Wednesday, February 1, 2017

How to Donate Blood (a real-life, non-candy-coated guide)

Me after my first successful donation in 2015.
When Zach first urged me to try donating blood, I balked. A lot. First of all, I have a fear of needles. It’s not severe by any means— not like my friends who grow woozy at the mere thought— but noticeable enough that I can’t watch other people get stuck, and I start sweating and my heart races a bit when I know a needle’s going in me. I guess I’d categorize it as a moderate fear. 

Secondly, I was afraid of the process in general. What would the nurses be like? What would they do? How would it feel? I anxiously looked through the Red Cross’s website, looking for information, but I was suspicious of all the cheerful chatter about how caring the nurses are, how very little it hurts, and what an incredible glow you get after donating.

The first time I tried to donate blood, I got as far as the hemoglobin test, where they give you a tiny pinprick in the finger. The nurse didn’t warn me I was getting stuck, and I had a miniature panic attack. I was not able to donate that time.

The next time, trying to gather my courage, I attempted again. I learned that day that I have tiny veins (as has been confirmed by several nurses and one anesthesiologist), and it took forever to draw a pint. I had a huge bruise and a really sore arm, but honestly, it wasn’t that painful.

My second donation went swimmingly, with virtually no pain, a quick draw, and a removal of the needle so subtle that I didn’t even feel it. 

On my third donation, yesterday, my blood vessels were just not having it. The nurse couldn’t even find a vein on my left arm, and barely managed to tease out one on my right. The needle going in hurt a lot for a second. Things were going okay until a few minutes in, when my carb-deprivation caught up with me and I nearly blacked out. They leaned my chair back and my vision cleared, and I was able to successfully finish the donation. I felt shaky, upset, and pretty darn exhausted afterward, and cried in the car. Nevertheless, I’m determined to go and donate again once my blood iron recovers.

So what am I saying here? This: if you, like me, are a healthy heterosexual with a moderate fear of needles, you should try to give blood at least once.

The reasons are numerous. You know the obvious ones: that whole saving people’s lives thing. Blood has a short shelf life, so it’s constantly in demand. Also, the more people who donate, the cheaper blood is for patients to buy at hospitals. 

I have personal reasons for donating blood. Whenever I waffle in my commitment, I think about my mom a few years ago: lying in the hospital bed, her skin the color of ash, as someone else’s blood dripped through an IV in her arm. I’m sure you know someone who has required blood at some point. My mom, after a month of being constantly stuck with needles, is traumatized and could never donate. Because she can’t, I will. Someone has to. I encourage you to make that someone you.

So, here is my completely honest explanation of how to donate blood. Again, if you have normal-sized veins, you’ll probably have much less trouble donating than I do, so keep that in mind.

Find a donation buddy. I’ll be honest: if Zach hadn’t dragged me to the Red Cross center, I never would’ve donated blood. You need someone to hold you accountable, to provide moral support, and to be a person you can encourage as well. (Zach is a blood-giving champion! He donates platelets, which is a two- to three-hour process involving two needles and often a significant amount of pain. He has saved so many lives.)

Go to the Red Cross website and see if you’re eligible to donate. If you are, take a moment to find a donation center and set up an appointment. If you can donate mid-week, that’s better, since a lot of people donate on weekends.

Prepare for the appointment. Make sure you get enough iron in the days leading up to your appointment, and see these guidelines for more details.

On the day of the appointment, drink a ton of water and get some exercise. A bit of weight-lifting wouldn’t hurt either, if you’re into that. My dad also suggested to me putting a heating pad on my arm while I’m in the waiting room, to allow my veins to bulge more. I’m hoping to try this next time.

Understand what you need for the best experience. For me, being stuck without warning is my biggest fear, so I ask the nurses to give me a countdown before inserting the needle (even the tiny needle for the hemoglobin test). Although the Red Cross website assures you that all the nurses are compassionate and understanding, you’ll sometimes run into the “you volunteered to do this so suck it up” type, so be prepared to stand up for yourself and ask for exactly what you need, whether that’s a countdown, a pause to center yourself before donating, etc. (I’m not dissing these nurses— if I worked with needles as often as they do, I’m sure I’d be desensitized, too. They don’t want to spend their time coddling— they want to get the life-saving blood as quickly as possible.)

Show up on time and sign in. When you’re called, the nurse will take you to a private room and have you answer a series of questions on the computer, mostly asking about your virus history, trips to Europe, and sexual contact. After you’ve completed these, the nurse will take your vitals. They will also test your hemoglobin by zapping you with a tiny needle in the finger and scraping the blood off. (Kinda freaky, but only as painful as pricking your finger on a rose thorn.)

Now it’s time to donate. They’ll get you set up on a comfy chair, wrap up your arm to create pressure, draw a line on the inside of your elbow where the most promising vein is, then scrub and sterilize that patch of skin. Then comes the needle insert. Again, my experiences with this moment have been varied: the first two times it didn’t really hurt, just kind of felt weird and uncomfortable (“Ouch, that was a needle. Wait, why is there a thing inside my arm now?... That’s weird”), but yesterday’s was more of a “Holy cow I just got stabbed in the arm!” and I yelped quite loudly. (Fortunately my nurse was sympathetic.) As upsetting as that was, though, it only lasted for two seconds. I hate pain, and I suck at dealing with it, but once the needle’s actually in, it’s not active pain. Again, just that uncomfortable pressure and feeling of something being in your body where it’s not supposed to be.

Bring something to distract you. I usually scroll through tumblr or something to keep my mind off it. If your blood flow is good, the actual blood-drawing process only takes about ten minutes. Be sure to let the nurses know if it starts to hurt, because it’s not supposed to.

Take some time to recover. Usually the needle being pulled out doesn’t hurt, although that may vary, but again, you’re only looking at a split second of pain. If you’re not feeling dizzy, walk over to the snack table for some Cheez-its and cranberry juice. Yay! You did it!

Encourage other people to donate. If everyone eligible person gave blood just once a year, it would make a huge difference. 

To some, this article may seem like it’s discouraging donation rather than encouraging it. However, I would much rather come in expecting the correct level of pain rather than thinking things are going to be better than they are. And here’s another way of thinking about it: can you endure literally three seconds of pain and ten minutes of discomfort if it meant saving three people’s lives? I can. And I believe you can, too. 


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