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Living donations: who can give, what, how and where?

In Ireland, you can donate blood, kidney, bone marrow, platelets, breastmilk and hair

Donating blood: One in four of us will need a blood donation at some stage in our lifetime, yet only about 3 per cent of those who can donate blood do so. Photograph: Istock

You are surely familiar with the idea of donating blood, whether you have done so or not. Living kidney donations are also becoming more popular – with the possibility that people might be able to donate a kidney to someone they don’t know. It is possible to donate bone marrow or platelets in St James Hospital, Dublin for people with blood cancers and other blood disorders.

Did you know that you can donate your hair to a charity that makes wigs for people undergoing cancer treatment? Lactating women can also donate breast milk for premature or sick babies. And, anyone having a full hip replacement can donate bone that they no longer need to strengthen or replace bone in another person during surgery for a bone tumour, bone fracture or spinal conditions.


Who can donate? Firstly, you must be over 18 to give blood. If you've heart disease, diabetes or are/have been pregnant in the past 12 months, you can't give blood. If you're at risk of having certain specified viruses, you can't give blood. See for full list of ineligible conditions.

How can you become a blood donor? Simply go to a blood donation clinic and check if you're eligible. tThe Irish Blood Transfusion Service (IBTS) is always looking for new donors.


What happens after the blood donation? Of each 500ml of blood donated, 470ml of it is held in an overnight fridge while a 30ml sample is sent to the laboratory for testing. Once given the all clear, the blood is packaged and sent to the IBTS blood banks in Dublin and Cork from where it will be distributed to hospitals.

Did you know? In Ireland, about 3,000 blood donations are needed every week for people receiving cancer treatment, recovering from surgery or childbirth and other medical emergencies. One in four of us will need a blood donation at some stage in our lifetime, yet only about 3 per cent of those who can donate blood do so.


Who can donate? Live kidney donors are usually brothers, sisters, partners or parents of the person in need of a kidney. However, close friends and other relatives such as uncles, aunts, grandparents, sons or daughters can also donate. A healthy person can live a normal life with one kidney as the remaining kidney increases in size and function to carry out the work of two. However, the surgery to remove the kidney carries the same risk as any major surgical procedure.

How can you become a live kidney donor? You must make direct contact with the Kidney Transplant Office at Beaumont Hospital, Dublin (01 852 8397) if you want to be considered as a potential kidney donor for a friend or family member who has consented to your donation and is on the waiting list for a deceased donor kidney. It's important to consider all the physical and psychological issues before checking if you are a match for the person requiring the kidney. Donations between brothers and sisters can cause emotional issues within the family. Potential donors should be at least 21 year olds. The outcomes are generally better for the recipient when the donor is a similar age and build. Only one in eight people who come forward to be donors are found to be suitable.

What happens after the donation? The surgeries for both the donor and the recipient of the kidney are carefully scheduled together so as to minimise the time the kidney is kept out of the body. Once removed, the kidney is transported to the transplant team so that the surgery can go ahead promptly.

Did you know? The average waiting time for a deceased kidney transplant in Ireland is two to three years. Living kidney donations can be organised in four to six months so the person receiving the kidney spends less or no time on dialysis. The organ spends less time in storage and tissue matching can also be better which reduces the chances of the organ being rejected. There were 50 living kidney donors in Ireland in 2017.

Bone marrow or stem cell donation

Who can donate? A fully genetically matched family member is the most suitable donor of bone marrow for people with blood cancers or other blood disorders. However, the Irish Unrelated Bone Marrow Registry also accepts bone marrow from unrelated donors who match the person requiring a bone marrow or stem cell transplant. Stem cells are made in the bone marrow. These cells are the master cells which create the body's blood cells – platelets, red blood cells and while blood cells which are the primary agents of the body's immune system.

How can you become a bone marrow donor? You can join the Irish Unrelated Bone Marrow Registry where your details are registered. You will only be contacted if you are identified as a possible match for a patient in need of a transplant. There are two ways you can donate stem cells. The first is through bone marrow donation which involves a two-night hospital stay in St James Hospital, Dublin. Bone marrow is collected from pelvis bones using a needle and syringe under general anaesthetic. The body takes about a week to replace the donated marrow. Stem cells can also be donated via the blood, following four daily injections of a growth factor which stimulates the bone marrow to increase its production of stem cells which spill into the bloodstream. The stem cells are collected from the blood using a separator. This involves removing blood from a vein in one arm and returning it to a vein in the other arm in the same system used for platelet donation.

What happens after the donation? The bone marrow or stem cell donation are transported to the matched recipient with the aim to infuse them within 48 hours from the time they were donated.

Did you know? Stem cell transplantation is international to increase the likelihood of identifying a fully matched donor for a patient. There are 22,000 donors on the Irish Unrelated Bone Marrow Registry but more than 25 million donors available to us worldwide.


