Fifty-two and counting.

My first date, November of 1994.  I wore a baggy, rust-orange sweater over a white stretch t-shirt, a black flowery skirt, white stockings, and chunky black mary janes.  I was nervous, sweaty palms and all, and probably should have dressed more appropriately for November in New Hampshire but this was college in the mid-90s.  Everyone dressed inappropriately.

I nervously waited in line at the Top of the Hop.  Fifteen or twenty rubber-slung, mint green chaise lounge chairs filled the room.  It looked like the world’s worst beach resort.  The smells of rubbing alcohol and iodine made my stomach turn a couple of flips.  A sudden rush of activity resulted in one lounge chair being propped up at the feet and a green girl – she was GREEN! – was engulfed by assistants holding ice packs on her arm and wet towels on her forehead.  That’s when it fully dawned on me: I was in line to have a complete stranger jab a needle in my arm, not because I was sick, but because I signed up for it!

Still, I didn’t want to leave.  Watching all of those people, relaxing, with tubes of red fluid dangling from their arms was mesmerizing.  What would aliens think if they stumbled across this room?  It looked barbaric yet cozy.  I imagined this was what an opium den looked like.  Minus the opium.

Relief filled me when I narrowly passed the iron density test.  I didn’t see failing it as my way out.   Then I waited patiently for the next available nurse, clutching my file folder and collection kit in my lap.  I watched every move the phlebotomist made as she pumped up a vein to mark it, swabbed it down with iodine, and stuck me with what looked like a novelty needle, an over-exaggerated prop from a Tim Burton movie.  She said I could turn away but I wanted to watch.  I used to watch every needle stick.  It’s weird, maybe, but it was satisfying to watch the blood flow out into the little collection tubes for sampling.  Then I watched the bag fill up.  Squeeze, rest.  Squeeze, rest.  Squeeze, rest.  The weight of a full bag eventually tips over the balance.  Done.

After the bandages come the snacks.  My juice of choice was tomato.  It’s silly but I imagined I was drinking back my blood as the world’s most inept vampire.  Grab a sticker and some cookies.  Rest for 10 minutes.  Done!

In 2007 I began donating platelets via apheresis.  It’s a whole other beast.  Both arms are pricked.  One arm for intake of saline and citrate, the other arm the outlet where blood flows through an instrument to separate the blood products.  The red blood cells and some saline are returned to me while my platelets stay behind.  A standard double-donation can take over two hours from start to finish.  Now, I give single donations because I have reactions to the citrate solution used to slow blood clotting.  But apparently I’m chock full of platelets so I’m still able to give.

The staff and facilities for apheresis at the Kent Square Red Cross center in downtown Blacksburg are phenomenal.  I get to watch movies (they have a couple hundred on-site) on a personal DVD-player in ridiculously comfortable chairs while tucked in under a heated blanket.  It can be claustrophobic because you can’t move your arms.  If you get thirsty, a staff member has to pass you a drink through a straw.  (I’ve made the mistake of choosing a sappy movie and had to blink back tears.  Get an itch?  Forget about it.)  From the outside – to aliens, specifically – I’m sure it’s even more bizarre to witness than a room full of whole blood donors.

Overall, I have donated whole blood 28 times and platelets 24 times since November 1994.  I donate because it’s something I can do to help others.  It takes five whole blood donations to equal the amount of platelets retrieved from one apheresis session.  Plus where whole blood can be stored for over a month, platelets must be used within a week so there is constant need.  And I have a constant need for Famous Amos oatmeal raisin cookies and flicks of the chick variety.  And I hope that if I or a loved one ever needed blood or blood products that they would be there.  So if you can donate, please do so.  (And did I mention there are cookies?)

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