April 27, 2011

What It's Like to Donate Blood

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.

40 comments:

Katie said...

This was amazing. I love you, Swistle. I am one of those who probably could give blood but chooses not to because it FREAKS ME OUT, so instead I organize our company blood drive twice a year and get like 80 people other than me to donate blood. Cuz seriously, even after having two pregnancies followed by two kids via c-section, no way in hell am I volunteering to let people stick needles in me.

Katie said...

But I really like the play-by-play anyway. :)

Melissa E said...

Lovely-I got turned down because my aunt died of CJD, but now it just says that 'first degree blood relatives', which I'm pretty sure an aunt is not. Hmmm. Oh well-pregnant now and can't give. Shoot.

But? My favorite, favorite line? '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.' Perfection. :)

Christy said...

That is the most detailed description ever! I was like, "I wonder if she'll say she actually reads the booklet." Yep "I wonder if she'll talk about the finger prick and how it hurts like a mother when they squeeze your hand like they're milking it." Yep. "Even that second wash on the arm that doesn't appear to do anything?" Yep. You got it.

And I think my husband knows about your bedtime routine tip.

Ginny said...

I used to give blood pretty regularly, then I got a couple of tattoos and fell out of the habit. And now I'm dating a man who has, in fact, had sex with another man. It was just a handful of times in college, and he's tested negative for STIs a number of times since then, but I've always assumed I would be ineligible to donate. Now that you mention that some of the questions just come with follow-up, though, it makes me wonder. Does anybody know whether that one is an automatic disqualifier?

I've considered going and just lying in response to that one question, but can't really get comfortable with the idea.

Becky said...

I'm not sure I've ever read so thorough and accurate a description - this should be printed out and placed at the check-in of every blood center!

I try to give regularly - usually ends up being every 3-6 months. I've never been turned down, but I don't really get sick ... but I almost always have to lie down with my feet up. Usually right about the time they're about to take out the needle, my blood pressure drops and I get lightheaded. I used to feel really embarrassed about it (like the staff would wonder why I kept coming in since I was a bad blood-giver.) But it only lasts a few minutes and I feel completely justified in eating extra snacks afterward - so win-win. And since I'm tired afterwards, I have the built-in excuse for lying around watching TV instead of cleaning or working out.

Liz said...

I have only given blood once because I always fell into one of the "couldn't give" categories. That said, it is so important for people to give. So thank you for doing it.
After I had my third baby I hemmoraged. A lot. I had to have five units of blood transfused with a rapid transfuser, two units of plasma and one unit of platlets. Essentially after I gave birth, none of my blood was my own. Crazy.
-Liz

Rachel said...

Good description Swistle.

Most large hospitals have their own blood donor program, where you donate directly to the hospital and they use all blood donated right on the premises for their patients. This way they don't have to pay the Red Cross for blood (well, they probably do need to supplement their own donations with some from the Red Cross, but it helps cut down on their costs). I used to donate at City of Hope in Southern California before I moved and I loved knowing exactly where my blood would be used.

Cara said...

Swistle - how many days prior do you take iron pills? 3 out of 4 times I try to donate I get turned away due to low iron. I started eating grape nuts, which helped a lot, but the last time I tried it didn't. And they always give me a sheet of things to eat to increase my iron, and those are always things I've eaten in decent quantities in the week leading up to donation. So frustrating.

Kate said...

Thank you so much for giving blood! I have a disease that renders me ineligible to donate forever, so I'm especially grateful when other people do.

Swistle said...

Ginny- I tried to find out on the site, and it LOOKS to me like you're not eligible--but it was hard to find out, so if I were you I might look into it more carefully. It does say that if in the last 12 months you've had sex with a man who's ever had sex with another man, you're ineligible---but that's under HIV/AIDS, so perhaps if you could show paperwork saying he's clear? But I think if I were you I would probably be too discouraged at the prospect of looking into it to actually look into it.

Swistle said...

Cara- If I'm donating on Thursday afternoon, say, I'll take iron pills on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday morning--and sometimes the Monday, too, if I think of it. I often take it with vitamin C, because I remember hearing that vitamin C improves the body's ability to absorb iron.

Nik-Nak said...

I donated once in high school and the questions made me feel all squirmy (which is very weird because I'm not a squirmy type person).

I was all, "Why is this your business." about it.
Granted I'm giving them my blood to give to someone else so yes, technically it was their business, but it still rubs me the wrong way. I haven't done it since.

I'm very proud of you though...very generous!

lifeofadoctorswife said...

I've given blood only once, although I'd like to do it again. I just got so very woozy back then and fainted and blood makes me woozy just TYPING the word, so argh. BUT, I was, erm, twentyish pounds lighter back then so maybe it wouldn't affect me so badly this time. And it seems like such a simple way (for ME) to make a difference. But oh how blood makes me woozy. I had to take several breaks in reading this very post because of it! And you were very gentle!

