When was the last time you did something for the first time? Life is hallmarked by a number of “firsts,” and as we get older we take our experience and wisdom for granted. We get comfortable. Been there, done that.
I recently had a “first” that on the spontaneous side was something I hadn’t ever given much thought of doing. It took me 36 years to finally donate blood and, once I walked in and caught a whiff of rubbing alcohol, a smell so closely tied to the nightmarish childhood memory of vaccination panic at the pediatrician’s office, it took about 3.6 seconds before I thought I would surely run away.
You see, as far as reporting on the news, January can be sluggish. It takes time after the holidays for the pace to pick up again, and I was feeling the strain after weeks of scrounging around Tri-Town looking for anything on which to report.
On January 28, I discovered it was Blood Donor Awareness month when a big Southcoast Hospital medical bus parked itself in the Tedeschi’s parking lot next to my office. How about a nice “first time” story, I asked myself. There was an ah-ha, followed by an uh-oh; you’re giving blood today, Jean.
I’m not afraid of needles, but I score highly on the queasiness scale. I get faint at the sight of another’s infected hangnail. I panic during gory scenes of movies, and the compulsive mutilation anxiety that ensues lingers into the hours that follow. And recent images of bloodshed across the world in places like the Middle East, Sudan, and Myanmar are enough to send me into an existential panic.
It wasn’t the pain of a little needle prick that made me uneasy about giving blood; it was the squeamishness given by mental images of blood-filled bags, and the over-all idea of walking around with a decreased volume of blood in my body.
I thought up excuses like, oh, this is going to take too long, and well, they have enough people here today donating blood, they don’t need me.
On the other hand, I thought to myself, think of the story you can write. Don’t be a baby, later you can brag about how you survived your first bloodletting. I was beginning to feel a little selfish and disingenuous, realizing my insincere intentions were not aimed at helping people, per se, but at finding material for a story and perhaps the reward of some recognition. I was unaware of the impact the experience would have on me, and how a new perspective from which I would view the very simple, painless act of donating my blood would later emerge.
I listened to the nervous banter of a young woman reclined on a bed, midway through giving blood as I waited there, seated nearby her. It was her first time too, and she brought a friend with her to keep her occupied while she shared a pint of her life juice with a stranger.
Minutes later, in a tiny room the size of an airplane bathroom, my intake interview was going well, having given the correct answers for all of the intake person’s questions about any body piercings and tattoos over the past year, or extended stays in countries known for mad cow disease – all factors that could taint the donatability of my blood. The only thing left between that needle and me was, well, another needle – one to prick my finger for the hematocrit test to check the percentage of red blood cells. That test I barely passed, being at 38 – the absolute minimum for which they will allow a person to donate blood. Anything less than that is considered anemic.
I was going to be cool while they took my blood. No nervous chitchat from this girl. I felt calm looking out the window at the brilliant sky and the trees glistening with fresh snow, and my thoughts turned to the beneficiaries of my blood. One would receive the plasma, another the platelets. Would they be good people? Would I ever pass them out there somewhere, unaware that a bit of me flowed through their veins, eternally and physically connected to me ever so unsuspectingly? Really deep thoughts for such incongruous intentions.
I made it through giving the full pint. I felt a little faint toward the end as my blood pressure decreased slightly, and I breathed through the initial panic so I could stick it out – the story needed a better ending than, “my donation was incomplete.” The juice and cookies brought the color back into my face, and within a couple minutes I was driving off.
It really was no big deal.
Giving blood remained in the forefront of my mind for the rest of the week. Blood, blood, blood. I thought a lot about it. Its essentialness to biological life and its symbolism in religion, mythology, literature, and psychology. It appeared redder in photos of injured and dead bodies as I scrolled through a photojournalism website later in the week, looking at the latest genocidal atrocities in Myanmar. It was just before bed, and I should know better by now than to be looking at this stuff so late at night. A wave of sorrow and hopelessness washed over me as I looked through the all too-vivid photos before me and all the spilt blood. It was then that my redeeming realization came to me like a life raft, rescuing me from drowning in a wave of grief.
Donating blood isn’t a “no big deal” act at all. It is actually a pretty big deal, looking at the big picture. During a time of so much bloodshed, you can willingly give some of your blood so that others can live – the exact opposite of the act of killing, and perhaps a viable solution for when you feel like there is nothing you can do to change things.
Giving blood is a painless, easy, and instantly gratifying way of giving thanks for what you have, and for sending love and life out into the world. I suddenly could not wait to do it again in eight weeks.
I went into my son’s room, kissed his sleeping face, and felt thankful for the warm, safe place to tuck him into at night. My blood-donating story was moving in a new direction now, away from the step-by-step how-to story on blood donation and more toward something more important, with a new sense of urgency to report to you that humanity needs your blood!
“There is never enough,” said Anna, the Southcoast worker who drew my blood that day. She told me the South Coast region uses roughly 1,200 pints of blood every month. On January 28, one hour before the blood drive was over, I was only the seventh pint collected, despite thousands of people who drove past the bus that day.
I urge you to donate blood. Do it at least once. Donating blood is a donation of pure life. Think about that.
The blood bank at St. Luke’s is located just off the hospital’s main lobby at 101 Page Street in New Bedford. For more information, you can call 508-961-5320 or visit the website, which has everything you need to know, including the hours of operation, and the Southcoast Health Van dates and locations. There will be a blood drive on February 14 at Rosebrook, at 100 Rosebrook Way in Wareham. http://www.southcoast.org/bloodbank.
By Jean Perry