A grandad who is the only known donor in Britain with a rare blood type had his red cells flown to Hong Kong to treat a two-year-old child.
Richard Eddowes, 78, has shared his story for the first time as NHS Blood and Transplant (NHSBT) appealed for more diverse donors to come forward.
His blood has the extremely rare McLeod phenotype, making him a “VIP donor”.
Richard donates as often as he can and said he was “quite chuffed” to have helped save lives across the globe, with his blood transported as far as New Zealand.
He added: “I keep offering to take my arm there but they haven’t taken the hint yet!”
NHSBT received a request in September from the Hong Kong Red Cross Blood Transfusion Service.
Doctors were treating a two-year-old patient with an immunodeficiency disease. The child had undergone chemotherapy and a stem cell infusion but urgently needed a blood transfusion.
Medical staff contacted Richard, of Bromley in London, and his blood was dispatched.
British patients have also received blood from overseas thanks to the International Blood Group Reference Laboratory based in Bristol, which coordinates donors from 27 countries.
Pensioner Richard has made 110 donations since the 1960s. Remembering his first donation, he said: “I worked in the Royal Dockyard in Portsmouth as an apprentice. They came around – the blood service had a travelling unit.
“I was a motorcyclist and I thought, ‘I’m probably going to need some of my own blood back at some point’, so I volunteered.”
Blood types are determined by the combination of proteins called antigens on the surface of red blood cells.
Most people are familiar with the ABO system but there are 43 others that are less common. Within these, there are 354 known antigen types.
A blood type is considered rare if one in 1,000, or fewer, people have it. Some patients can tolerate a transfusion from an imperfect match, but others will suffer a dangerous reaction.
There are only a handful of people in the world with the McLeod type and only one other person who Richard could receive a transfusion from.
Luckily he has built up a strong stock of 31 units at NHSBT’s Frozen Blood Bank in Liverpool.
The Daily Express visited the facility to see how valuable rare units are stored for up to 30 years.
When a liquid blood donation arrives, the water inside is replaced with glycerol ready for freezing at -80C.
The units are kept in eight freezers with the rarest types at the bottom to keep them coldest in case a freezer malfunctions.
A team of four staff is ready to respond to requests for blood 24/7 and looks after more than 1,100 samples. The oldest dates back to 1999.
Blood bank manager Gina Howarth said experts’ understanding of blood types had come a long way in recent years but certain kinds are in short supply.
These include the Bombay and In(b-) types which are more common in donors of Asian heritage.
Gina said: “Ten or 15 years ago I was telling people there were 20 blood group systems, so it’s only getting bigger and we’re finding more different types.
“The more diversity we can get, the better it is for us. Bombay is quite in demand but we’ve only got three donors, and only one is active at the moment.
“In the last few months of last year there were three different pregnant women with that type, so it was very hard to ensure we had stock to cover their births.”
Blood is most commonly requested to treat patients with sickle cell disorder, caused by abnormally shaped blood cells.
Last year they accounted for 72 per cent of orders. Some 14.5 per cent were for women giving birth, 12 per cent for surgery and 1.5 per cent for newborn babies.
Gina added: “Whatever your background, please donate. And thank you to those people who do donate, because that’s what keeps us going and supporting patients.”