Meet Kent’s Blood Runners

PUBLISHED: 09:45 13 May 2016 | UPDATED: 09:46 13 May 2016

SERV Kent volunteer riders at William Harvey Hospital, Ashford, l-r: Dave Edwards, Arthur Godden, Steve Hunt and Jacqui Hopkinson, with driver Michael Keppler in the back row

SERV Kent volunteer riders at William Harvey Hospital, Ashford, l-r: Dave Edwards, Arthur Godden, Steve Hunt and Jacqui Hopkinson, with driver Michael Keppler in the back row

Manu Palomeque 07977074797

SERV Kent provides a service that can literally make the difference between life and death and yet receives no government funding and is run entirely by volunteers.

Volunteers come in many guises and in Kent we are blessed with an army of indispensable individuals who give up their free time willingly to help others. They don’t expect thanks, payment or recognition.

I met an extraordinary group of six such unsung heroes on a crisp, sunny weekday at William Harvey Hospital in Ashford. They ranged in age from 21 to retired, most had never met before and four of them had taken the day off from their paid jobs specifically to meet me and talk about their work with SERV Kent.

Also known as the ‘Bloodrunners’, Service by Emergency Response Volunteers Kent is a charity that transports blood products and samples for the accident and emergency hospitals and blood banks across southern England at night, weekends and all Bank Holidays, every day of the year.

Most are on motorbikes, some in cars; you might have glimpsed them on the motorway or a dark country lane, identified by their yellow and red branded jackets with ‘BLOOD’ on the back. Tucked in behind them will be one or often two large covered boxes secured very tightly, containing their precious supplies.

What you probably don’t realise is that this dedicated group of volunteers give their time, fuel and vehicles totally free of charge and that behind them are the equally important controllers giving their time and phone expenses to make sure the service runs smoothly and everyone is in the right place at the right time.

Local hospices including Kent Life charity ellenor are supported with the transport of small equipment and medicines, as are essential samples for patients on home dialysis. SERV Kent also supplies ‘Golden Hour Blood’ on a daily basis to the HEMS unit of the Kent, Surrey and Sussex Air Ambulance Trust, operating out of Marden. This blood enables specialist doctors and critical-care paramedics at the scene of an incident to provide immediate intervention and stabilisation of patients, so they can then be transferred quickly to a specialist hospital.

It’s not all time-critical blood deliveries, however: once a call was received about a child who’d gone home for a few days respite from Demelza and had forgotten their teddy bear. The child was distraught but the toy was delivered because someone was available, and willing, during the day to make that kind-hearted gesture.

However, in order to provide the service there are many costs involved, which all have to be met by donations from members of the public, clubs, organisations, charitable trusts and companies, as SERV Kent receives no government funding.

New members have to be trained and provided with all the right equipment such as reflective clothing, blood box covers, receipt pads, stickers and ID cards and some of these have to be replaced regularly. Fundraisers and speakers need the materials and equipment to support the cause. The website and phone system for the hospitals to call also costs money. However, the biggest expense is the need to buy and maintain fleet response vehicles, both motorcycles and cars for when a situation demands.

It is important that the charity receives as much support as it can get from as many different sources as possible, which is why Kent Life got involved.

So after meeting up at William Harvey and taking lots of photos, which is received with patience and good-humour, we gather in the hospital cafeteria so I can hear their stories.

It’s a lonely role, as these men and women travel Kent’s roads and beyond on their own, often at night, but there is an instant bond even among those who have never met before, a shared desire to ‘give something back’ and make a difference – and spread the word.

All (apart from youngster Michael, who drives his own Jeep) are either advanced bikers or training to be advanced, which is a requirement, and most are riding their own bikes – although Arthur Godden, Chairman of SERV Kent, is on one of SERV’s two bikes marked up for Air Ambulance blood response.

Arthur, a former site agent but now retired and living in Faversham, has been with the charity 12 years and says his ‘call to action’ was a phone call from his daughter, then 21, to say that on a visit to her then boyfriend in Cambridge she’d been taken ill with acute appendicitis-like pains and was in hospital. She was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Arthur says: “She was operated on, but as a parent I felt absolutely helpless, there was just nothing I could do. I thought if I could help someone else in the future that would at least mean I could do something.”

That ‘something’ turned into joining SERV Kent, which was established some 20 years ago. “I heard about it from a colleague. Back then there was only one response bike between the whole of Kent and Essex, but the firm I worked for at the time made a donation and we bought a second bike and in the last four years Yamaha has helped by giving us very good rates.”

