Words by Fiona McGowan
The voluntary, out-of-hours motorbike charity that is providing Cornwall with life-saving, medical deliveries.
Mark Holroyd’s voice is cracking with emotion. He is remembering a time when he was doing a Blood Bikes fundraiser: “A woman came up to me and started crying. She turned to her boy, who was six or seven years old, and said, ‘These people are the reason you are alive. When I was having you in Treliske, there were some problems and I needed blood. They told me that the blood came from Bristol through a Blood Biker at two in the morning. And that’s what saved your life.’”
Mark is one of 65 volunteers who work for Cornwall Blood Bikes, a charity dedicated to supporting the NHS and hospices across the county. If you drive anywhere in Cornwall – indeed anywhere in the country – you are likely to have spotted the high-vis liveried Blood Bikes at some point. They look almost identical to paramedic bikes, but with a few adaptations that enable the drivers to carry the blood, samples, medicines and even breast milk that need to be transported from hospital to hospital.
The Nationwide Association of Blood Bikes (NABB) umbrella organisation was founded in 2008, although its roots go back over half a century. In 1962, a husband-and-wife team set up the Emergency Volunteer Service in Surrey, and since then, many other independent voluntary groups have been set up as a rapid response courier service for the NHS. The regional groups are largely independent, but most operate under the umbrella of the NABB. Cornwall Blood Bikes was formed in 2011 with one hand-me-down motorbike from a Blood Bike group in Bristol, and in the last eight years has become a vital service for Treliske Hospital in Truro, West Cornwall Hospital in Penzance and the two Cornwall Hospice Care hospices in St Austell and Hayle.
Few people who see the Blood Bikes are aware that they are a charity. Looking almost identical to paramedic bikes, you might assume that this is an NHS courier service. However, its role as an out-of-hours emergency service is 100% funded by donations and volunteers working away in the background. Vice chair and head of PR and Media for the charity, Jayne Penlerick, explains some of the machinations that keep the fleet of 12 motorbikes on the road from 5pm to 7am every night. “Whether it’s the fleet manager, organising for the bikes to get moved from place to place for the riders to pick up, or myself and my colleague Ian Butler setting up meetings to offer our service to hospitals and hospices; and then there’s the fundraisers, organising events, or the people sitting at home, taking calls and despatching the riders – not to mention the riders themselves… Each of the 65 volunteers dedicates so much time to Blood Bikes, and almost all of them fit it around full time jobs – there are very few retirees involved.”
Blood Bikes works differently from the regular NHS courier service, says Jayne, because it is bespoke – each callout is a reaction to an emergency request. As a result, there is no typical shift for the volunteers. Just as in an A&E department, there may be a quiet period, followed by a flurry of urgent requests – “Suddenly, we’re carving a line up and down the A30”. A biker could be expected to rush pathology samples to a lab, or take a prescription and wait for medication from a pharmacy. They might have to bring breast milk from one hospital to a neonatal department elsewhere, take a vital delivery of stem cells, or deliver whole blood for someone requiring a transfusion. Even basic medical equipment is transported: “Anything that can fit on the back of a motorbike and the NHS needs it moved urgently, then we will move it.”
Cornwall Blood Bikes is very much part of the community in this county. The fundraisers range from coffee mornings in west Cornwall hospitals and WI talks, to a Penzance woman raising £17,000 for the charity through dog shows. One of the biggest boosts came when Cornwall freemasonry donated a brand new bike and an extra £25,000 in 2017. As a result, Blood Bikes expanded its service, with Ian Butler and Jayne organising service level agreements first with Cornwall Hospice Care and last year, with West Cornwall Hospital. “They were using taxis for their samples and urgent deliveries,” says Jayne. “Since we started providing a service for West Cornwall Hospital in January this year, we have saved them around £91,000, which is going directly back into the hospital’s patient care.”
Once you know about blood bikes, you start to see them everywhere. And not just during the night. The hi-vis yellow liveried bikes are also on the road during the day – being taken from place to place for the next rider to start work in the evening, or moved around for servicing. The motto of the charity is ‘riding for life’ and the riders take their role as responsible road users very seriously. Although bikes (adapted paramedic vehicles) have blue lights, Cornwall Blood Bikes has opted not to use them. Each rider has to complete an advance motorcycle test – either a Police Class 1 licence or the civilian Institute of Advanced Motoring qualification. With these skills, explains Jayne, and the fact that they are on bikes, they are able to make good progress compared with a car. “We have to be the same as all the riders on the road. We cannot break the Road Traffic Act, we can’t break the speed limit.’”
