LONDON — Donating blood is, for the most part, a comfortable experience. The clinicians are friendly. The chairs are soft. You get cookies. You get stickers. You get endless compliments on your veins.
It’s so easy to give blood that I fear it may lull donors into thinking of their gift as an anodyne act of do-goodism, the human tissue equivalent of chucking a Pepsi bottle into the recycling bin. It’s not.
Having recently been at the other end of this particular supply chain, I’d like to offer some perspective on how much these pints matter.
On February 7, on a flight from my home in London to visit family in Los Angeles, my intestines started hemorrhaging. To a 33-year-old woman in otherwise good health, this was a stunning and unwelcome development.
A day after cheerfully boarding a plane to what I thought was a vacation, I was wheeled into an intensive care unit where a graveyard shift of doctors and nurses descended on me like a Formula One pit crew. As they slapped on electrodes and shoved tubes up my nose and plunged needles into my arms, it occurred to me that perhaps they knew something I did not. I asked one of the nurses if I was going to die.
“No,” she said, kindly but firmly, “because we are going to do everything we can to save you.” Reassuring, yes, but not quite the unqualified “no” I was hoping for.
Over the next 48 hours, blood left me with the speed of a crowd escaping a burning theater. There was no time to recruit friends or family to donate on my behalf. I got my first bag of stranger’s blood shortly after arriving in the emergency room. Fourteen more transfusions followed as my condition deteriorated, enough to replace all of the blood in my body twice over.
A blood-starved brain has little energy for the sharper edges of emotion. I recall lying in the starchy hospital sheets and hearing my husband begin to cry, of noticing how drawn and tired my parents’ faces looked at my bedside. I remember the dull bone ache of missing my daughter. These experiences felt muted, as though they were happening to someone else, a person at the bottom of a red-tinged pool.
There is one thing I do remember clearly. From time to time I would look up at the transfusion machine, with its comforting, life-giving whirrrr, and see the little sticker on the plastic bag that said “Donor Blood.” And for a moment, the fog of fear, discomfort and frustration would lift and I felt nothing but an enormous surge of gratitude to this stranger whose blood was now filling my veins.
Eventually, doctors deduced that my guts exploded as a complication of a chronic inflammatory disease. Bodies heal much slower than they fall apart, and I’ve needed more transfusions on the long road back to health.
Since my lease on life was renewed, I think often of the people – 18 of them now – whose DNA has mingled for a time with mine.
They are out there, minding their own business, walking their pets and making dinner for their families and goofing around on the internet. I’ve never received such a valuable gift and been unable to thank the giver. Every single one of them saved my life, and they’ll never know it.
Almost 40 percent of US adults are eligible to donate blood, according to the latest figures from the American Red Cross. Just 8 percent of those do each year.
This means the entire country is relying on very few people, said Dr. Ralph V. Vassallo, chief medical officer for the Red Cross’s east division. The number one reason people give for not donating, he said, is: “I wasn’t asked.”
So, I’m asking. As World Blood Donor Day approaches on June 14, I’d like to encourage you to first give 30 seconds to read this checklist of donor eligibility.
If this sounds like you, and you meet any additional guidelines laid out by your local blood center, then perhaps you’d be willing to give an hour of your time and 450 milliliters of your blood.
It may feel like an act of faith. You will never know where that little red bag goes after you leave the clinic. It may be hard to reconcile the relatively simple and painless act with the enormity of what you are giving.
Just know that it will eventually reach someone having a very bad day, and when it does, you will be part of the team doing everything they can to save them.
And if you are a blood donor already: thank you for saving my life.
Corinne Purtill is GlobalPost’s senior correspondent for the United Kingdom.
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