Thirty years of blood donations

I occasionally visited my father’s office when I was growing up, and I greatly admired the paperweight on his desk that showed how many gallons of blood he had donated. I made up my mind that I would donate blood when I grew up, and I wanted to donate at least as many gallons as he had, preferably more. (I suppose this demonstrates what my husband claims is my competitive nature, even though I generally prefer non-competitive games.)

I finally got my first chance to give blood when I was at Bible school, the winter of 1979-1980. The nurse prepped my arm and inserted the needle. Only somehow she didn’t get it in the vein quite right, so she had to start over with the other arm. She couldn’t get it right there either. They gave me credit for having given a pint, since the needle had been inserted, but I was horribly disappointed. (I actually was so upset I started crying and then hyperventilating, and they had to make me lie down in the area they reserve for people who are faint after giving blood.)

When I was home on break from college, I read in the paper about a blood drive being held somewhere locally. It was held at a workplace, for the convenience of employees there, but it was not restricted to them. I felt a bit out of place, but I was eager to donate. Apparently my veins were just plain difficult, because the nurse again failed with the first arm. But this time the other arm went OK, and I successfully donated my first pint.

(For the next few years my veins continued to give nurses trouble, both at blood drives and at the doctor’s office. I once had to go for a fasting blood draw at 4:30 in the afternoon, as I didn’t have any vacation or personal time available to me at work as a fairly new employee, to be able to take time off work to make a morning appointment. The nurse could not manage to successfully insert the needle in either arm, and told me I had to schedule a new appointment. I was very annoyed – and being weak from not having eaten since the night before didn’t help my mood.)

Six years ago I started having trouble with being deferred as a donor, because of low iron levels. By three years ago, I was being deferred more often than not, and stopped even trying for a while. This month I didn’t even bother to sign up for the blood drive at work until the second request went out due to low initial response. But as work has been slow lately, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to spend the time sitting in line to donate only to be turned away.

Much to my surprise and delight, my iron level today was high enough (though perhaps just barely). I’ve been eating raisin bran quite a bit, which nurses at previous blood drives have recommended. (The nurse today mentioned watermelon, of all things, as a good source, along with peanuts.) I also noticed, as I have the last couple times I tried to donate, just how easy the process of getting my iron checked has become.

When I first gave blood thirty years ago, they pricked a finger to get blood to check. Then within a few years they switched to taking it from the earlobe (I remember having to remove my earring, and worrying about where to put it so I wouldn’t lose it – as well as how strange I would look with only one earring on). I don’t remember when they switched back, but now it’s from the finger again.

The gadget they use to prick it has changed, though. It never hurt a lot (less than the stick in the vein in the arm), but it did hurt. Now they use a little gadget that reminds me of a thumb drive (portable computer storage, also known as a flash drive or memory stick), and the sensation it causes hardly qualifies as pain. (Admittedly, I have a fairly high pain threshold.)

They used to take that blood from my finger and drop it into a small container of bluish liquid. If it sank, it had enough iron. Several years ago, they had a device that would first spin the blood (some kind of centrifuge) and then analyze the iron level. Whatever it is they have now, it analyzes the blood so fast that I didn’t even see how it worked.

Reflecting on those differences, I found myself noticing all the other ways that the blood donation process has changed in thirty years. When I started donating, all the health questions were read by the nurse and I answered her directly. I learned, after a couple of times, to respond negatively to the question about traveling outside the United States, because they really weren’t interested in the fact I had been in Spain, or even Canada, and it just took extra time and writing to explain my answer otherwise.

When AIDS became an issue, they started giving a set of bar codes to each donor. One meant YES and the other meant NO, and the donor would choose, in private, which to use (after reading through the materials about risk factors for AIDS). That way no one would know (unless you had somehow memorized the patterns of both bar codes) whether you were acknowledging that you might be at risk for AIDS. If you used the NO bar code, the blood you donated would be discarded.

Now the process is turned over to an interactive computer program. I put on a set of headphones, and a recording (by a nurse) asks me all those health questions, and I answer by pressing Yes or No on a touch screen. The list of questions has grown, including asking about diseases I’ve never even heard of. The questions about travel are now quite specific, regarding which countries I have visited during what time frame and for how long.

