I’ll describe the whole donation process for you, from sign-in to cookies, and maybe it will take some of the mystery out of it and encourage some people to try it for the first time.
Mr Bill, the Red Cross volunteer, checked me in at the front desk and gave me a big sticker with my name on it so everyone would know who I was and could call me Jen instead of “miss” or the dreaded “ma’am”. I signed in at the computer (touch-screen, fancy!) and then I read a small booklet of information before going in to wait for my interview. The booklet contained some general guidelines about donation, so people who might not qualify could find out right away and not waste their time – there was a page about mad cow disease and the countries on the exclusion list, along with information about age, weight, and health requirements. There was a list of excluded medications, and a description of what would happen to your donation once it was taken. If you read all that and still feel like you’re eligible and ready to donate, then you head to the waiting area.
I only waited a few minutes before a booth opened up, and a Red Cross employee called me over for the physical and interview. I handed over my ID and confirmed my name, address, and date of birth, and then she took my pulse and blood pressure. Once all that checked out, she measured my hemoglobin level with a little machine that looks like this and takes a drop of blood from a fingerstick. If you know anyone who checks their blood sugar for diabetes, it’s almost exactly the same process, except it measures hemoglobin instead of glucose.
Fun fact: they’re not measuring your iron level. Hemoglobin level is related to how much iron is in your blood, but taking an iron pill the day before a donation will not boost your hemoglobin level, because red cells take days to form, and they take up iron to make their hemoglobin early in that process. Hemoglobin is a protein packed into your red cells, and it contains iron and transports oxygen. In this context, it’s a quick and dirty way to check how many red cells you have, to see if you’ve got enough to give.
My hemoglobin level was spectacular, so I was cleared to donate, assuming I passed the questionnaire portion of the interview. They no longer sit beside you and read you the questions – I guess maybe they found that people were more likely to lie if someone was right there. It’s all done on computer now, with a series of yes/no questions about sexual activity, drug use, health, and travel. It’s a smart system – if you say no to travel outside of the United states and Canada, it skips the questions about travel to the UK or Mexico or any other potentially problematic places. Having never traded money for sex or enjoyed a wild night of intravenous drug use, I passed with flying colors and was brought over to the donation chairs.
The phlebotomist (big word for the day, it means “health worker trained in drawing venous blood for testing or donation”) handed me a little squeeze toy and then pumped up a blood pressure cuff on my arm to make a vein pop out. Once she found a vein she liked, she swabbed my arm with a squishy iodine swab for 30 seconds, told me to get ready, and then poked the needle in. It hurt a little, because, hey, it’s a needle. But it wasn’t too bad. She covered it with a little square of gauze so I couldn’t see it, in case I was one of those fainters, and then she got to work on the blood unit.
As the blood came out of my vein, it went through some tubing into a small pouch, from which the phlebotomist took samples into a handful of tubes for testing. They need to check my blood type, obviously, but also check for all those communicable nasties like HIV, hepatitis, and West Nile Virus. After that, the blood zipped past the pouch into the big collection bag, which was hung from a hinged pole so that it would be obvious when it was full enough – the bag reached the target weight, the hinge dropped down, and one of the techs came to seal it up and unhook me. The actual bleeding part of the donation process lasted about 10 minutes.
Once the needle came out of my arm, I pressed a ball of gauze against the site for a full minute with my arm above my head, to be sure my platelets had time to do their thing and plug the hole from the inside. The tech wrapped a stretchy bandage around my arm and thanked me for my donation, and then I was free to raid the canteen. They have Keebler cookies now, which is awesome. I had some rainbow chocolate chip cookies and a can of orange juice, and then I was back out at the front desk helping Mr Bill with his computer and thanking everyone who came in to donate.
A day later, I’m feeling a little tired and worn out, but I’m not sure how much of that is from the blood loss and how much is due to working a 14-hour day, not getting enough sleep, and then getting up too early.
We got 29 units out of this drive, which isn’t bad but I would really like to see us get above 30, especially considering we give out 500 units of blood to our patients in an average month. We actually had 39 people show up and try to donate, but 10 of them were deferred because of low hemoglobin levels, travel, or illness. I’m encouraged by the turnout and I’m looking forward to the next drive. Nine laboratory employees donated, which is a record and something to be proud of.
Go donate blood! If a wimp like me can do it, so can you!