I'd like to talk about blood. I donate blood. I have since I was sixteen (which is, in America, the earliest you're allowed to donate). I'm just short of my three-gallon total, though I could be higher if I'd been more diligent about donating when I was in college. My dad has donated blood for a long time, as long as I can recall, because his blood type is one that can be used by a great many people.
As a point of information, no one in my immediate family has ever been in a major accident or had to have a surgery that required a blood transfusion. Very few people in extended family have been in that situation. One of my aunts died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (essentially a blood cancer), and while I miss her, I know she was not in my direct bloodline (thusly I should not have to worry about developing the same disease).
What does all that mean? I have absolutely no passionate personal story about why I donate blood. I have never been the recipient of another's blood to keep me alive, nor has anyone in my family, nor has any of my close friends. I have no personal stake in wanting to get needles poked into my elbow and have my vital bodily fluids drained so strangers can make use of them.
But I do it anyways. Let me tell you more about it.
Blood can't be made in a lab. You can't grow it in a vat. Science hasn't figured that out yet. The only way for people who are sick or injured to get the blood they need is for people to voluntarily give is up.
Let me share with you a scary statistic: Of all the people in America that can donate blood (and that's people that can, already taking out those that are sick, hurt, on certain medications, or for other reasons can't donate) only less than five percent do.
Let me repeat that. Of all the people in America that can donate blood, less than five percent do.
And, ok, donating blood isn't exactly the most fun thing in the world to do, but it's important. One pint of blood (a typical donation) can save up to three lives. Blood has a shelf life of 42 days, but a person can only donate every two months. Doing the math, you have to have people donating all the time, or the blood supply dries up.
A couple years ago, I bullied my mom into donating for the first time in her life. She didn't have the greatest experience in the world; got a bit sick and lightheaded, and hasn't been back since. Since I used to work as a telerecruiter for the blood bank (I called people to schedule appointments) I've heard every excuse in the book.
"They had to stick me three times to find a vein!"
"I got sick and threw up!"
"They had to poke my finger before had to get my blood, and I can't stand that."
"I hate needles!"
(Quick funny story from my telerecruiter days: You're allowed to donate if you've had a tattoo or piercing done, provided it was done in a certified parlor. One guy I called had had a tattoo done recently and tried to weasel out of donating because of that. After finding out he'd gotten inked at a certified parlor, I informed him he didn't have to wait the usual year. His response, "I really don't like needles!" Silently incredulous, my response was, "Ok, you're fine with getting your skin punctured hundreds of time in quick succession to get your tattoo, but don't want to donate blood?" His response, a beat of submissive silence, followed by, "Do you have any time open on Wednesday?")
Going back to the reasons, yeah, they're all perfectly legitimate. Most of the time, donations are a fairly low-drama process with little pain. But yes, the people at the blood bank will tell you there's only going to be a "little pinch," and yeah, it usually hurts a bit worse than that. Yes, sometimes it does take more than one stick to find the vein. Sometimes you do feel nauseous and throw up.
And you know what? Big deal.
Any discomfort you may feel in a few extra needle-sticks or a little nausea is small potatoes compared to the fact that your blood could be saving the life of someone who was in a car accident, or had an embolism, or is battling a disease where they can't make their own blood. What relatively small pain stacks up against people that depend on your blood to survive?
But Jaune Chat, you ask, have you ever had a bad experience? You can't claim that they're "not so bad" if you haven't had one?
Yes, yes I have.
Now, I try to donate as often as I can, even if I get deferred two out of every three times because my iron is just a tad too low to donate sometimes. That means I go to the blood bank every one-to-two weeks to see if my iron's high enough to donate. And, I will add, I have a very common blood type for my geographical area, which means I try to donate something that people need just as much, but that I'm particularly well-qualified to donate.
I've exclusively donated platelets for the past three years or so. That means a needle goes into my arm, goes into a machine, the plasma and platelets (which are essential in the clotting process) are spun out of my blood, and a combination of my own red blood cells and saline goes back into my body. Normal blood donation takes about an hour, including all the asking question beforehand and getting registered and stuff. Platelet donation takes about two hours, or in my case, since I donate a triple unit of platelets at a time (my iron may sometimes be low, but my platelet count is awesome), almost three.
Platelets are used to help burn patients, people undergoing chemotherapy, and those with bleeding disorders. Platelets have a shelf life of five days, and a person can only donate once every seven days. In addition, even though you can donate every seven days, you can only donate a total of twenty-four times a year. (One nice thing about platelet donation is that you aren't nearly as tired afterwards as with blood donation. Just thirsty.)
Getting back to my long, rambling story of the bad experience I had, when the blood bank first started doing platelet donations, you had to have a needle in each arm. One to take the blood out, and one to put the blood back. (Nowadays it goes out and comes back through one arm in alternating pulses.) When they put the blood back, there's an additive called citrate which is a short-term anticoagulant to keep the blood from clotting in the machine. I have a slight sensitivity to that. I'd stopped for breakfast at McDonald's prior to donating that morning (you have to eat before you donate). So, I got totally sick with needles in both arms, unable to use my hands, and the phlebotomists had to hold a bag up in front of me so I could finish being sick. Luckily I had been in the middle of giving a double unit, so they at least got one good unit out of me.
That was close to two and half years ago. I've been back many times since. I gave a triple unit of platelets on Tuesday. If anything should have made me swear off donating, having two needles in my arms while I upchucked greasy fast food should have. But it didn't. Again, any discomfort I undergo in a blood bank where I get to watch a movie of my own choosing, getting free cookies and juice, is nothing compared to that car accident victim, that premature child, that woman that had an embolism or that man that had a heart attack. I can save three lives or more just by giving up a hour or two of my time and enduring some discomfort and a smidge of pain.
I am no doctor. I am no great humanitarian or philanthropist. I volunteer at no shelters, donate less than I should to those less fortunate, and wish sometimes I had something more to give.
And I can. I have it with me all the time, can always make more, and can save peoples' lives with it. And you can too.
If you have any questions about the donation process, please ask! I'm happy to explain what goes on and what you should expect.