How To Donate Blood Plasma In London, And Why You Should

M@
By M@

Last Updated 17 May 2024

How To Donate Blood Plasma In London, And Why You Should

We all know about donating blood, but have you heard about plasma donation? Here's how to do it, and why the NHS needs it.

It's not, I have to admit, what I was expecting. An NHS centre high in the sky. The clinic I seek occupies part of the eighth floor of Regal House, a handsome if not-exactly-regal 20th century office block.

Regal House in Twickenham
Image: Matt Brown

This is Twickenham's plasma donation centre — the only such facility in London. I'm here to donate an armful. But this won't be a crimson deposit. Plasma is a translucent orange substance that makes up about 55% of the blood.

The NHS sorely needs more plasma donations. It can be used to treat numerous conditions, and is also helpful in many lines of medical research. So I'm here to make a contribution, and to try my best to persuade you to do the same.

Why should I become a plasma donor?

Plasma, it turns out, is a very useful substance. It's chock-full of antibodies. People with compromised immune systems, for example, often benefit from a plasma donation. Trauma, burn and shock patients can also be helped with plasma. It's found a therapeutic use in over 50 conditions.

The NHS's plasma site gives a few case studies. There's baby Aurora, who had the rare Kawasaki disease and would have almost certainly died without plasma treatment. Candi has to have regular plasma-based medicine to ward off a potentially fatal immune disorder. Some 17,000 people in England benefit from plasma donations every year.

What happens at a plasma donation session

I have to admit, I've never donated blood before, never mind plasma. So all this is new to me. I feel a little nervous when the lift doors open and deposit me outside the plasma centre. Any jitters are soon settled, though, by the unfailingly friendly staff. Also, there's a view to be admired:

A view across a tree lined Twickenham
My, isn't Twickenham green and pleasant?

After a very short wait, and lots of water, I'm taken over to a donation chair for a vein check — a simple examination of both arms to make sure I own a suitably prominent blood vessel. I do. On both arms. Go me!

The next step is a brief consultation with a nurse, to run through a health and lifestyle questionnaire. Word of warning... make sure you know your height and weight. I have a sketchy idea of the former and literally no idea of the latter, which apparently makes me a very unusual 40-something.

The questionnaire also probes recent travel history, in case I'd been anywhere distinctly malarial. I have not been anywhere more exotic than the Welsh borders since Covid, so I pass with non-flying colours.

A quick finger-prick test also confirms that my iron levels are sufficient, and so it's on to the big chair...

Matt Brown sits in a chair donating plasma
Relaxing in the chair.

It's a comfortable, reclining thing, this chair. I want to take it home with me afterwards. The nurses encourage me to relax, drink more water ("little sips"), and admire the view. The needle, when it comes, passes into the vein without any pain. I feel completely at ease.

I watch as my blood passes along a tube into a bit of kit called a plasmapheresis machine. This centrifuges the blood to separate off the red blood cells. The plasma is retained in a plastic bag, while the deep-red, cellular portion is pumped back into my arm via the same tube.

The donation takes about 40 minutes. For whatever reason, I'm unable to produce as much plasma as some donors, but I'm reassured that my contribution will still be very useful for medical research.

Matt Brown holds a plasma donation
Plasma looks a lot like Irn Bru. Have to admit, that's a full bag from an earlier donation. I couldn't quite match that.

All done, the tube is removed from my arm, which is then decorated with a light dressing. I'm plied with biscuits and Mini Cheddars as a very agreeable way of restoring my sugar and salt levels. The nurses ask how I feel. Several times. Some people can experience dizziness after donating blood or plasma, so the staff need to make sure all is well before I can go home.

I feel no ill effects, whatsoever — apart from a cheesy breath from the Mini Cheddars. Plasma donation is a little easier on the system than conventional blood donations, because your red blood cells are returned to your arm. For this reason, plasma donors can return much more frequently than blood donors, who must wait 12 weeks for the red blood cell levels to return to normal. It's part of the reason that plasma is collected directly from a donor, rather than extracting it from existing blood stocks.

I walk out of the centre with mixed emotions. On the one hand, I'd just done something good, something that could save lives. On the other, I felt regret that I'd left it so long. Giving plasma (or blood) is surprisingly easy and pain free. If you're like me and always felt "I should do that", but never quite managed it, then use this opportunity to sign up. And if you decide to go for plasma at Twickenham, you'll get that great view, to boot.

How to book for a plasma donation

It's a doddle. Simply head to the NHS site and fill in your details. Twickenham is the only centre in London right now, though additional units are planned. You might find it easier to get to an alternative centre in Reading (now on the Elizabeth line). A third donation centre is in Birmingham. Be sure to follow the guidelines about eating and drinking ahead of your visit.