The NHS needs platelets. Why is it only middle-aged white men who donate them?

It pains me to say it, but thank God for middle-aged white men. Judging by what I have seen over the last 10 years as an ardent platelet donor at St George’s Hospital in Tooting, south London, older white men seem to almost single-handedly supply British hospitals with platelets. I would even go so far as to estimate that they make up a disproportionate 97 per cent of all donors.

What even are platelets, I hear you ask in a quizzical tone. Don’t worry — I didn’t know either until I started giving them. Platelets are very small cells in the blood which help to stop or prevent bleeding. They are given to people who are unable to make enough platelets in their bone marrow — for example, patients with leukaemia or other cancers and patients who have lost blood after injury or major surgery.

Tooting is a massively multicultural area and at St George’s Hospital there are many wonderfully devoted black and brown nurses and carers. But, when it comes to the donors, the overwhelming majority are white men over 40. And quite frankly, this irks me. I’m tired of being the only light brown face in a sea of white ones.

It’s a problem for the patients too. For those who need regular transfusions, a donor of the same ethnic background can lead to a ‘better clinical outcome’. As Lynne Moulder, of NHS Blood and Transplant, explains: ‘There is a need for more donors of different ethnic backgrounds, especially those of black and Asian heritage, to come forward.’ (There is a campaign underway to encourage more donors, not just of platelets but of blood and organs too.)

Other civic-minded black and brown donors surely exist, but why don’t I see them more often? Do our paths just never cross on the days we donate? Or should I confront the unpalatable truth that, when it comes to being philanthropic with their blood and platelets, people of colour need a collective kick up the derrière?

Like all other donors, I have the usual variety of personal reasons for giving. I try to follow the African-American proverb that ‘service is the rent we pay for living.’ Moreover, my dad and uncle both had prostate cancer and my best friend lost his mum prematurely to bowel cancer. I used to give blood at college, but after several years was told I had very good veins and then, when tested, an exceptionally high platelet count, so decided to switch to giving platelets instead (since you can’t do both).

So if I am an anomaly, to what can we ascribe the appalling paucity of people of colour who choose to give blood and platelets?

Now I understand that, according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, your fundamental bases have to be covered before you can begin to start flourishing as a human being. Hence, since the black and brown middle class in Britain is still nascent (unlike in the US), I do understand why middle-class people — more secure and affluent — can afford to give more back to society, whereas working-class people might be too busy trying to make ends meet to be charitable.

It could be a cultural thing, too. I have one friend who, having read about the nefarious Tuskegee experiments conducted on African-American men in Alabama between 1932 and 1972, now believes all Western hospitals to be vicious instruments of Babylon. Perennially cynical of what injections might really contain, he sees all white medical treatment as a state-sponsored conspiracy to extirpate the black race. His is obviously an extreme (and risible) reaction, but is the well-documented history of black oppression at the hands of white institutions a legitimate factor in not wanting to donate?

Truth to tell, I’m tired of making excuses for my fellow ethnics. Whatever the reason, we should all do our civic duty. We all now live as (ostensibly) equal players in this society, so we must all equally contribute to its betterment.

Let’s start by getting some high-profile black and brown Britons as role models to promote blood and platelet giving. Why not get the new, Tooting-born London mayor Sadiq Khan down to St George’s, alongside Hollywood heartthrob Idris Elba and double Olympic champion Mo Farah?

Giving blood and platelets helps sick people get better. And, God forbid, one day we might even need that help ourselves. To quote Kipling, albeit ironically, British people of colour really do need to pick up the white man’s burden and take the hefty weight off his shoulders. And, if you really can’t think of a better reason, how about doing it for the smorgasbord of free custard creams, Mini Cheddars and tea you get afterwards?

How to donate platelets:

  • Zach Stewart

    Yes, it pains you to say anything good about white men. We know. We’re tired of hearing this crap.

    • Steve

      Now l re-read the article, you are quite right. That is a peculiarly offensive first sentence. Racism and intolerance works both ways and I am surprised that this journal tolerates it.

  • Steve

    I am a white middle aged man who has been giving platelets at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford for over 10 years now. I confirm the truth of this article. I have seen a couple of Asian men, no more than 6 women and no black men or women in the entire time that l have been going. It is very striking this omission and l cannot explain it.

    • Chloe

      I also donate at the JR Steve, I am black mixed race woman under 25 and the only other people colour I’ve seen was my Jamaican aunt who introduced me and the male donor carer (I can’t remember his name now but he’s a great guy). I am too petite to donate platelets so I can only donate whole blood.
      I have asked all of my black family and all of my extended Asian family (who are admittedly very squeamish!) and none of them will try it. It is really frustrating. I’ve so far donated 5 times and I’ve managed to introduce 4 people to donating but they are all white women. I can’t understand why it’s so hard to get BAME people to donate. 🙁

  • gr8help

    I feel the need to defend women! I have had tests to see if I can donate platelets (I donate whole blood regularly) but I have been told that I’ll never be able to donate platelets!
    Apparently once a woman has had children (especially if the woman is rhesus negative) the platelets won’t separate for platelet donations!
    The first time I was turned down I didn’t believe it and so a few years later I went to John Radcliffe Hospital with my daughter, who donates every 4 weeks, for tests and was told again that I couldn’t and the reason why!

  • Rikk

    It pains you to say a positive about middle-aged white men? I’m a 29 year old white male. It pains me to have a needle in my arm but you know what, I’m saving people. Put that s**t back in your mouth and not on us misandrist bigot! Maybe you could get a job at the Guardian or Daily mail with the other man-hating feminazis!

    • Colin

      Rude reply, missing the main point !

  • Alex Kilbey

    Racist, sexist and ageist all in the first sentence – well done on getting everybody on board; you will make a great diplomat.

    However, the article has made me look at platelet donation. I am surprised that it is not available at all major hospitals. I will have to travel to Birmingham to donate and, even then, I can only get there at the weekend and it closes 3:50. I understand that this equipment may well be expensive but I would suggest that making it more available may also increase uptake.

    From a white, middle-aged, middle-class man.

  • Tiffanni

    I used to donate blood regularly I’m AB+ so can’t help too many people with my blood but then realised I could help loads through donating platelets. I had a test and was told I couldn’t donate, I then received another letter telling me they didn’t need me to donate blood anymore! Rare blood group.. Not because I am unwilling as I would love to have donated platelets as I would have been s universal doner!

  • Dulius

    I’m confused…

    Are you angry that we white men don’t live down to your clearly sexist and racist views?

  • dave7444

    I think they should be thanking God for middle aged white men of a certain class and age, as while there are white men there will always be some middle aged ones.

    I couldn’t donate platelets as my blood was, similar to a lot of people, to be unusable by their machine, even though my personal machine runs perfectly okay on it.

  • the African-American proverb that ‘service is the rent we pay for living.’
    I’m American and I’m not aware that this is an ‘African-American’ proverb. I’m not aware that they have any proverbs at all. Nothing against them, but are you sure you’ve got the derivation right?