This morning I made a blood donation at a local American Red Cross drive – my 50th pint, more or less. I started donating blood in either late high school or early college, let’s say age 17 or 18. I made a steady series of donations in my 20s, and again in my early 40s when my employer hosted blood drives in-house and I could not only donate regularly but participate in publicizing the drive on the organization’s Web site and in the local newspaper. There were breaks in between, however, when donating became too inconvenient. Also, for a period of three years I was not allowed to give blood because I had traveled in West Africa and taken anti-malarial medicine.
Some aspects of the experience have changed over the years, and some remain the same. In the 70s and 80s, one could easily be in and out of the donation site or Red Cross collection center in less than 30 or 40 minutes. That time commitment has doubled. The actual donation, when the needle is in my arm and the blood flowing into the bag, takes no longer than it used to (seven minutes, 19 seconds by the clock this morning), but the initial processing has expanded. Intake involves long and often repeated questioning—some of it on a computer laptop, some by a Red Cross volunteer or nurse in person—about my identity, place of residence, travel and infectious history (Been to Africa? Spent a total of 5 years in Europe since 1980? Gotten a tattoo, or ear or body piercing? Sexual contact with an IV drug user, man, or prostitute?) that were not issues in the past, in a process that alone consumes a good 20 minutes. Once, you could fill in a sheet in less than five.
The iron test is also different: now a blood smear on a slide goes into an electronic device called a HemoCue Donor Hb Checker, which turns out a reading in seconds (a solid 16.3, in my case, since I’d taken care to eat several handfuls of raisins the night before—I was rejected for low iron once in the mid-80s and wish to avoid a repeat of that experience). I told the nurse I missed the old test where together we would watch a globule of my dark red blood get dropped into a test tube of dark blue liquid and sink to the bottom to prove the iron levels in my blood are sufficiently high. She said a surprising number of donors have told her the same thing. I guess there was a sort of lottery-like anticipation to the old process, and an excitement at seeing the graphic result of a positive test.
What hasn’t changed so far are my vitals: temperature of 98.2, 64 pulse, blood pressure of 112/62. I don’t exercise, but not owning a car, I do a lot of walking, and I suspect my low blood pressure (which obscures a pesky, somewhat elevated cholesterol count) is at least partly a vestigial remnant of my long-ago distance running career.
I used to think that no matter what else I did, for whatever misguided or self-centered reasons, I could at least assure myself that making a blood donation was doing some good in the world. I’m not so certain of that now: there’s a chance that some of those 50 pints were all but wasted in a futile emergency room attempt to revive an obese heart disease patient or a terminal alcoholic or cancer victim. But like prayer, meditation, or feeding the homeless, the act of donating remains a good thing for me to do. It affirms my membership in the community of the human race and, amid the many blessings of my life, a duty and responsibility to care for the less fortunate.