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Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Meet the volunteer bikers who transport medical supplies and files across the country

Michael Clifford meets the bikers who give up their time to assist the health service in transporting supplies and files

From left: Martin O'Driscoll, Pat Noonan, Jim Deeney, Barry Twohig; Billy Cahill, Kevin O'Sullivan, and Jim Kelsey.

The clock is pushing for midnight when a motorbike hovers into the 24-hour service station. The rider looks like he knows his way around bikes. He dismounts, goes inside, gets a coffee, and waits.
Within minutes another biker appears, this guy coming from the opposite direction. He dismounts, goes inside, and spots the first rider. They go to each other, a package is exchanged, and both men leave again, each heading back whence he came.
If that sounds like a relatively cliched opening scene of a second-rate thriller, then maybe it is. But the scenario is one plucked from the real world, where the bikers in question are about as far from badass Hell’s Angels as Hollywood could imagine.

Meet the bikers who give up their time and energy to assist the health service in transporting medical supplies and files right across the country. The scene outlined above — with a little dramatic licence — is a frequent one at the Manor Stone service station on the M8 between Cork and Dublin.
At least once a week, a rider from Blood Bike South will head up along the motorway and be met by one from Blood Bike East, which covers the Dublin area.
This interaction occurs late at night or at weekends, the out-of-hours times for which the bikers cover for. Their voluntary work is all about saving on expensive transport that hospitals are required to retain out of normal working hours.
“We run it professionally because that’s the only way to do it even though we are all volunteers,” says Martin O’Driscoll, one of the main volunteers with Blood Bank South.
“It’s great because you can contribute while being involved in your hobby and that’s what attracts many of us to it,” he says.

Ethan and Chris Raymond check out a Blood Bike South bike.

Throughout the country, a while network of these blood bike runners operate with the same purpose and a loose arrangement between each other.
Blood Bike South services Kerry and Cork. Blood Bike Mid-West covers Limerick and Clare. Galway and Mayo hospitals are serviced by Blood Bike West, with another in Donegal. The East chapter covers Dublin, while Leinster does the rest of the province. There is also a North East Blood Runners covering Cavan and Louth.
While the name infers that blood is the main thing that is transported, the reality is that anything that needs to be dispatched from one hospital to another is done.
The concept of bikers offering their services in this manner began in the UK when a chapter of Blood Bikers was established in Luton in the 1960s. That has since spread throughout the UK to the point now where some bikers are entrusted with transporting organs from one facility to another in emergencies.
Blood Bike East was the first organisation to get off the ground here over a decade ago, but it wasn’t until 2012 that the southern and mid-western chapters got going.
“We had an open day in Cork,” says O’Driscoll. “It was a huge success, attracting about 150 people. Wives and girlfriends were dragged into it and all. Since then the level of volunteers has gone up and down but right now we have 35 riders on board.”

The riders are all fully trained to national standards. Blood Bike South operates out of the shed on the Bandon Rd where the group’s three bikes are stored.
These include a Honda 650cc for journeys across the city or the local environs, and two 1200cc BMWs to journey up to Dublin, and, on occasion, towards another major outlet, the breast milk bank in Cavan.
At first, the hospitals were cautious but, in time, once trust was built up, two city hospitals have taken on their service. For some reason, the agreement is on a confidential basis, although hospitals in most other regions are perfectly open about using the blood bike service.
Typically, one of the riders is on control during the relevant hours. If he — at the moment it is an entirely male complement — gets a call, he contacts the rider on duty.

Pat Noonan, Blood Bike South, ready to set off on a run. Blood Bike South operates out of the shed on the Bandon Rd where the group’s three bikes are stored. Pictures: Eddie O’Hare

That man then togs out, mounts the bike, and heads for the hospital or other medical facility to pick up and deliver to the destination. This could be files being sent to Dublin ahead of transferring a patient for emergency surgery, it could be drugs that are required at short notice, and not infrequently it’s breast milk. Despite the name, blood is rarely transported, although there is no reason why this won’t change in the short term.

Despite the association of speed with biking, these lads are fully cognisant of the responsibility they have taken on. Would a temptation be there to open up on the motorway in the dead of night?
Not a chance, says O’Driscoll. “We’re not an emergency service so we must keep in the speed limit. We have lights on the bike as required but they’re only to be used with a Garda escort.
“The vast majority of our members are in their forties or fifties.”
The network across the country works well. One ride that has entered the annals of blood bike legend saw four chapters relay drugs from Letterkenny to Cork. On another run with breast milk destined for Cork University Hospital and Waterford Hospital, three of the groups co-operated in getting it down through the country.

Occasionally, the bikers are invited into the hospital to see the fruits of their labour.
“In maternity hospitals, some of the bikers have been dragged in and shown the premature babies in the glass cases,” says O’Driscoll.
“They get all gooey then, knowing that they are helping to save lives.”
The only drawback to the whole system is what happens in the depths of inclement weather. O’Driscoll points out that rain is no problem but high winds and plunging temperatures can ensure that a journey is too dangerous to take on.
For that eventuality, Blood Bike South acquired a van but simply could not get a quote for insurance on the vehicle.
Now they are looking at getting their hands on a car, another vehicle with two more wheels than that which the bikers feel comfortable, but to be used only in an emergency situation.

Ethan and Chris Raymond checkout a Blood Bike South bike.

Michael Clifford