I will start by saying that I intend to tell this as if I were telling it to my 10-year-old who FAINTED when he saw a child at school get a nosebleed. I will be careful and gentle.
I have mentioned before that I like to donate blood regularly as one of my own Nice Things We Do For Other People things. For me it's relatively easy, and while I guess I wouldn't go so far as to call it "enjoyable," I'm glad to do it and I get a pleasant feeling of doing-nice-things satisfaction from it.
But will you catch me nagging YOU to do it, or whining that you don't? No. Well, I mean, you might catch me ENCOURAGING you to do it if you're scared, and wishing that more people would donate---but if you DON'T donate, it's not just that I won't SAY anything negative, I won't THINK anything negative. Many, many people CAN'T donate blood. There are tons of reasons: underweight, low blood pressure, low iron, various medications or heath states, vein problems, fainting, etc.
And many, many people CAN donate blood but DON'T WANT TO for a large number of assorted reasons, and those people are doing DIFFERENT things that help other people. We should each choose our OWN things; we can't ALL do ALL the things, so if we each do our own selection, we will cover the most ground. Some of us donate money/clothes/food to charity; some of us volunteer at animal shelters or nursing homes or food pantries or crisis lines; some of us peer out our windows to make sure Those Kids aren't getting Up To No Good out there; some of us cook for families that are sick or have a new baby; some of us tutor or mentor; some of us serve on committees or boards; some of us promote causes or work to raise awareness/action; some of us pick up litter while we walk the dog; some of us put a penny in the "Take a Penny, Leave a Penny" dish---there are all KINDS of unpaid, for-the-good-of-humanity things that need to be done, and it makes the most sense for each of us to do the things that we are most drawn to and the things that work best with our own skill sets. I don't WANT to do a charity walk, and I'm not skilled at tutoring---but I DO want to give blood, and I have GORGEOUS veins.
If you think you might want to make blood-donating one of YOUR things, but you are nervous about it, or you feel nervous (as I do) about New Things when you don't know how things will go or what they will be like, I will tell you about it. There will be slight variations from donation center to donation center, but I've given in six different states/centers now, and it's been roughly the same at each one.
The first step is find a place to donate. (No, wait: probably the first step is finding out if you're eligible.) Some areas have a donation center that's open all the time; in other areas, the Red Cross sets up blood drives at churches or town halls or schools or other buildings that have enough room and can donate the space, and they'll be there once every two weeks or once a month or something like that. You can search by zip code to find a place near you. I thought at first that there was nothing near me that had hours I was available to donate, but then it turned out there's an every-4-weeks evening thing less than two miles from my house.
Some drives allow you to make an appointment, and others don't. I haven't found it makes much difference in waiting time: at my most recent drive, I overheard two other donors talking, and one said he's found he waits 15 minutes if he has an appointment, or half an hour if he doesn't. That sounds about right for that location. So if you do better if you can drop by on the spur of the moment, it's not a huge deal not to have an appointment. I like to have an appointment, though, because otherwise I have trouble remembering when it's been 8 weeks (you can donate every 8 weeks). I bring a book, and the waiting is time when no one is BOTHERING me. Also, bring ID.
When you first arrive, you check in. A volunteer gives you a sticker with your name on it and asks you to read a packet of information. If it's your first time, read it; after the first time, skim it for a couple of minutes and turn all the pages so it looks like you're a responsible donor. It tells you things like, "Please don't donate blood if you are HIV-positive" and "You can't donate if you've donated less than 8 weeks ago" and "Here are the tests we perform on your blood and the information of yours we'll share" and "If you're in high school, here are your specific rules." This is also when you get any goodies the particular drive might be giving out: a certificate for a free pint of ice cream at a local place, or a certificate for a free Subway sub, or a free bag of Dunkin' Donuts coffee, or a Red Cross t-shirt---that sort of thing.
From check-in, you go to the waiting area. In most of the places where I've donated, I've been given a number, but in one place they called by first name. When it's your turn, an employee in a white coat will take you into a cubical. If it's your first time donating, you'll need to give your name, social security number, date of birth, address, phone number, etc.; after the first time, you'll have an ID card they can scan to call up your profile. If you've ever donated under another name, you'll have to give that information every single time, which seems silly to me, and it's such a hassle, and then you have to re-state your birthdate each time they enter another name, so now I have those two previous names and my birthdate written on a card I keep with my blood donor ID card so I can just hand it to them and they can copy it.