One of the aims of the organisation is to promote a good image of motorbike riders. Blood Bikers are the antithesis of the bad-boy image of aggressive, black-leather-clad motorbike riders. “People can have a stereotypical image of a bike,” says Jayne. “We want to take that image and blow it out of the water.” The abiding sense that you get from talking to Jayne and the volunteer riders is a passionate social conscience and a determination to offer their time and skills to something that can save lives: “Even when it’s chucking down with rain, 2 o’clock in the morning, you don’t get a complaint. They go above and beyond and I think that’s incredible.” Like so many other charities that operate alongside our state-funded emergency services – from the RNLI to Cornwall Air Ambulance, the tireless volunteers of Blood Bikes are heroes who need to be celebrated.
Introducing some of the volunteer riders who keep the wheels of Cornwall Blood Bikes turning.
Time working with Blood Bikes: 6 years
Mark spent 24 years as a clearance diver with the Royal Navy, then another 13 years clearing landmines “and blowing stuff up” in Afghanistan, Libya, Peru and Laos. When he came home to St Agnes six years ago, retirement didn’t sit well with him. In his spare time, he goes cycling with his wife (they recently completed Land’s End to John O’ Groats in a speedy 9.5 days) and hangs out with his family. He runs a motorcycle tour company, taking clients to Norway, Bosnia, Croatia, Switzerland and Austria, to name a few. He drives articulated lorries for a bacon company, “because I like driving trucks. I must be the only vegetarian driving for Danepak.” And he has a YouTube channel for motorbike lovers. He worked as a fundraiser for Cornwall Blood Bikes for two and a half years – helping them to rise from the brink of closure to raising enough money to become a sustainable charity.
Why Blood Bikes: “I’ve always ridden motorbikes, and I love riding them.
After doing all the things I’ve done, all the places I’ve been, I think I may have a bit of a debt to repay to society. After spending 13 years clearing mines, I came home and still wanted to do more.
My mum was caught in a touch-and-go situation where there was a delay in getting her samples to hospital. Ultimately, it didn’t affect her, but I realised how important that service was. And my dad worked as an NHS courier for 20 years, so I suppose it’s come full circle.
I honestly believe the NHS is an amazing thing and we shouldn’t be doing the job we’re doing. It should be part of the NHS. But if we didn’t do it, people would die.”
Time working with Blood Bikes: 4 years
Jaynene is a district nurse who has been riding motorbikes since she was a teenager. “It was cheap transport – I couldn’t afford a car, got a bike and have been the same ever since. I’ve got a car now, because I need it for work.” She’s lived in the West Country almost all of her adult life and now lives in east Cornwall. Jaynene ran a watch and clock repair shop in Dartington for a period of time before returning to nursing, and has spent many years growing her own food. She is currently the only female rider for Blood Bikes, and also does fundraising for them when she can. “I tend to just do the weekend shifts on the Blood Bikes, so it doesn’t interfere with my day job. When I retire, I’m going to put a lot more time into the Blood Bikes.”
Why Blood Bikes: “I was looking for something I could do with the bike, because I ride miles and miles during my leisure time, I wanted to find something I could put a decent use to as well. I’m a strong supporter of the NHS, so anything I can do to help, I’m going to do it. And if it involves riding the bike as well – brilliant.
I heard about Blood Bikes when I did my advanced training on the motorbike. My instructor was riding with Blood Bikes in Plymouth. At the time, I thought it was just a blood transfusion service. When I found out more about it, I realised it was something I really wanted to do.”
Time working with Blood Bikes: 2 years
Duncan joined the Army when he was 17 and after university became an officer in the Paras. On leaving, he returned to university and became a Geography teacher, and was Head of Lower School at St Ives Secondary School. He now runs a company that helps to support children – particularly those with Special Educational Needs – by offering outdoor education and adventure challenges along with their regular schooling. He and his wife, who is a nurse, live near Marazion in west Cornwall. “I make myself available for one or two sessions a week. Of all the Blood Bikers, I’m really low-down in terms of commitment, but I try to fit it in around my work. I don’t know how some people do it – there are some incredibly resilient people in the organisation.”
Why Blood Bikes: “I’ve been riding motorbikes since I was 16. It just seemed to be an appropriate way of combining my enjoyment of riding motorbikes with doing something that has got some very personal meaning to it all. My mother died, and within a period of weeks my brother was diagnosed with myelofibrosis (bone marrow cancer) and became totally dependent on blood transfusions.
A highly venomous snake in Belize bit me when I was on exercise with the Paras. To stop me bleeding out, I was given blood transfusion after blood transfusion. As I’ve got older, I realised how close I was to pegging it. That’s why I do what I do.”