The charity now has its own headquarters, which has helped the volunteers have a sense of community as an organisation and the chance to meet up at a monthly social meeting and conduct committee meetings.

Arthur’s right-hand girl is fellow committee member Isabel Platt, a piano teacher and musical theatre director from Bearsted. She heads up the charity’s PR and marketing side, is the North Kent hospitals liaison officer and also happens to be the first female response rider in Kent.

Isabel’s connection was inspired by her niece, who was diagnosed with bone cancer at the age of seven; seven years on, she has received more than 44 blood transfusions. “I was doing my advanced motorbike training at the time and my observer was a bloodrunner, and he told me all about SERV Kent and I just thought, ‘wow, that’s a great way to give something back.’ So I signed up, did my training and off I went.”

Isabel adds: “Most of us do have a personal reason for supporting this particular charity and that’s why we got involved. Some people find that they can’t give blood, for whatever reason, but want to do something connected with that service – so they join us and either ride, drive or become controllers.”

Both Isabel and Arthur are keen to stress the importance of the latter group, the all-important controllers, who work from home and provide the structure and support for the whole service. But more are needed. “There are 38 riders, drivers and controllers and none of what we do happens without the controllers,” emphasises Isabel. “We’re all at home waiting to be told what to do, but they have to make it all happen and work out how many drivers are needed – even within Kent we can be part of a chain of three to four consecutive riders.

“In 2015 we took over 3,000 calls a year and our head controller did 1,000 of them – as riders, we couldn’t do 1,000 rides in a year, so their contribution is huge. You don’t have to be able to drive or ride a bike to be a controller. You can sit there at home in your PJs taking and making calls and still enjoy time with your family.”

The charity would ideally like another 15-20 volunteers, as they need to be able to cover more than 40 calls a month. There’s no upper age limit – and retirement is certainly no obstacle to any of the roles, as Jacqui Hopkinson proves.

The former physics teacher from Bromley was widowed in 2010 and decided it was time she started saying ‘yes’ to every new opportunity. “Whenever anyone suggested anything, I tried it, first skiing and then biking – which I found I really enjoyed,” says Jacqui.

“I then joined a biking group and some of them were doing the advanced course to join SERV Kent, so I thought maybe that was something I could do too. I started last summer and my son is now a controller, he liked the sound of what I was doing. However, I can do 9.30pm to midnight and be pretty sure I won’t get another call that night, but when he is on duty he’s on all night. I’ve had a good life and just wanted to give something back really.”

At the opposite end of the age spectrum is Michael Keppler who, at 21, is the youngest Kent bloodrunner. He lives in Ashford and works full time for Waitrose, who are very supportive both with his shifts and helping Michael fundraise for the charity (he is team coordinator for the branch). Michael was keen to join SERV Kent before he could even drive, so had to wait a couple of years before he could sign up.

“I originally wanted to go into the police force and found about SERV Kent online when I was looking into college courses,” he explains.

“I don’t like needles but I do enjoy driving, so this is my way of giving blood! You’ve got to enjoy driving or riding – sometimes at 2am when it’s cold and raining, you do think why am I doing this? Then you just get on with it. I like that it’s so different, you don’t ever know in advance if you’ll be needed then sometimes it’s all go, go, go, the adrenalin kicks in when you get a call out and you know what you’ve got to do.”

Last but not least are two keen bikers, Steve Hunt and Dave Edwards, who have both ridden for many years. Dave, from Dartford, admits that while he’d see marked-up bikes on the road, he didn’t know much about SERV Kent until he saw a display at Brands Hatch.

“Like the others, everyone knows someone who has had the benefit of blood or plasma and it’s a way to feel you’re giving something back to the community,” he tells me.

HMRC officer Steve spotted an article in the local news a year ago about SERV Kent and joined up, prompted by there being a hereditary disease in his family. “This is my way of paying back into the charity for the treatment my family has received,” he tells me.

“When I fill up at a petrol station the staff are always surprised I don’t ask for a receipt because they think I’ll be claiming the money back.

“People don’t always realise that we are all volunteers, on our own bikes, paying for our own fuel and insurance. But it’s a good feeling at night to be out and know that the blood is needed, it can be cold and damp but when you get back home and have that cup of tea and check back in, you know you’ve helped someone. There’s always a reason why you get a call, people are depending on you. And you know you’ve made a difference somewhere down the line.”

If you would like to make a difference too, check out the SERV Kent website for how to become a volunteer or make a donation. w


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