I asked my friend, Suzanne Brown, to donate blood with me. Neither of us had donated in some time, although we both used to be regular donors. We went to the New York Blood Center together, rolled up our sleeves, donated blood, and chatted about donation, why we were donating, and how to encourage more eligible people to do the same.
Katherine: Why did you decide to donate blood today?
Suzanne: Because a very dear friend pointed out that she's only alive today because transfusions saved her life a few years ago. And I’ve had friends with maternal and pregnancy issues who have needed transfusions. Not to get up on a soapbox, but the maternal mortality rate in this country keeps rising, so blood donation is often a women’s issue. Obviously it’s a human issue too, but it's very common for women to need blood transfusions in this country.
K: How long has it been since you donated blood?
S: My understanding was that blood centers, years ago, would not accept a donation from a pregnant or breastfeeding mother, so it’s been years. Fifteen years probably.
K: Do you feel like the process has changed since you donated last time?
S: Well yes! The rudimentary needle into the vein and blood out into a bag hasn’t changed. But the whole check in process is different.
K: It is different. I think it’s faster now. All modern and efficient. Once you can log into the computer, anyway.
S: Apparently my donor card is outdated. There are scanners now, so they read your donor card and that lets them access your name and address and gender and stuff like that. If you don't have a blood donor card, or I guess, a blood donor number….
K: I don’t have even an old blood donor card or a number. I don’t know what happened to it, but all the information on it would have been out of date anyway. I had to wait and talk to someone to get a donor number so I could put all of that information into the computer.
S: Okay. Then there are the basic questions, which used to be on a paper form and that’s on the computer now too. Health questions, travel questions.
K: So let’s sum up the overall check in process. Somebody goes to donate blood. What should they expect at check in?
S: Like everything else in life, it’s not as bad as the DMV. But there is bureaucracy and paperwork involved. Then the health check, which I don’t remember them being so specific about the pulse and blood pressure.
K: They were very specific about it at this location, making sure your pulse isn’t too fast or slow, your blood pressure isn’t too high or too low.
S: Yes, but the people there are very professional. They do a finger stick to check your hemoglobin after they check your pulse and blood pressure.
K: Right. Pulse, then blood pressure, then finger stick for hemoglobin.
S: That’s so they can check your iron level to make sure that it's safe for you to donate. Because you are a volunteer donor, and they want what's best for both the people eventually getting your blood, and also for you as a donor.
K: Now, on to the donation process itself. You wait your turn, then they call you back and direct you to a chair.
S: Yes and the phlebotomist was lovely. They are not practicing on you like a pin cushion. They're very professional. They do this multiple times a day, multiple times a week, multiple times a month. So they're very skilled. The needle goes in. Being honest I don't watch that part. And then your blood comes out and fills up the bag.
K: You were worried about the five or six bags all attached together when he first walked up with them.
S: All right you’re not actually filling all six bags. You’re just filling one.
K: You asked what the rest were for. What was the answer?
S: The rest are for when they separate the different parts of your blood—plasma, red blood cells, and so on—into separate bags later.
K: They hang the bags on a swing kind of thing while you donate. It’s a scale so it only takes a certain weight of blood. It’s all automated.
S: Once you’re hooked up, you just relax, the bag fills, and the scale dings that you’re done, and you’ve donated blood! They come and remove everything and then you get a really cool sportsmanlike bandage.
K: It’s relaxing if you don’t have a friend with you who decides to be competitive about how fast you fill the donation bag!
S: As long as you donate! You can literally save a life just by sitting there and donating. It’s really sad to think about, but anyone could need a transfusion. Your spouse, your child, your mother, your loved ones, your coworker.
K: So what do you think somebody should do if they can't donate? Like, if for some reason they're disqualified, or they have low iron or low blood pressure, and they can't donate?
S: There’s always something you can do. You could babysit a friend's kids so they could go and donate. Cook dinner for a friend who's coming back after donating. Be a friend that sits with the person while they donate.
K: Even just reminding friends that donation is a possibility. So now that you've donated blood, what will you be doing for the rest of National Blood Donor Month?
S: Exactly what we talked about for people who can’t donate. I'm going to have to wait until I can donate again in eight weeks. But I can encourage three or five or 300 or 500 friends to go donate.
K: I definitely want to donate again in eight weeks. I want to make it a regular thing. What can we do to encourage people, like me, to donate blood more regularly?
S: It would be great if we talked about it as a routine thing, like you go to the dentist twice a year.
K: You get your hair cut, you donate blood.
S: Yes! And we should talk about it more: "Oh, I only donated three times this year. Oh yeah I'm up to five now. Oh well remember I had that sciatica so I didn't donate this year like I usually do."
K: Right, there were a lot of people talking at the blood center tonight. A lot of different kinds of people, all talking about why we donate, why we came at this particular time, all kinds of stuff. The blood center was a busy place.
S: It really is a small community within a big city. The only thing uniting any of us was our willingness to part with a pint of blood and save a life.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For more information about donating blood, visit our resource page.
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