Dedicated bikers and supporters who provide a vital out-of-hours NHS service couriering blood and other fluids between hospitals in Cwm Taf Morgannwg are gearing up for a special awareness day, after being ‘busier than ever’ during COVID19.
Today is Blood Bikes Awareness Day, an annual event to celebrate the life-saving work carried out by blood bike organisations across the UK, and this year is particularly poignant due to the pandemic. Before Coronavirus, Blood Bikes Wales’ volunteer riders operated outside of working hours in the ‘Mid’ area – which covers Cwm Taf Morgannwg – to carry patient samples from the pathology lab at Prince Charles Hospital, Merthyr Tydfil, to microbiology in the Royal Glamorgan Hospital, Talbot Green. Since the start of lockdown, however, one rider has been on duty every day, with the charity covering 7am to 7pm on weekdays as well as weekends and bank holidays.
Blood Bikes Wales was formed in 2011 and now has 23 bikes on the road in Wales, with volunteers including controllers, fundraisers and administrators as well as riders. Every member is voluntary, with no paid roles, and the charity is funded entirely by donations.
Mid area rep Alan Harper said: “There was a Blood Bikes group over the border from 1960, who became the Freewheelers. Some of the guys now in our East area saw what was happening over the bridge and put out a call in a Facebook biking group asking if anyone would be interested here. They had a great response and formed a group in Wales, with the first meeting being held here in Pontyclun.
“There were about 40 or 50 volunteers at the time, while today we have 470! I think we are the only charity in Wales with no paid positions at all; all the money goes into keeping the bikes on the road. We purchase all our own equipment, including the bags and boxes to transport samples and, of course, the bikes, which cost around £12,000-14,000 each. We don’t pay road tax, as we’re classed as an emergency service, and we claim VAT back but we get no government funding.”
In the Mid area there are 68 volunteers and two bikes, which are securely stored near the Royal Glamorgan Hospital. Alan said: “On weekends, the rider does a 12-hour shift, starting with collecting the bike and checking it over. Then he will phone the controller to say the bike is ok for the shift.
“In Cwm Taf Morgannwg, we answer urgent calls, which come through to the controller on a dedicated 0300 number. From the moment we respond, we will be there within an hour. We could be transporting anything from blood samples to other fluids, such as human milk, which comes either from Chester or Birmingham Children’s Hospital, in relays to Monmouth. We also do set runs at 7am, 11am, 3pm and 7pm between Prince Charles Hospital and the Royal Glamorgan.”
COVID19 has, of course, had a huge impact on Blood Bikes Wales, with vital fundraising activities such as store collections being put on hold as well as some volunteer riders shielding. As you would expect in an organisation where every rider has an advanced riding certificate, safety has remained at the fore, both on and off the road.
Alan said: “During Covid, you could say that the full biking kit and helmet has become PPE on its own! But, of course, all bikes are cleaned and disinfected after every shift and bikers carry hand sanitisers, rubber gloves and face masks to use when they arrive at the hospital. Every sample we pick up is in a fully sealed bag within a blue padded bag.
“Ninety percent of the time the work is routine; we just pick up the samples from the pathology lab and go. All the riders have had moving experiences, though. Usually we have no idea what we’re carrying, but a year or two back I transported an antidote urgently needed for a child at the University Hospital of Wales. We have also been involved in quite a few relays with blood bikers in other parts of the UK and we know we’ve carried some COVID19 samples within Cwm Taf Morgannwg. If it fits on the bike, we take it!
Volunteer rider Martin Ricketts, senior manager at health plan provider Plutus Health, has volunteered with Blood Bikes Wales since 2013. “I still enjoy it; it’s quite special,” he said. “I get a great sense of satisfaction from volunteering – even though it can be pretty boring riding up and down the A470!
“The shifts that mean the most are those where you get a call in the middle of the night where a newborn baby is suspected of having meningitis and a sample needs to be transported. But every time we pick up, we collect dozens of samples and every one is important.
“The pandemic has had a big impact on our fundraising; thankfully, due to good stewardship, we have reserves, but we need to get money back into the pot and we’re looking forward to being back out collecting as soon as we can. We have just replaced four bikes with new BMW 1250 RTs, and it costs a lot to run each bike.”
The training of new riders was put on hold during lockdown, but this has recently started again and the Mid area team is, in particular, pleased to welcome a new female rider, adding to the growing number of female blood bikers across Wales.
The Blood Bikers are always happy to speak to organisations and teams about their work. To volunteer, make a donation or find out more, visit https://bloodbikes.wales/ or follow the organisation on Twitter and Facebook at @BloodBikesWales.
Photo: ‘Mid’ area rep Alan Harper and rider assessor David Payne of Blood Bikes Wales.