I know what you’re thinking. You don’t care what I’m going to write here, all you can see is that huge, McDonald’s-straw needle poking into your arm, your beautiful, unperforated arm. I understand. I don’t like needles either. They hurt, and it’s unnatural to let somebody poke you with a metal tube.
For those of you who give blood regularly, thank you. You don’t need to hear my preaching. But for the rest of you, I’m going to walk through the process to demystify (and hopefully de-terrify) the experience of giving blood.
(If you’d like to see a live demo online, go here.)
When you arrive at the clinic, if you’ve never given blood before, they’ll get you to fill out a form so that they can issue you a blood donor card (it’ll arrive in 4-6 weeks). After that, you’ll be given a brochure to read through that explains the process. Read it. Next you’ll have a finger poked (it feels like a small pinprick), and a blood sample taken to check your iron level; they drop your blood into a blue liquid (CuSO4…copper sulphate?), and if your blood doesn’t sink far enough, you’re free! But if you’re lucky enough to have good, heavy blood, you move on to the next step.
To be sure you’re healthy enough to give blood, and that your blood is safe for the recipient, you fill out a short form answering questions about several topics, including how you’re feeling today, where you’ve travelled, your history of disease, past drug use, and any high-risk sexual activity. If you’re wondering what these questions look like, you can read them, and and explanation of why they are asked, in this article from the Ottawa Citizen. At the end of the questions, you get a piece of paper with two bar-coded stickers on it. Above one of the stickers is the word “Yes,” and above the other “No.” The nurse will leave the room, and you put one of the stickers onto the questionnaire and throw the other in the garbage; yes means “use my blood,” and no means “don’t use my blood.” This way, even if you were too embarrassed to answer the sex or drug questions truthfully, you can anonymously warn the technician who will test your blood that it shouldn’t be used by a recipient.
After you’ve passed the written exam, you move onto the “oral” test: say “ah” and you have your temperature taken. Your arm is wrapped up and your blood pressure is checked. The nurses are looking for signs of fever or circulatory abnormalities. One time the blood pressure thingy recorded my pulse as having “missed a beat,” and the nurse had to check it manually. That’s about as exciting as that process will get.
Now you’re ready to donate! You’ll be asked which arm you want to use; if you don’t care, tell the nurse that you want to use “whichever arm has a better vein.” Then they’ll examine both your arms and use whichever one looks easier to draw blood from. Next you’ll be asked if you’re allergic to iodine, and if not, your arm will be swabbed with it. This is when you’ll be the most nervous. Don’t worry, it’s natural. Now you’ll be asked to make a fist (I recommend you look away at this point), and…
Ouch. The needle. Yes, it doesn’t feel nice. But it really doesn’t hurt that much. By comparison, it hurts less than pinching the skin under your upper arm, and more than that first prick you got when they checked your blood for iron a few minutes ago.
You can look down now. They cover the needle with a cotton pad, and tape the tube to your arm. It feels warm and weird. And now you’re saving someone else’s life. I know that sounds corny, but you really, really are. If nobody gave blood, most of the people requiring emergency surgery would die. It’s that simple. You kick ass. Nice work.
Sit back. Breathe deep. In under fifteen minutes, you’ll be done (the fastest donation at my clinic was 6 minutes, and you can speed up your donation by drinking liquids or exercising a couple of hours before you donate). Now the needle comes out (tiny little pinch). You hold the pad on your arm to stop the bleeding. After a couple of minutes, you go over to a little table for juice and cookies. You’ll get a sticker that says “Be nice to me– I gave blood today!” Wear it. Not to show off, but to stir the minds of all the people who have thought of giving blood, but haven’t actually donated yet. Most decisions are made by an accumulation of tiny thoughts, an overcoming of mental inertia, and your addition may be the one that moves them to action.
You may have heard some horror stories. I’ll tell you what I’ve seen:
One guy made it over to the cookie table, and started to tip over. Within seconds, there were several nurses around him, making sure he was safe. They put him on a gurney and watched him for a few more minutes before letting him leave. So yes, some people have bad reactions to donating a pint of blood. Once this is identified, donors know to spend more time resting in the chair before trying to get up and walk around, and that fixes the problem.
Another guy, a first-time donor, needed to have his needle “jiggled” during the donation to help maximize the blood flow (they did this with me once; it feels weird, but it doesn’t hurt). After the donation, he felt a bit nauseous, but he was OK after some juice and cookies.
But the reason I keep going back to give blood stems from what I saw the very first time I donated here in Vancouver. I was actually on a date; she suggested meeting for lunch, because she was giving blood in the morning. “Unless you want to give blood with me,” she laughed. Hey, I’m game. So in the clinic, I was seated across from an older woman who had two nurses standing over her donating arm. They were having a hard time finding a vein to use. “I have deep, thin veins,” the lady said. She sure did. They needed to try three times before they finally hit a vein. And even then, they had a nurse stationed beside her to jiggle the needle to keep the blood flowing. “Happens every time,” the lady said, smiling. Later, at the cookie table I found out that today was this lady’s 50th donation. And every time had been tough. Right then I thought to myself “if this woman can keep coming back in here, knowing what she’s in for, I have no excuse.”
So why am I telling you the horror stories? After all, I’m trying to encourage you to donate, right? Well, first of all, I want to be fair: it hurts a bit, and it may hurt more for you than it does for me. But let’s put this in perspective. It doesn’t hurt enough to warrant being afraid of it (really, give the back of your upper arm a good pinch… there, you just gave blood). But it hurts enough that afterwards, when you’re sitting at the cookie table, you’ll feel really good about what you’ve done. And you’ll have forgotten the pain. And the nervousness. And you have cookies.
Go back again in two months. You can do it. The hardest part is making the choice.
It seems silly to even have to make this argument. In any given week, you will stub your toe, or bonk your head, or do yourself some other, unproductive accidental harm that hurts much more than giving blood. One of the saddest things about our world is the lack of real heroes, people of conscience and good example. But even sadder is our individual lack of heroism or personal sacrifice. We accept society’s glorification of indifference and selfishness. But that’s a cop-out. You and I are part of society. You and I are the ones who determine which acts to support and which to condemn. And the best form of support is action. Every day is an opportunity to lead by example, to take a small, humble step down the road of heroism.
You could give blood tomorrow. Say it: “I will give blood tomorrow.” Seriously, say it. Feels good, doesn’t it?
It’ll feel even better after you’re done. Trust me.
(For more information, visit the Canadian Blood Services website.)
About the author: Joshua Sarkis Prowse is a teacher, writer, geek, music and sports enthusiast, and zealot for clear communication in all forms. This is where he rants about writing and editing. You can read other stuff at joshprowse.com.