Who can donate? You can give platelets – the components of blood which enable clotting – if you are aged 18-59 and weigh more than 60kg and are blood group O, A, B or AB. You cannot become a platelet donor if you've ever received a blood transfusion, if you have been pregnant, if you take aspirin or anti-inflammatory medication regularly.

How can you become a platelet donor? You can apply to become a platelet donor through the Irish Blood Transfusion Service. You then undergo a 45-minute assessment which checks your blood and past medical history. Platelets are removed from blood in a vein in one arm using a special machine which then returns the blood to a vein in the other arm. This takes between 50-70 minutes.

What happens after the donation? Platelets are transported fresh in special boxes by specialised transport for use in Irish hospitals.

Did you know? Platelets have the shortest life span of all blood components, lasting between five and seven days. For this reason, platelets are needed every day for cancer patients, premature babies, burn and accident patients and those undergoing serious surgical procedures.


Who can donate? Mothers who are breastfeeding their own babies up to the age of six months but who have excess milk that they are prepared to donate to premature and sick babies who need it. If you want to become a breast milk donor, you should eat well and feel well. You should also not drink too much caffeine or alcohol and avoid certain specified medications. You must be willing to donate a minimum of three litres of breast milk over a three-month period.

Mothers can donate breastmilk to premature and sick babies. Photograph: Istock

How can you become a breast milk donor? Healthy lactating mothers who wish to donate breast milk to the human milk bank must have a blood test to screen for viruses including HIV, Hepatitis B and C. Once these blood tests are clear, you can begin expressing milk into pre-sterile labelled bottles for freezing. Milk can be stored for three months in a domestic freezer. The human milk bank will send a transport box for three litres of frozen breast milk.

What happens after the donation? The frozen breast milk is transported to the human milk bank and checked for bacteria, protein and fat content. It is then pasteurized. Milk is labelled and sent to feed premature or sick babies in maternity units in Northern Ireland and the Republic. A tracking system is used so all milk can be tracked from the mother who donated it to the baby who received it.

Did you know? The Western Trust human milk bank in the South West acute hospital, Enniskillen, Coy Fermanagh is the only breast milk bank supplying neonatal units in Northern Ireland and the Republic. Each year, it supplies about 1,500 litres of breast milk to babies who need it. It is run by lactation consultant Ann McCrea. (, 048 686 28333)


Who can donate? Anyone who is prepared to grow their hair long enough to be used to make wigs for people experiencing hair loss. These can be people having chemotherapy or radiation treatment for cancer or those suffering from alopecia.

How can you donate your hair? The Rapunzel Foundation (c/o Anna Furlong Hairdressing Salon) in New Ross, Co Wexford runs a ponytail campaign in which it accepts donations of hair 36cm long. All natural hair colour is welcome but donated hair can't have been chemically treated. The organisation has more than 400 hair salons throughout Ireland who are registered for collecting hair and will cut donated hair for free. You can also send in hair donations of the correct length directly. Tel: 051-420508 for more details.

The Little Princess Trust in the UK also accepts hair donations from Ireland. They provide human hair wigs for children and young people up to age 24.

Hair donations can be used to make wigs for people experiencing hair loss as a result of chemotherapy or radiation treatment for cancer. Photograph: Istock

What happens after the donation? All hair in good condition is sent to wig makers. It is most likely blended with similar hair and made into long and short wigs, depending on the length of the hair received.

Did you know? Donated hair received by the Rapunzel Foundation is sent to New Zealand to be made into wigs. "When we send our first batch of donated hair, we were told it was the best quality hair they had ever received," says Anna Furlong, who started the Rapunzel Foundation in 2010.


Who can donate? Anyone having a total hip replacement operation in Cappagh National Orthopaedic Hospital, Our Lady's Hospital, Navan, Co Louth and Croom Orthopaedic Unit in Croom, Co Limerick can donate the piece of bone called the femoral head which is going to be replaced with an artificial hip joint. This piece of bone is the ball of the hip joint at the top of the thigh bone (femur) in the leg. It can be used to strengthen or replace bone in another person during surgery for a bone tumour, bone fracture or spinal conditions.

How can you become a bone donor? You can give your written permission for your bone to be used as a bone graft before you have a total hip replacement. If you have rheumatoid arthritis, have received cancer treatment or blood transfusions, you are not eligible to donate bone. Some other surgical procedures or exposure to specific viral infections including Hepatitis B &C and HIV will also rule you out as a bone donor. "Most people agree to donate their bone but only about 20 per cent of the bone donated is suitable for donation but we are always grateful to those who say yes," says Ken O'Haire, assistant director of nursing at Cappagh National Orthopaedic Hospital.

What happens after the donation? The bone is kept in the bone bank at Cappagh National Orthropaedic Hospital and at smaller bone banks in Our Lady's Hospital, Navan, Co Louth and Croom Orthopaedic Unit in Croom, Co Limerick. It is available for use by orthopaedic surgeons in these three hospitals and to orthopaedic surgeons in other hospitals in Ireland. It may also be used for laboratory work, education, training and research.

Did you know? Bone can be stored at -80 degree C for up to five years.