Visiting the “vampires”: Donating blood is easy, un-scary and saves lives

At my last job, I left cryptic notes in my calendar for personal
appointments. I knew my boss was paying attention when she
asked me about my appt to visit the “vampires.” Photo Credit
On the list of strange compliments I’ve received in my life “You’ve got gorgeous veins!” is near the top both in weirdness and frequency. At just about every doctor’s appointment, hospital visit and blood draw, I hear the virtues of my big veins extolled. Newbies love me. If they can’t find my veins, they have no business working with needles, let me tell you. Naturally, I’m asked if I donate blood. Up until a few years ago, my answer was something like “Are you out of your mind?? Too scary!” I thank Mr. T for demystifying the process and accompanying me on my first visit. As a reformed scaredy cat who just donated her 13th pint of blood yesterday, I shall enlighten you, too.
But first, some statistics. According to America’s Blood Centers, 4.5 million Americans will need a blood transfusion each year with someone needing blood every two seconds. Blood shortages (which occur most frequently during summer and winter holidays) are not surprising when you consider that only 37% of the population is eligible to donate blood, and of that group, only 10% do annually. Some top reasons? Nothing thinking about it and not having time.
Well, I invite you to think about it and I hope that you can spare an hour every eight or so weeks. An hour and a pint of blood is all it takes to save up to three lives! And if you’re cool like Mr. T and don’t carry a certain enzyme in your blood, you can even save babies. (Seriously, he’s got what the nurses call “baby’s blood” and he flaunts it like a badge of honor. It’s cute.)
Donating blood* is a simple enough process. I recommend making an appointment so you don’t have to wait. Just show up with picture ID and answer some questions about your health and background. You’ll need to be in reasonably good health**, without recent tattoos or piercings, and at least 110 pounds to donate. The front end takes 15-ish minutes because a nurse will take your temperature, check your blood pressure and test a small sample of blood to make sure there is enough iron (this consists of pricking a finger and sending a drop of blood into a solution to see how fast it sinks to the bottom). Yours truly gets rejected on occasion for anemia (which is common among women), so make sure to eat your spinach, oatmeal or liver (if you’re into that sorta thing), or take supplements if you run light on iron*** like me.
Often blood donation places will partner with vendors to provide little thank-yous for donation. My favorite is Baskin Robbin’s “Pint for a Pint” campaign where they give out coupons for free pints of ice cream. (They seem to give coupons after the medical screening because I’ve been given a couple pity pints after failed attempts at donation.)
See, even Dracula can do it! Photo credit.
After the health screening, you’ll be led back to a comfortable recliner-type chair. The nurse will ask you to confirm your name and also what arm you prefer to use. (I always do my non-dominant arm.) Prior to donation, the nurse will scrub the inside of your elbow with an alcohol-soaked sponge for at least 15 seconds before securing a blood pressure cuff around your upper arm. You will be asked to squeeze your fist several times to pump up the vein a bit (I’m always given a rubber cylinder to squeeze) before the needle is inserted. Instantly, you’ll see blood move down a long tube and into a pint-sized bag that rests below on a scale. This part takes maybe 10 minutes total and other than the pinch of the needle, is painless.
Once the bag is filled, the nurse will take a few more vials for screening. The blood will undergo 13 tests (11 for infectious diseases), before it is allowed to be used in transfusions. After that, the needle is removed and you’ll be asked to raise your arm in the air for a minute or so. I can’t remember why but I’m pretty sure it’s so your arm doesn’t fall off. (Ha!) The nurse will wrap your arm with a slightly sticky and flexible tape that you’re not supposed to remove for four hours. Again, probably so your arm doesn’t fall off. You may be asked to sit for a couple minutes before going to the refreshments area where you are required to eat snacks and hang out for 10 minutes. (They want to make sure you don’t pass out or anything.) I admit this is my favorite part… Cracker Jacks, Gold Fish and pineapple juice remind me of kindergarten snack time. Ah, mem-ries.
Then you’re done and have just saved lives for the cost of one hour and an arm poke.
As a delicate flower, I admit getting “woozed” post-blood donation, so don’t plan to do anything strenuous right afterwards. (Indeed, you are forbidden from vigorous exercise for a couple days. Shucks, huh?) You’ll want to drink a bunch of water and eat hearty to replace the blood, which is one of approximately 10 pints in your body. 
Then wait eight weeks and repeat. Simple and not scary, I promise!
* This reflects my experience visiting a Blood Source office. The protocol may be different with other companies or during mobile blood drives.
** Do some online sleuthing to check your availability if you’ve been traveling abroad, take a lot of medications or have recently overcome a major illness.
***Note for my anemic friends: Taking iron pills with citrus juice aids absorption!

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