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9th June 2016

When blood donation gets personal

Natasha Louise Penney had always been aware of blood donation. But when her 18-month-old son was diagnosed with a rare form of bladder cancer, it took on a whole new meaning.

Suddenly, all those “give blood” campaigns, which many of us know about but don’t really think about, became very personal. On top of the chemotherapy, surgery and other treatments that often left little Sebastian weak and in excruciating pain, he needed regular blood transfusions.

This was because the cancer treatments were helping Sebastian to recover, but they were also stopping his body from properly making blood and its components (red and white blood cells, platelets and plasma). “It’s something a mother never dreams their child will have to go through,” says Natasha, who created a Facebook page documenting Sebastian’s journey.

When it became clear that Sebastian would need many transfusions, Natasha began campaigning vigorously for donors and her little boy became a national poster child for blood donation campaigns run by NHS Blood and Transplant in the UK.

“Without transfusions, Seb would have become extremely ill and may not have been able to recover. Instead, he is running around happy with his new blood,” explains Natasha. “Seb is our superhero. It’s amazing to think that not long ago we were pacing the corridors every night with Sebastian crying and in pain and now he is sleeping beautifully most nights,” she adds.

How blood donation & transfusion works

People who donate blood have to undergo some preliminary health and blood screenings to make sure they’re suitable donors. Those who are eligible are then seated in a special chair, where medical professionals look for a vein in their arm.

The skin is sterilised and then a needle is inserted into the vein to access the blood, which flows through a tube and into a blood collection bag.  A full donation is 470ml and will usually take between five and ten minutes.

To make the most out of every donation, the blood is usually separated into its individual parts so a patient can be given the particular component they need. This means that the components from one donation can be used to treat different patients.

Patients like Sebastian undergo transfusions to receive the donated blood, which is administered via an intravenous (IV) line.

After several harrowing months of treatment, Sebastian is now two years old and cancer free. The chemo and radiotherapy are behind him, but he’ll still need to be monitored closely for the next couple of years.

Natasha and Sebastian’s dad Luke continue to raise awareness about donating blood even though their little boy will hopefully not need any more transfusions. “It’s amazing that lives can be saved by people like this,” says Natasha. “Until you go through it, you don’t realise how massively important it is and the impact it has. So many people we know have signed up to give blood since Seb fell ill.”