Today I noticed that while the computer questionnaire didn’t include it, an information sheet at the sign-in table added the newest category of donation deferrals, for people who have been diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. I had just recently read of a virus which may cause CFS, and now apparently it is thought that it is possible that the virus could be transmitted through blood transfusions. Fortunately, I don’t have CFS.

Once I got to the table to donate, I noticed more changes. Since I opted to use my right arm (at some point my veins apparently became easier to access, and once I had given successfully with my right arm a few times I decided to stay with it), they needed to switch the table around from the previous donor, who had used his left arm. I watched in amazement as he made the few quick configuration changes.

Take the headrest off one end, put down that end, put up the other end, velcro the headrest in place, remove the arm support from one side, add it to the other. Plus the whole table was very comfortable. The tables I remember from years ago were much harder, and you lay flat. The hook that held the bag of blood while it filled was affixed to one side of the table. (Maybe there was one affixed on each side to allow for either arm to be used.)

The nurse started swabbing my arm where the needle would be inserted, and I noticed that whatever she was swabbing it with was clear. No more yellow circle on my arm! (It did seem, though, that she had to swab for considerably longer than I remembered it taking.)

Then there was the object put in my hand to squeeze periodically. Thirty years ago, it was a piece of wood which I was to roll back and forth in my palm. After a while, they went to those spongy rubber things that are supposed to be good to squeeze on for stress relief. And today it was once of those spongy rubber things – but wrapped in a plastic baggie, no doubt to prevent transferring germs from one donor to the next.

My biggest surprise was when my co-worker on the nearby table began her donation. I couldn’t see the bag of my own blood, but I had assumed it was hanging from the table, as it always had been. I could see my co-worker’s bag, though, and it was sitting on a sort of cradle on a device on the floor. The nurse pressed a button on the device, and blood began flowing.

The bag rocked back and forth in the cradle, and at first I thought it was because the increasing weight of the bag kept setting it off balance. But the regular rhythm to it finally convinced me that it was the cradle making the bag rock. When I asked, the nurse confirmed this, explaining that it was mixing the blood with the anticoagulant that was in the bag. And the device below it was, as I guessed, a scale. No more eyeballing the bag to see if it was full!

Curious to see how blood donation procedures have changed over a span of time greater than the thirty years that I have been donating, I looked on the internet for the history of blood donations. I was amazed to find out that blood transfusions go back more than five hundred years. Not successful ones … but they had the idea and they were trying. Documented success (on humans) came much later, in the last two hundred years, which is much more like what I had been expecting.

I have no idea whether I will ever match (or exceed) my father’s level of blood donations. Donation history seems to be kept with the regional blood center, and each time I move I have to register with a new center and tell them how many pints I’ve given previously – which I never remember. And of course I’ve missed lots of opportunities to give blood due to low iron, and probably will again.

But for today, I’m a donor, and I’m happy.

One Response to Thirty years of blood donations

  1. Margaret says:

    I remember Daddy’s paperweights well. He had more than one, because each time he reached another gallon, they gave him a new paperweight with another red “drop” in it. Then he switched from giving pints of whole blood, to the process where they extracted just one blood component, probably platelets, so I don’t think he ever gave another actual pint which could be counted toward another gallon. Several years ago, I said to myself, it’s time you had the courage to give blood like your father and sister. But they wouldn’t take it, because my pulse rate was over 100, which could possibly indicate a medical problem. I tried again the following year, and again my pulse was too high, so then I just gave up. So I have given zero pints of blood. Of course I have given test tubes full of blood for the purpose of testing. Both of my arms have small veins. First they try with the left arm (because I am right-handed), then the right, and finally they get enough blood out of the right one (once they had to use a pediatric needle, which is smaller). Anyway, they told me to always drink a glass of water beforehand to plump up my veins, and it seems to help. Last Saturday I had to get a blood test and forgot all about the water, but they managed to get blood out of me, although it hurt a fair amount. (I seem to have inherited the opposite kind of pain threshold.) But I am glad that you were able to give, and if I ever need blood, I will be even more glad (although I could never receive your type A blood since I am type O).

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