A couple of weeks ago, I made my 46th blood donation.
That might sound like a lot if you’ve only given blood once or twice or never, but it’s not nearly as many as my younger sister has done (73 at last count). Or my mom, who has done 131 over the decades and was my role model for giving blood when I was a kid.
Back then, when I was a (very) well-behaved homeschooler, there was a mobile clinic that came to our town periodically, and my mom would always go. And when I was young, I always went too. She has O-negative blood, which makes her a “universal donor” – people with any blood type can safely use her blood. As you can imagine, it’s quite sought-after.
Her example when giving blood was one of calm. She would chat and joke with the nurses; she never flinched (that I remember) when the needle went in. It was all very matter-of-fact and straightforward. In those days, as her child, I could come sit by her while she was donating. I could ask any questions I had. I could read a book, or sometimes I would read to her. The nurses were nice to me. I got to partake of the snacks at the end, which was my favourite part.
I really looked forward to turning 17, when I would be allowed to give my own blood. The clinic would come to my high school and our Student Council president would promote it by wearing the “Buddy Blood-Drop” costume. I can remember that at one of my first donations (maybe my very first?), I was rejected because my iron was too low. (The level of iron needed to donate is higher than the level needed to be healthy.) I was ticked about that.
Because like my mom, I’m also O-negative. Being the Universal Donor feels like a low-key superpower. I could give blood to LITERALLY ANYONE. I could help save the life of my mortal enemy or my dearest friend. Not that I have a mortal enemy. But it feels complicatedly awesome to know that my blood could help someone whom I might fundamentally disagree with if I knew them… and it doesn’t matter. My blood will go where it needs to go. It will help a human who needs help.
Even if I weren’t O-negative, I know I would still be giving blood regularly. Why?
- It’s such a solid, important thing to give. You know what it’s for, and that it’s all going to that purpose. In terms of charitable giving, it’s simple and direct.
- I produce it anyway. There’s no money involved, and the time is minimal. I go once every three months (or 84 days, which is the most frequent option for menstruating females). I do take an iron supplement – ferrous gluconate – for a couple of weeks around when I give blood, but I do that anyway around my period, to prevent low iron.
- I still enjoy the snack part. They provide juice or water, as well as something sweet and something salty. The salt helps with your blood pressure after a donation, and it takes about 650 (kilo)calories to replace a unit of blood – so it’s an important snack!
- I also enjoy the resting part. You stretch out on a chaise longue for the donation and for a few minutes afterward. Then you’re invited to take your time at the snack table. They say, “Take it easy for the rest of the day, and try not to do any heavy lifting with this arm for a couple of days.” What magical words, “Take it easy.” They are medical professionals asking you to do less that day. And I do try to be gentle with myself on post-donation evenings. It’s really nice to have a professionally-recommended reason to do that.
- People are truly thankful. I have a friend who has thanked me several times for giving blood, because she needed blood to get through a splenectomy. Another former coworker organized a group to donate blood because she had needed quite a few units due to complications during the birth of her last child. These people know first-hand that lives are saved with blood given, one unit at a time, by regular people whom the recipients will never get to thank personally. I’m really glad to be part of the system that helped these people survive. It is a beautiful thing to help or be helped by strangers.
- The staff at the clinic are always glad to see me. Whether or not they recognize me, they value me for coming in. Everyone needs to be reminded sometimes of their value – and of the value of their intricate, generous, amazing body.
- It’s my chance to help save lives. Who knows if there will be any other opportunities in my life for that?
I know there are lots of reasons not to give blood. Many are valid, and some are not.
If you think you can’t give blood because you are vegetarian or vegan, I am too, so that’s actually not an issue. If you think you can’t because of a certain question on the questionnaire that once prevented you, please check your eligibility again, just in case. For example, I had a several-year hiatus because I’d been in Europe during foot-and-mouth disease, but the question has since changed and I’m eligible again. Also, eligibility requirements are different for blood/blood products and other donations such as organs and tissues.
It’s very much understandable if you don’t donate because you’re nervous, but I’d still say it’s worth a try. The nurses do their best to put you at ease. You don’t have to watch the process if you don’t want to. And yes, it does hurt a bit when the needle goes in (especially if you have shy veins like me), but it’s really just that initial poke. Make sure you take the rest, replenish your fluids, and leave the pressure bandage on for a couple of hours at least.
The thing is, the need for blood is urgent. Over the course of the pandemic, Canadian Blood Services lost over 30,000 regular donors. The whole system depends on people like us taking a bit of time and a small painful poke a few times a year. If you’ve been thinking, “Hmm. I should donate blood one of these times,” let this be the push you need. There are many ways to be involved. Visit blood.ca, find the answers to all your questions, and make that appointment. It’s worth it.