I seem to remember a LOT of blood being taken. Is there an easy way to avoid looking at it, or do you have to pay attention in order to squeeze the ball thing? I think that's really what's deterring me. More so than the fainting.

The Diniwilks said...

Love the detail on this :)

One thing that Swistle didn't mention is that if you work in a decent sized workplace, the Red Cross might come by on a regular basis. I love donating at work because a) it gets me out of work, and b) they come back every 56 days or whatever, so I don't have to remember how long it's been since I donated. The down side is that we don't have goodies, just snacks, but taking an hour off work is all the incentive I need. Oh yeah, and helping people.

Another thing I love about donating is that every once in a while, they put my blood into special baggies for newborns (I'm O positive so I think this happens more often for my blood type than others). I think I fill up like 8 newborn baggies compared to the one baggie for adults, which is pretty darn cool.

One last tip - if you know you have low iron and you know that your donation center uses copper sulfate (the blue liquid) to test, have them spin your blood right off the bat to check your hematocrit - one less needle stick.

Elsha said...

Great description. I used to stay away from donating because I was underweight according to their guidelines and now I stay away because I'm a fainter. Anytime I have to have blood drawn for anything I make sure I'm laying down FIRST because there have been some very near fainting experiences in the past.

Swistle said...

lifeofadoctorswife- I'm afraid the [brace for ickiness] bags of blood [ickiness over] are hanging right out in the open, so they're hard to avoid. But you can look to your other side, and keep squeezing.

Slim said...

People who want a major time-away-from-kids doing something that seems virtuous should look into donating platelets. I used to do it before the rules changed and made me ineligible (junior year in England). They take your blood, whirl out the platelets, and put it back. It takes about two hours, and they are so grateful that they will do anything to entertain you. I used to watch videos and then chow on juice and Oreos.
Plus, donating blood always made me feel crappy, but I always felt fine after donating platelets.

StephLove said...

Thanks for posting the eligibility rules. I thought I was ineligible (one night with a bisexual man in college, 23 years ago) and I was in fact I was turned away once because of that, but back then it didn't say in the past 12 months.

I always thought it was a shame because I know for sure he's HIV negative (we're still in touch).

So, maybe I will do it again.

Enniferjay said...

Nice description, Swistle. The worst of it would be not knowing what to expect.

Does anyone know how long a hamburger in England makes you ineligible? I used to give blood until my Junior Year Abroad in England back in the late 80's and was turned down so many times. I haven't checked if there was an end to that ineligibility.

Slim said...

Enniferjay -- they do it by when you were in the UK and for how long (3 months or more).

ssm said...

I love the part about the take a penny/leave a penny and how we all do our part. It *may* be the hormones that moved me to (almost) tear up, but I like to think it's the sentiment. It's sweet, especially for me who CAN donate blood, but throws up every time I do, so I like to lean on people like YOU (I will leave a penny, though). Thanks.

Guinevere said...

Thank you so much for posting this! I am one of the ones that can't donate, due to the new-ish (past-decade) out-of-US travel restrictions, and it makes me really sad (I was a strict vegetarian at the time I was living in Europe, so my CJD risk is very low in spite of the geography). I appreciated the link to the eligibility requirements, which enable me to check that they still don't want my blood without actually stopping by the blood donation mobile when it's on campus, which always takes forever. I hope this post wins some others who are able to give, but who have had mild trepidation that is over-comeable. The rest of us will just continue to do what else we can... but I still miss the free snacks!

Allyson said...

I used to donate all the time. The last time I went, though, I felt pretty crappy for about 3-4 days. It's also hard to donate if you are training for anything physical - like a marathon. I am in the bone marrow donation system and would gladly do that in a heartbeat if I was determined to be a match.

Doxie said...

This is wonderful! You may have saved several lives with this post, Swistle! Hopefully you have inspired many more people to try it! I gave blood 3 times back in my 20's but because of heart issues, was told I couldn't do it any longer. I'm so thankful for the people who do give blood and save lives!

Suzanne said...

Cara and Swistle - Dairy can inhibit iron absorption too, so on the days you're trying to increase your count avoid too much milk, cheese and yogurt.

I tried to donate blood when my son was a few months old but the guy at the counter told me I couldn't because a) I was nursing and b) I had the baby in a stroller with me and there was a NO KIDS NEAR THE GURNEYS rule. According to the link you provided, nursing does NOT in fact prohibit me from donating and next time I'll go without the kids to prevent mean people from yelling at me. I found out I was O- during my pregnancies so now I feel sort of obligated to donate.

JEN said...

Thank you so much for doing this. I work with cancer patients and it helps them so much!

