not every hospital has a pharmacy and not every pharmacy has all the medicine that is needed. We are asked to transport medication, and sometime the need is urgent’ said Nigel Ward.
‘We also assist on-call GPs who determine that a patient, often housebound is in urgent need of medication. This will make a difference between helping the patient to feel better at home or being admitted to hospital with a worsening condition.’
In West Wales blood bikers do a ‘chemo run’ every week. ‘Chemo therapy needs to be tailored for each session, according to the patient’s blood chemistry’ said Nigel ‘patients would have bloods taken on a Monday and then appropriate treatment would be prepared for them. Patients could be waiting for several hours and the chemotherapy treatment itself can have unpleasant side effects.
‘After discussion with the Health Board, Blood Bikes Wales has helped to devise a better system. Patients visit their GP on a Friday morning to have bloods taken. A volunteer rider collects samples from a number of surgeries and takes them to the lab where they are analysed. By the time the patient visits the hospital clinic on Monday, the results are back and the treatment is ready’.
Sometimes the best option for newborn babies is the natural one. Generous nursing mothers express breast milk and donate this to a milk bank, where it is screened and prepared, ready for distribution to where it is needed. Blood bikers collect donated milk from individuals’ homes and deliver it to milk banks and they take milk from milk banks to the neo natal intensive care units where it is needed.
‘One new mother, who was a cancer survivor, was unable to feed her newborn baby herself. Within an hour of a phonecall, the milk bank had a feeding plan arranged for her’ said Nigel.
‘Another new mum recently fell ill and had to go into hospital, leaving father and baby at home. Blood bikers were able to take expressed milk from her back home to the baby for a few days, until she had fully recovered.
‘Human milk banks are often charities themselves. They would have to pay a courier were it not for the free service offered by Blood bike volunteers.’
Sometimes Blood bikers are asked to carry unusual items – all medical and all important. ‘We were asked once to carry specialized surgical equipment 100 miles across Wales and to wait while an operation was completed and the item sterilized before bringing it back. It was the only one of its kind in the country!’ said Nigel.
‘We have carried titanium pins for hip operations to a hospital 60 miles away. Without this, the scheduled operation would have been cancelled’
Challenges and developments
The organisation has grown rapidly. There are no paid staff and decisions are made by a committee comprising representatives from each area group. ‘It is a challenge to make the best use of our time in meetings and to make decisions in an inclusive but efficient way’ said Nigel.
The use of social media is another challenge. ‘Members need to be careful about what they post and always to be mindful of the reputation of the organisation. Reputation is everything’ Nigel said.
Looking forward, Blood Bikes Wales aspires to reduce the time it takes for new volunteers to get trained and ready to start. Nigel said ‘we aim to have new volunteers on board within two months’. The demand for Blood Bikes is growing and this will give rise to new organisational and logistical challenges in the future.
‘Despite the challenges it is amazing how much we accomplish’ said Nigel. Volunteers are proud to be able to support the NHS in this way; as one said ‘I owe a lot to the NHS, personally and in the past for family. There is also a selfish reason…,, having to ride in all weathers keeps me on my toes and hopefully keeps my riding skills honed!’. ‘The reward comes from knowing you have made a difference, saved someone’s life or just made them more comfortable’ said another volunteer
Helpforce is working with Third Sector Support Wales (WCVA and 19 County Voluntary Councils) and other partners to develop the potential of volunteering in health and social care services.