If I described him as being on a one-man blood donation crusade, Ricky Wilson wouldn’t like it. If I told you he was an unsung hero for many patients at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, he would shake his head and say: “No, no, no!”.
If I told you he was actively being a part of the change he wants to see in the world, he would crinkle his nose and say: “All right, Katrina, that’s enough!”
But the fact is, Ricky Wilson is all that –– and so much more.
Since the age of 18 Ricky has donated a whopping 100 pints of blood to the National Blood Bank; and he is now 52 years old.
Just to give you some context, the only person who has donated more than he, is Dr Terry Meeks, who has given 103 pints. Through marriage, children, and a job as a sustainable development consultant that sends him to far-flung climes, the strapping gentle giant has made donating blood every three months as habitual as brushing his teeth.
Seeking no fame or reward, or anything else, other than to encourage others to do the same, Ricky accepted my invitation to a coffee shop About Town, so he might tell me his story –– in particular, what makes someone a lifelong volunteer blood donor in a society where it is not the norm.
It all started with a life-threatening accident.
“I was still at Harrison College back in 1980, and there was a call for blood, because one of our pupils had been involved in a hit-and-run accident. The only requirement was that you had to be 18 years old. So a group of us went.
“We were scared . . . because we had never done it before; and I made a lot of jokes and sport with the nurses at the time, because I was using that comedy to mask my fear. But I realized it was a very simple process and relatively pain-free.
“So after that, I just continued to give as regularly as I could, once I was in the country and wasn’t overseas studying. So every three months, I would go to give a pint.” Ricky said simply.
Of all the friends who joined him on that fateful day, Ricky is the only one who made a commitment to voluntarily donate blood every three months, once he was able.
I was curious. Why does a happening at age 18 determine the type of community service one man does, yet has little or no impact on his contemporaries 30 to 40 years later?
“I had all these fears of needles, because this was around the time when [the HIV virus was first discovered]; so you were very scared of getting pricked by needles, but when I realized it would have been such an easy process –– and then one of the benefits of giving blood is that you get your blood pressure taken, you get a free HIV test, you get free blood work done, so you know on the back end that you’re good. It’s a good insurance blanket to have,” he admitted confidently.
In fact, the testing is quite thorough to ensure you are a suitable candidate for donation –– both for the quality of the blood product provided and the health and safety of the donor. The tests include haemoglobin levels [haemoglobin is the component of red blood cells responsible for carrying oxygen]; screening for a range of infectious diseases; blood grouping and red cell antibody screening.
Of course, if you are a fan of body art and modifications like tattoos and piercings, you will be told how long between each modification you must wait for it to be safe for you to put yourself forward as a voluntary donor. In Barbados the protocol is three months. To the uninitiated, that sounds like a mouthful but Ricky explained that “it’s a fairly simple process; it only takes –– from the time you go in to sit down until the time you leave –– about half an hour. And at the end of it you get some orange juice and digestive biscuits!” whispered the mischievous lovable rogue.
Now from a medical point of view, that treat is purely to restore your blood sugar levels and prevent giddiness and lightheadedness in the hour or so after you have donated. But the human body is such a wondrous organ that by the time you’ve donated that pint, compensatory measures are taking place to ensure you’re eventually back up to your functional quota. In truth, when I was first called on to donate blood to someone in need, I anticipated a long and tedious process. But it wasn’t. The questionnaire I was asked to fill out was conducted in strictest confidence and the nurses and phlebotomists were all so pleasant and helped me to relax.
Another myth that Ricky wants to dispel is that larger people have more blood to give than people of smaller stature. Standing an imposing six feet, four –– with a backhand at tennis that sends his son scurrying along the back court most weekends –– Ricky has no more or less blood to donate than someone who is five feet, three weighing 130 pounds. His size also has nothing to do with the fact that he is has some standing in the small community of voluntary donors, as his dear mother found out some years ago.
“Not to get Mummy in trouble, but once in the early days when I first gave blood, the Blood Bank called and I wasn’t home, and my mother was freaking out because she knew I had given blood. So she thought they were calling me to tell me I had something wrong.
“But actually it was a call to come [and be] recognized for [donating] 25 pints at a function they were having at the old Police Centre in Weymouth. They were now starting to recognize people [for being regular voluntary donors].
“And I said, ‘But, Mummy, I behave myself. I’m a good boy; and I wouldn’t do anything to jeopardize giving blood’,” as he threw his head back and gave a devilish sort of chuckle at the memory.
Speaking of memories, Ricky can only recall one donation that was uncomfortable. Many nurses and technicians have come and gone in his time but he speaks fondly of Vicky and Phil –– the two nurses he became familiar with in his early days of voluntary donation, and who helped to dispel any lingering fears about the process and quickly became part of an extended family that got together every three months.
In fact, some of the ladies there will seek him out and attend to him personally because they know, for example, that he only ever donates from his left arm. And this, Ricky says, more than being recognized for donating 100 pints is why he does what he does: the personal relationships that are formed; the lives that are impacted far beyond what most imagine; and the ability to create a change in society’s mindset that will be of great help for generations to come.
“Sometimes they would ask for an extra vial because there is some sort of research being done, and they use that as one of the samples in the research. So you are making a contribution to society. You don’t know who is going to benefit.”
Our coffee was long finished; but Ricky’s passion for blood donation seems never to run out. With every personal request he receives to donate, he counters with “Are you donating too?” in an effort to bring the number of regular voluntary donors up.
He’s proud of being able to respond to an emergency situation for a “direct donation”, in which the patient survived. But he wants more appreciation for the loyal band of volunteers who donate to the Blood Bank.
His celebration with cupcakes and a few beverages on the day he donated his 100th pint would be made all the sweeter if, the next time you’re About Town, you pop into the Blood Collection Centre and donate a pint of blood.
What else are you going to do today that will save a life?