The first time I gave blood I was seventeen, just old enough to donate at the high school blood drive. Well, I should say, the first time I tried to donate. The nurse missed the vein or scraped it up something bad because I started bruising immediately so they stopped the process. I looked like a junkie for the next few days, but I was very proud of my bruise. I had tried to give blood.
The next time I tried my red cell count was too low. Your hematocrit result has to be above a thirty-eight and I was just below that. I think once there was a time that I went and I was actually able to give a full pint. But, the last time I tried I was deferred because of a new piercing. That was in 1999.
My friend Becky is a universal plasma donor and had a ten o’clock appointment to donate at the hospital. Now, the original plan had been to go to Chicago for the day but since those plans had fallen through when she said, “Hey, Want to come give blood?” I figured I had nothing to lose. I already had the day off and if I gave blood with her she’d go to the art museum with me. Five years is a long time to not at least try to give blood.
Sixty percent of the United States population is eligible to donate blood or its components. Only about five percent do. Car accident victims who sustain massive amounts of blood loss can need upwards of fifty pints worth of transfusions. That’s a lot of blood. Sure, right now I’m making use of every last drop of blood circulating in my veins but, I’m a strapping, young lass. I can make more.
Now, Becky donates just platelets and plasma via a process called apheresis. The nurse explained to me that they hook you up to a machine that takes the blood, centrifuges it, removes the platelets and most of the plasma and then gives you back everything else. Then, she asked if I’d like to do that. I cringed. “Oh, no,” I said. “You can just have a whole pint.” They gave me a health questionnaire to fill out. I sat down and began circling Y’s and N’s.
When I had completed the survey, I only had to wait a few minutes before a nurse called my name and we went into a screening room. We went over my answers while she took notes clarifying the Y’s and N’s. Things like where I’ve traveled in the last three years and what sorts of medications I take. Then she proceeded to the mini-physical. She took my pulse (a little high, I was nervous), my blood pressure (good.), my temperature (normal), and then she pricked my finger to do the hematocrit (just north of 38). I was going to be able to donate blood.
She grabbed a bag and we walked out to the beds where I sat with my book in my lap. She looked for a vein. When she found one she marked it with a felt tip pen. She washed my arm and painted an iodine circle over the vein. “That’s my bullseye,” she said. My nurse excused herself to go get the needle and wash her hands. I nervously examined the chair. In my head, I kept replaying that scene in Sports Night where Jeremy is freaking out about the blood drive to Sally. Jeremy says, “Its not about the needle,” to Sally who is not at all listening, “Its this. That blood is obstensibly going someplace it needs to go. Its going to oxidize something. I have to respect that…” I freak myself out a little, having to remind myself that they take blood from a vein and that veins carry blood back to the lungs to be reoxidized. Nothing that needs a breath of fresh air is going to go without it because I’m giving blood, I told myself. In the scene, Jeremy caves, “All right,” He says, “It’s a little bit the needle.” My eyes got wide as the nurse returned. Maybe it was just my perspective, but the needle looked huge.
The nurse pulled on latex gloves and I stared at the needle. It was hollow, only sharp and pointy at the bottom, tapering away into smoothness. I felt like I could just fall into the black hole in the center of the needle. I took a deep breath, trying to relax. The nurse tightened the blood pressure cuff and amazed me as she slid the needle without preamble into my vein. Burgundy, almost brown blood rushed into the tube and poured in a controlled line down my arm and over my wrist into the bag near the floor. The bag laid on a seesaw machine which rocked it back and forth, mixing the blood with a preservative.
I squeezed the grip the nurse gave me, the finger prick bleeding all over its casing. My book was open, but I only read about a paragraph. Instead, I preferred to watch the gush of red leaving my body. “I know I shouldn’t be surprised about this,” I said. “But, its warm where the tube is touching my arm.”
The nurse smiled, “That’s just your body temperature. It’s a little cold in here.” Less than ten minutes elapsed before she spoke again. “Okay, now I’m going to take your samples.” She put a knot in the tube leading from my arm into the bag and then she filled three little vials with more blood. She slid the needle out of my arm as effortlessly as she’d put it in. I had my choice of bandages. I went with ridiculous, neon pink.
As the nurse wrapped my arm she asked how I was feeling. “Fine,” I said, a little surprised. I had thought, surely losing some blood would make me feel light-headed or a little grossed out. I felt neither. So, she took me to the recovery room where I got my choice of juice and snack. The juice was a no-brainer (cranberry), but the choice of snack was a bit more difficult. After reading all the labels like the health freak I am, I finally settled on some animal crackers. I sat in the recovery room, biting the heads of giraffes and hippos, watching doctors and nurses with clipboards and paperwork walk by.
Its estimated that every three seconds someone needs blood. I flipped through the literature on the recovery room table and read that one pint often helps more than one person, someone gets your plasma and someone gets the other junk. This makes me feel good. I was just helpful and I really didn’t have to do anything. I had to sit in a chair and let someone stick a needle in me. It seemed like even less of a big deal as I ate my animal crackers. The monthly goal for the hospital this month is six hundred twenty-five pints of blood. It was the twenty-eighth and they are at five hundred sixty four. I wondered if they’ll make it. In addition to Becky and me, there was another woman giving when we arrived. A man was leaving as we came in and another woman came in while Becky was finishing up donating plasma. They must have a steady stream most days of people wandering in, giving blood, eating a cupcake and then leaving. But, even so, I bet they always wish they had a few more donors every month. Every fifty-six days you are eligible to give blood. Its every twenty-eight days for platelets. I got out my calendar and wrote down a reminder eight weeks down the line. Next time, I’ll have to try to not be so chicken and just give the plasma.