Blood bike volunteers deliver vital medical supplies, whatever the weather, whatever time of day. Steven Short discovers how Freemasonry is helping
Blood bikes, often referred to as the fourth emergency service, act as an out-of-hours courier service for the NHS, delivering not just blood and plasma, but a variety of medical samples and equipment throughout the day and night. And they’re operated entirely by volunteers.
‘The most urgent thing I’ve ever delivered was very early on a Sunday morning,’ recalls blood bike volunteer John Watts, Assistant Provincial Grand Master for the Province of Durham. ‘I got a call to go to a children’s ward at one of the hospitals we work with, and as I walked in a doctor came running up to me and put a small vial of liquid in my hand. “Please take this as fast as you can; a child’s life depends on it,” he told me.’
After delivering the vial, John discovered that it contained a sample from a very young baby with suspected meningitis. Until the sample had been tested, life-saving treatment could not be started. ‘It felt amazing to know that what I’m doing is helping save lives,’ he says.
Strange as it may seem, the Greek authorities are partly responsible for John becoming a volunteer. ‘I’d heard that Greece was about to bring in a law that meant you couldn’t even hire a moped there without a bike licence,’ he recalls. ‘I’d been going on holiday to Greece for years, always hiring a bike while I was there, so I did my motorbike training and really caught the bug.’
When the retired policeman saw a feature in The Gazette (Durham’s masonic magazine) about a Freemason who was volunteering for a blood bike charity, he decided to investigate. ‘I’ve always been a keen volunteer, and I thought getting involved with blood bikes would be the perfect way to enjoy my new-found passion of riding motorbikes while doing something positive and useful.’
Digging a little deeper, John learned about the work of Northumbria Blood Bikes and got involved. He has now been riding for them for more than two years and recently earned his silver badge, which volunteers receive after working 50 shifts.
‘It’s just so rewarding for our work to be appreciated’
Pointing to the increased demand for blood bikes over recent years, Graham Moor, fundraising officer for Northumbria Blood Bikes and a member of Hammurabi Lodge, No. 9606, says there is a need to raise awareness as well as money. ‘All our groups need new volunteers so we can keep going. When we first started in my area, we might only get a couple of calls per night. Now, sometimes as soon as one call has been answered, another will come in. We might get 20 or 30 calls during a shift.’
Blood bikes primarily operate between 7pm and 7am on weekdays, and 24 hours on weekends and on bank and national holidays. ‘The NHS doesn’t have infinite resources, and we can help out logistically with no cost to it. We’re like taxis, but we don’t charge,’ John says.
Volunteers typically do two shifts a month, either collecting and delivering goods or working as controllers to coordinate bikes. Cars are used if conditions are unsafe for bikes, or in winter when the temperature on the back of a bike with wind chill drops below 3°C, at which point blood can crystallise and can't be used. Riders can also be asked to deliver printed medical records as well as breast milk for premature babies or babies whose mothers have died in childbirth.
John once delivered a family photograph that a young man with autism had left behind in hospital so that it would be in its usual place when he woke up. ‘I was told he would have been extremely distressed to wake up and find it missing.’
There are more than 30 blood bike groups around the country currently providing this much-needed courier service. As well as delivering blood to and from hospitals, some groups supply air ambulances with their daily supplies of blood and platelets – blood typically has a five-day shelf life – allowing on-board doctors to do blood transfusions wherever they may be needed.
‘Motorbikes get stuck in traffic much less than four-wheeled vehicles, meaning they’re faster and more efficient at getting to their destination,’ explains another volunteer, Neville Owens of Wrexhamian Lodge, No. 6715, and a member of the North Wales Chapter of the Widows Sons Masonic Bikers Association. ‘Bikes can better manoeuvre through traffic, we can avoid traffic jams, and because we’re liveried, people tend to get out of our way.’ Bikes are also cheaper to run, which is important, as funding comes entirely from donations.
Neville volunteers as a controller, coordinating deliveries and pickups. ‘It’s high-concentration work. You have to calculate how long each journey should take and keep tabs on where all your riders are at any one time,’ he says.
‘We’re like taxis, but we don’t charge’
FREEING UP FUNDS
‘Like any emergency service, when we’re busy, we’re really busy,’ adds Colin Farrington of Wayford Lodge, No. 8490, who volunteers as a controller at SERV Norfolk. ‘Sometimes it can be 4:30am before you get a break.’
Last year, Colin’s group saved Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital enough from its transport budget that the hospital was able to replace some of its ageing freezers.
‘They were always breaking down, but there was no budget for new ones,’ Colin says. ‘We saved them so much money on transport that they had free funds. It’s great to be able to actually see where your time and volunteering is going.’
While nothing would keep him off his bike, John says that shifts can sometimes be tough. ‘The weather can be challenging. No matter what protective clothing you’re wearing, when you’re doing 70mph in the pouring rain, the water will get in. It’ll start going down the back of your neck, then down your back…’
For John, the biggest reward comes when he’s sitting at a hospital waiting for a call. Someone will approach him and say that they or a relative needed a transfusion and a blood bike delivered the blood that saved their life. ‘They’ll shake my hand and say thank you. I’ll just well up – it’s just so rewarding for our work to be appreciated.’
Changing up a gear
Freemasons around the UK have donated funds, bikes and cars to blood bike groups. ‘With their livery and Freemasonry branding, the bikes are a great way to take masonic values into the community. When people see the masonic livery, they can see that we are doing good community work,’ says Graham Moor from Northumbria Blood Bikes.
Among the donated vehicles are two BMW police spec bikes from Cumbria Freemasons and two from West Lancashire Freemasons, which will help North West Blood Bikes Lancashire and Lakes to answer more calls. ‘We have completed 50,350 runs since we started in 2012,’ says trustee and founder Scott Miller, from Bank Terrace with King Oswald Lodge, No. 462, whose blood bike group has 365 volunteers – a mix of riders, controllers and fundraisers.
Local masons supported SERV Norfolk with the purchase of three motorbikes. ‘I was invited to various meetings to give talks about blood bikes and was invited to Norwich to pick up a cheque for £250,’ says controller Colin Farrington. While there, he was asked how much a bike would cost by the Provincial Charity Steward, who said they would organise a Christmas raffle to try to buy one.
‘The Great Yarmouth lodges got together and by early December raised the £15,000 for the bike on their own,’ Colin says. ‘Then, at the end of January I was told Norfolk had raised enough money to buy another two fully equipped Yamaha FJRs. I was flabbergasted.’