My father and grandfather are two of many people saved by donated blood.
My dad has donated more than five gallons of blood during his life. Now he can’t give because of medications. But I realized donating blood was still something I could do to make a difference.
Saving lives by taking a half hour out of my day seemed simple.
I didn’t want to go alone, so my boyfriend, Cameron, and I made a date out of it. The Blood Bank of Alaska Web site noted they were code red on all blood types except AB positive. I called the main center, where an enthusiastic staffer named Cynthia scheduled us for June 29 and helped with any questions not answered by the bank’s Web site.
She said that, to increase chances of successfully donating, we should drink a lot of fluids and avoid caffeine and tea. To increase hematocrit levels – the percentage of red blood cells in our blood – we could eat red meat, dark green vegetables and raisins. She also suggested avoiding alcohol after donating.
When the day arrived, I wasn’t nervous, but I was anxious with excitement. Cameron and I filled out first-time donor forms. The front desk worker, Joan, greeted us with a huge smile and exclaimed how excited she was to see new donors walk in. As she filed our information on the computer, she talked about how a member of her family had been saved by a blood transfusion, and said we could each save three lives by donating.
She handed over a packet of questions we could either have read to us or read ourselves. We both elected to read them ourselves and headed to private desks to answer the questions.
The questions are designed to find out if the donor’s blood may have negative effects on a recipient. Some questions screen for people who may have contracted a blood-transferable disease. For example, one asks whether the donor has had sex with a person with HIV or AIDS. Other questions filter out donors who’ve visited or lived in certain countries during periods of time when they could have contracted a disease. Questions also ensure donors are not on any medications that could cause problems for the blood recipient.
After filling out the questionnaire, we waited for a phlebotomist to go over the questions with us in private rooms. Cameron didn’t make it through the questions. He had lived on a Navy base in Italy for two years when there was a mad cow disease scare in Europe. Anyone who lived in Europe for six months or more between 1985 and 1990 is deferred. Joan, the front desk staffer, said this ban might lift some day, but for now, mad cow disease is undetectable if a person carries the disease but has not contracted it.
I passed through the questions and Sierra, my phlebotomist, checked my pulse, blood pressure and temperature. With a finger prick she tested my hematocrit level. Donors must have 38 percent blood cell content or greater to donate. My result showed 40 percent. She led the way to the donating area, where donors sat in reclined chairs with armrests.
Men giving apheresis donations sat in three of the five chairs. Some watched a movie from a screen attached to the chair. In this type of donation, the blood runs out of the body and through a machine. A component of the blood is extracted and the remaining blood returned to the body. The machine may also be used to collect red blood cells, platelets or plasma.
My dad has tried apheresis donation in the past and said it was not painful, but he said the blood felt slightly cold as it ran back into him from the machine. This kind of donation takes one to two hours.
I opted to donate whole blood for my first donation, which takes about ten minutes.
Three chairs sat on my side of the room. They were almost like beds, fixed in a reclined position with elevated attached leg rests. Armrests extended from the sides of the chairs to allow phlebotomists easier access to the donor’s arm. In one of these chairs sat a woman dressed as though she’d come straight from work.
I sat back and tired to relax. I have no fear of needles, but for some reason it was hard to get my muscles to stop tensing as the phlebotomist prepped my arm. It took some time for her to see a vein. She had to retighten the band around my upper arm several times while I squeezed a ball. When a vein showed up, she hit it with one prick.
The pain was bearable. Pain during blood donation should only occur at the moment of the prick. After that, one should feel only slight discomfort. I didn’t know that at the time, so I didn’t complain when the pain didn’t stop.
At first I thought, maybe it takes a little longer than I assumed. Then I thought, maybe it’s supposed to feel like this. I looked around the room and wondered why everyone else looked so calm and tranquil when my arm felt like a pen was jammed in it.
Looking back, if I was more informed I would have let the phlebotomist know what I was feeling, and something could have been adjusted to be more comfortable.
Instead, I decided I needed to toughen up. When the phlebotomist asked me how I felt, I said, “OK. It hurts a little more than I expected. I guess the pain has dropped some after the initial prick.”
That was a mistake. Probably sensing I was tense, the phlebotomist stayed next to me and monitored the donation. I looked at the other side of the room and tried to breathe regularly while thinking, “I’m saving lives. I’m saving lives. I’m saving lives.”
Suddenly the pain was gone. I was completely relaxed. Then I was writing this article – or so I thought.
In reality, I had fainted. Almost every phlebotomist in the room had gathered around me. Cameron heard my name being called from the waiting area and peeked over to see what was going on. About this time my dreams were being disturbed. I was just like a person reviving in the movies, minus seeing stars. My eyes strained to open. Three faded faces with blurry surroundings appeared. The unknown faces came into focus. Muffled noise sharpened into my name being spoken calmly by three different voices. Finally, the fuzzy surroundings of the room cleared and I realized where I was and who surrounded me. I looked down to see the needle had already been removed.
The phlebotomist said that when I fainted, the arm with the vein-fed needle had jerked up, bending at the elbow. I had caused the needle to move and blood to splatter onto the floor, chair and my shirt while my mind was in its relaxed state.
I was fine, other than the few seconds after awakening when I felt like I might vomit. That quickly passed. Sierra bandaged my arm and dabbed hydrogen peroxide on my shirt so it wouldn’t stain. I was disappointed to see there was barely any blood in the bag.
A minute didn’t go by without someone monitoring me. Almost every working staffer stopped by to see how I was doing and whether I needed anything. They wanted me to stay until my color returned. I sat in the chair and slowly drank two glasses of orange juice and ate some Oreo cookies before trying to stand up.
Sierra said that because I jerked my arm so hard with the needle in, I would get a bruise. I did. That night I iced my arm when it got a little puffy. I’m right-handed, so I was glad I had donated with my left arm when it became very sore the next day, although an Advil helped. At least I had a great story to tell my friends. The bruise just added to the excitement. Even though my experience was unusual, as a whole it was positive and worth doing again in a heartbeat.
According to Joan, very few people who come in faint. If they do, it’s normally due to heat, anxiety or dehydration. She also said donating blood should not be painful after the prick.
If it is, tell the phlebotomist.
The unsuccessful trip to donate blood was disappointing. Minutes after fainting I wondered how soon I could try again. So when the bruise goes down, I’ll be back.
The opportunity to possibly save a life was worth a failed attempt.