They'll take your pulse and your blood pressure and your temperature, and they'll glance at the veins that run along the insides of your elbows, and they'll ask if you're allergic to latex, and then comes my least favorite part of the whole thing: they'll set up a little plastic shield between them and your hand, and they'll prick your finger to get a drop or two of blood to test your iron. It doesn't even hurt all that much, but it's sudden (the little needle goes kerchunk) and then they SQUEEZE your finger hard, especially if your hands are cold. Anyway, the anticipation is worse than anything else. And incidentally, I take iron tablets in the days before a donation so I won't be turned down for low iron; it's one of the most common things women are turned down for, and it's a shame to get all the way to that point and then go home.
If you've passed everything so far, it's time for Many Questions. When I first started donating, the employee had to ask all the questions verbally; now at the place I donate, they leave you with a computer and you can do it that way, which is WAY BETTER, especially since some of the questions are Quite Embarrassing: "Have you ever had sex for money?" "Have you ever had sex with a man who has had sex with another man?" Other questions are less blushy: "Have you ever visited any of these countries?" "Have you ever taken any of these medications?" "Have you had a tattoo in the last year?" Some questions, even if you answer the way you think is "wrong" (yes, I've had a vaccination; yes, I've had contact with someone else's blood), it's still okay: they just have to ask a follow-up question (oh, it was just a flu shot; oh, it was just your son's blood when he skinned his knee).
If everything is fine with the questions, you'll be given a paper to read and sign: you check to make sure your name and social security number and birthdate are correct, and you read a paragraph about how you're releasing this donation for their use. It probably says some other things about not suing them if you pass out on the donation chair and fall off and break your arm.
This is when they take you over to the donation area. Most places ask which arm you'd prefer to use; I usually choose left because I'm right-handed, but a couple of times they haven't asked and they've used my right arm and I haven't noticed any real problem using that arm afterward. I'm just slightly squicked, that's all. And when I have a babe-in-arms, I use my right arm on purpose for the donation, because I carry a child with my left arm.
The donation chairs are like lawn lounge chairs, so your legs stick out straight in front of you. If it's your first donation, some places encourage you to let them adjust the chair so that you're lying down and your legs are elevated; other places just ask you every five seconds how you're feeling. During one of my donations I felt sick all of a sudden, and they immediately adjusted the chair so I was lying down with my feet elevated, which helped tremendously though I felt silly (this was in college, with cute boys all around SEEING ME HORIZONTAL OMG).
The employee at the chairs might be the same one who did the temperature and pulse and questions, or it might be someone new. They'll put your arm on a little armrest tray, and ask you to confirm your name. They'll put one million little ID stickers on one million bags and vials and papers; one of those stickers/papers will be for you to take home in case you suddenly think of a reason they shouldn't use your blood.
They'll put a blood pressure cuff on your arm and give you a little foam thingie or stress ball to hold, then mark your vein with a permanent marker and ask you to hold still. If you're twitchy and you move a little anyway, it's not a huge deal---it's just that they are about to wash your elbow pit very thoroughly with dark-staining iodine, and the mark helps them to see the vein afterward. But they can still see it even if you move and the mark isn't in the right place anymore. Just TRY not to.
They'll use a big q-tip thing to wash your arm with iodine (they'll ask first if you're allergic to it) for what seems like a very long time (I think it's 30 seconds). Then they use a second substance, I don't know what it is, and they just do one swirl with that. Then they'll ask you to give a few squeezes on the stress ball and then keep squeezing, and this is where you should avert your eyes and take a breath if you're squeamish: they'll say "Little pinch now" and use the needle. It will STING for a few seconds, and they've told me why but I forget. The iodine? An anti-coagulant on the needle? I forget. Anyway, just for a few seconds.
Then you're supposed to squeeze the stress ball every few seconds. They'll keep checking the bag and at some point they'll fill a few vials (for testing, I think), but none of that feels like anything. When there's a pint in the bag (it takes five or ten minutes, typically), you're done: they'll press some gauze over the needle and then the needle will be gone quick like a bunny, and they'll have you press the gauze now and hold your arm straight up in the air for a minute. Then they give you a bandaid, check your name one more time, and send you to canteen.
THE BEST PART: you have to sit quietly for a little while and have a snack. It's typical for local restaurants to donate snacks, so sometimes there are doughnuts or pastries or pizzas---but if there's not, there's usually cookies/brownies, or packets of snack crackers, or boxes of raisins, or...well, you'll have to find out. If you have dietary restrictions, you can bring your own snack. Some places have you sit for a certain number of minutes and even have a sort of matron in place to make sure you don't leave before you've said you feel okay; other places, like mine, you just sit for ten-ish minutes and then go. And if back at your house it's time for the bedtime routine, maybe you sit for more like twenty minutes and have a second slice of pizza.
The whole thing all together, from arrival to done-with-snack, takes 1 to 1.5 hours, mostly depending on the time spent in the waiting area.
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