I'm banned for life since I lived in the UK for years. Plus I am extremely iron deficient :(

Brigid Keely said...

I'm so in love with people who donate blood. I'm physically incapable of doing so so am super grateful for other people picking up my slack. I'm on the bone marrow donation registry and am an organ donor, though.

You lady types who are chronically anemic: until relatively recently, women who presented with anemia were given iron pills because OBVIOUSLY it was just LADY BIZNESS causing anemia, while men who were anemic were given GI tests looking for internal bleeds. Doctors who started looking for GI bleeds in anemic women found that something like 90% of women with anemia had GI bleeds. What I'm trying to say is, on average women lose 1 tablespoon of blood once a month. That's not enough to make you anemic. If you have no other reasons for anemia, get your GI tract scoped out looking for a bleed. Your period probably isn't heavy enough to make you anemic.

Gina said...

I have been donating platelets for 20 years and I see it as a good thing to do PLUS two hours to watch a movie or nap while cuddled in warm blankets with no one screaming, fighting, barking, hissing, riding a scooter through the living room, or asking for the 10,000th time where their shoes are. BLISS.

Doing my best said...

Lifeofadoctorswife: I can't stand looking at...what's going on when I donate blood, so I always look away when they're doing whatever they're doing to my arm and then I ask them to cover up that arm with a napkin or something while I'm lying there so that I can't see what's going on. I haven't felt nearly so queasy since I started doing that =).

Kelsey said...

This was a great post. I grew discouraged trying to give blood because I didn't qualify the last three times I tried. But that was ages ago and maybe I should try again.

ganda said...

And everyone? When Swistle says to stay for 10 or so minutes afterwards, please do! The first and last time I donated blood, I felt perfectly fine afterwards and decided I would just go back to work. It was a mobile clinic and I worked just across the road, after all. Well, I made it across the road. And I made it into the lift. And then? The next thing I knew was one of my co-workers running towards me calling my name. The lift doors had opened at my office floor and I was passed out on the floor of a lift. I then vomited into a postal bag and a friend had to drive me home. It's worth having those snacks and some rest before walking out the door!

Erin said...

I really love this post. Not only is it incredibly USEFUL with gobs of good information & tips, but also inspiring. I especially love the best part about getting to sit back for a few minutes while you get an old-fashioned blood letting. You've motivated me to put it on my post-partum To Do list!

I have always had good feelings about donating blood. When I was in fourth grade, a boy in my class was severely burned in an accident and was in the hospital for NINE MONTHS. My mother would take me with her to donate blood (not necessarily for him, obv, but because of him nonetheless). I didn't find it gross at the time, and it had the feeling of Good Global Citizen to it. I remember it very clearly and am surprised I've never donated, come to think of it.

Superjules said...

It's pretty awesome that you and people like you give blood. Because the people who need it? REALLY need it. (I'm sure you already knew that, but standing at the bedside of a very sick and pale person really makes you realize how awesome it is that people donate blood. To strangers!).

PBJdreamer said...

Swistle

I read your blog daily, but rarely post. I guess I thought I should preface with that so you know I am familiar with your life.

In this time of need with all the tornados and such many people live too far away to donate their time and cannot afford to donate money but donating blood is an alternative many people CAN do.

I made an appointment for Monday night because you post reminded me of that option.

So thanks!


that is all

Hillary said...

I'm a fainter but because my blood type is O- I feel like I should be donating blood. It doesn't help that I get a call every few months from the Canadian Blood Services people asking me to come in and donate. I want to! I really want to! I just ... can't. I'm hoping that after this pregnancy (of many, many blood tests) I will be a blood test pro and I can donate blood without dying during the process.

Betsy said...

Just wanted you to know that I gave blood this morning. Due in large part to this post. It's something I've been meaning to do, just hadn't gotten serious about it. Reading this gave me the little nudge I needed to get my arse in gear, so thank you!

Swistle said...

Betsy- YAY!

The Gori Wife said...

My high school had blood drives where kids 17 and up (17 - with parental permission) could give blood and get out of class for 1-2 hours, so it was in very high demand. I was younger than most students in high school, so I only got to do it once before I graduated. Then I went to a few of those blood mobile type blood drives through workplaces. In my adult life, unfortunately, I can't donate most of the time because of where I travel. Pakistan is on the list you mentioned, and you can't donate within 12 months. Malaria, me thinks. And since we usually go every other year, there's only a small window every other year when I COULD donate, and that window is spent getting all kinds of travel vaccinations ALSO on the can't-be-a-donor list. So thanks to everyone else who fulfills a civic duty I can't :)

Missy said...

This is very similar but also very different to how it goes in Australia (free ice-cream?!)

I didn't realise I had one, but this is on my Nice Things We Do list as well.