Why I Donate Blood to the Red Cross

Today is World Blood Donor Day.

First established by the World Health Organization in 2005, WBDD, “serves to raise awareness of the need for safe blood and blood products and to thank voluntary, unpaid blood donors for their life-saving gifts of blood.”

Today, it just so happens, is also the day I’m donating blood myself. While I didn’t plan for my appointment to land on WBDD, it’s a cool coincidence that it did.

I’ve been donating blood to the Red Cross ever since I was 17.

I’m not sure what attracted me initially to contributing to this non-profit that has been around since 1881. It may have been a desire to give something essential that wasn’t simply money.

I was just a high schooler after all, working at a Save-A-Lot supermarket in upstate Pennsylvania on the weekends at the time. I wasn’t exactly flush with cash.

It may have been a desire to finally overcome my fear of needles. I’d suffered a crippling syringe-phobia ever since I was five and had to be strapped down to the examination table for a booster shot.

Certainly not a preferred early childhood memory.

Probably it had to do with the idea that the simple action of giving a pint of my blood could help someone’s life, or even several people’s lives. That appealed to me more than giving other things, like money, time, or labor. As the Red Cross states, “Blood and platelets cannot be manufactured; they can only come from volunteer donors.”

Since that initial decision to donate blood, I’ve given 23 times, and am scheduled to go again today in the afternoon.

Screenshot by author.

If I’m able to donate about four times a year for, say, the next 30 years or so, that means I could potentially donate up to almost 15 gallons of blood. I’ve given nearly three so far. You can donate whole blood every 56 days. While it would be great to be able to make it in perfectly on cue, it doesn’t always work out that way.

I’d like to donate 20 gallons of blood over my lifetime. I think that’s a reasonable goal.

When I lived in Philadelphia I donated like clockwork every two months at the donation center on Spring Garden street near Center City. On the way back home, I’d drive past John F. Kennedy Plaza, aka Love Park, and admire the famous red sign with the swooning letter “O.”

After moving to Williston, ND during the oil boom my donations became less frequent. Sometimes, when my work schedule allows, I’m able to make the blood drives that take place on occasion in nearby Sidney or Fairview, MT.

Other times in the past, I’ve actually driven six hours to Saint Cloud, MN to donate at the Red Cross center located in town. The phlebotomists there are friendly, and often they ask where I’m coming from. So when I mention Williston, they give me these weird looks. You drove six hours just to donate blood? At the Red Cross? Aren’t there places closer you can donate? Yeah. There’s United Blood Services, but I don’t give there. I’m a bit of a loyalist. The Red Cross takes me back to high school.

Hey, everyone’s sentimental about something. Music, movies, wine. You stick a Red Cross needle in my arm to draw blood, and suddenly I’m feeling nostalgic.

While it’s nice to donate blood and know I may have helped save somebody’s life, I also do it because it makes me feel good. I follow a strict dietary ritual the day before, eating foods rich in iron. Lots of fruits and vegetables. A big breakfast.

And, of course, drinking plenty of water. Always make sure you are well-hydrated before donating blood.

Seriously, I’m like an athlete prepping for a big game before I give blood. You’ve probably never met someone as excited to have their blood drained as me the day before a draw.

Giving blood compels me to stay active and in shape. When you donate you receive a mini-physical. They take your temperature, measure your hemoglobin levels, and take your pulse. When you go in for your appointment, the technicians there will have you fill out a lengthy health screening questionnaire.

While the Red Cross check-up is not a substitute for a full-body one by your doctor, it’s a good, cheap way to keep an eye on your health.

The Red Cross screens your blood before giving it to anybody, so if you have a disease or some kind of health problem, they’ll tell you. In my last donation, the Red Cross informed me that I had developed reactive+ Covid-19 antibodies. This means, according to the Red Cross anti-body test results page, that, “Antibody levels were detected at levels high enough that your plasma may be used as convalescent plasma.”

Screenshot by author.

So, hopefully my blood went to someone who needed a leg up fighting that virus.

I have been told by several doctors that I have “great blood.” Which is no surprise. I work hard eating right and staying fit. I expect my crimson essence to be premium 94 octane.

I also think those who donate like me do so out of some unconscious need to affirm their own health and vitality. Some guys rip down the highway at 80 MPH on a Kawasaki motorcycle to “feel alive.” Me, I have a needle stuck in my arm to drain off a pint. It may not make for a Red Bull commercial, but donating blood is essential for millions of people every year who need transfusions or blood components to survive.

There’s also a very cool thing the Red Cross does that makes the ordeal worth it. They let you know where your blood donation went.

Screenshot by author.

Usually just a few weeks or so after your donation, the Red Cross will send you an email with a message like the one above. It’s uplifting to know not just that your donation helps, but specifically where it did so.

Have you donated blood before? Or given thought to doing so? I know a lot of people are held back due to fear of needles, or concerns they’ll pass out or get sick.

Yeah, I’ve been there myself.

The whole blood donation process is mostly painless. I won’t lie, though. Sometimes it can hurt. It usually depends on the person sticking the needle in your arm. There’s a lot of finesse to finding the vein and inserting the syringe just right. I’ve had experiences where I barely felt anything. Other times the technician had to go digging around to find the right spot, and left me with black and blue marks. That sucked.

But look at it this way. You’re almost certainly going to have to have blood drawn at some point in your life anyway. Especially as you get older. You’ve probably already had blood work done up after an appointment.

At least if you get into the habit of donating regularly, you’ll get used to it. And you’ll be saving lives along the way. You might even become a freak like me and actually enjoy giving blood.

The technicians at the Red Cross are considerate professionals. They’ll make sure everything goes smoothly. It’s normal to feel light-headed after a blood draw. Having blood taken effects everyone differently. I’ve only had one instance where I felt like I was going to faint. That was likely due to being underfed and dehydrated before going in for my appointment. But the process has generally been a smooth one for me over my twenty-plus year Red Cross blood donation career.

This is why it’s so important to eat right and drink plenty of water before going in. Check out the Red Cross page on Tips for a Successful Blood Donation for more important details.

Anyway, I’m off to my 25th donation. Happy World Blood Donor Day.

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