Blood Donation for Dummies

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I got an email yesterday about a blood drive going on here at Northwestern. I've never given blood before, but it seems like a good, charitable thing to do, so I think I'm going to see if I can make it. I'm a complete newbie when it comes to all this -- I don't even know my own blood type -- so I thought I'd do some research. Are there risks? How much positive impact would my act of giving blood have?

I turned first to the Red Cross website, since they're the organization holding the blood drive. Before getting too invested in this, I went through their laundry list of eligibility requirements to make sure I could actually give blood. The requirements are interesting in that they seem very lax with regard to some health concerns -- being on antibiotics or having an STD, for instance, are generally OK, which surprised me. In other areas, however, there are a number of very pointed questions to make sure that absolutely no infected blood gets by. Mad Cow disease and HIV/AIDS are particularly dangerous. The Red Cross are experts, I'm not, and it's evident that they have public safety in mind, but it still seems that some of the constraints are a bit extreme. For instance, if you have ever lived, had a medical procedure, or had sexual contact with anyone who ever lived in a number of African countries, you're disqualified. If you have ever used needles without a doctor's permission, even once, you're out. I was skeptical at first, but after considering the catastrophic consequences of a tainted blood supply, it makes sense. It's remarkable how long disease can remain latent.

One thing in particular stuck out, though: gay men who have been sexually active in the past thirty years can't give blood. It seems to me that this is rather discriminatory -- while it is true that that's a common way of contracting AIDS, such a blanket ban seems like stigma-propagating overkill. What about safe sex? Monogamous couples? A Philadelphia Daily News column points out that all donated blood is tested anyway. If this is the case, that ban seems even more unnecessary.

Anyway, it looks like I'm eligible -- so what exactly am I signing up for? Apparently, the standard donation is a pint of blood, approximately one tenth of the average person's total volume. It sounds like a lot, but apparently the body refills itself after about 24 hours. The process, which includes a health history check, a "mini-physical," the withdrawal itself, and a brief recovery period in "the canteen," takes about an hour. In order to "ensure a pleasant donation experience" (gag), I'm advised to get a lot of sleep, eat a good meal beforehand, and be drinking plenty of fluids.

After they suck the blood out of my veins, they'll store it in a cooled storage vehicle which will carry it to a distribution center. There, it'll be separated into its components and stored while they test a sample for disease. Twelve to sixteen hours later, it'll be shipped to a hospital chosen based on demonstrated need. So the effect of donation is fairly immediate.

The Red Cross website also has a list of fairly compelling facts demonstrating their need for donors. One donation can apparently help save three lives, for instance, meaning that giving does in fact have a large impact for relatively little inconvenience. However, the need for donations is also highlighted by this tidbit: the average blood transfusion is three pints... so one donation only covers a third (or a ninth, when split up into three). Blood cells, platelets, and plasma, the three components of the blood, are all needed, and giving only one of these specifically is possible (though I don't see why I wouldn't just go all the way).

What I'm taking away from all this is the assurance that my donation will be valuable. I'll make sure to donate at the upcoming drive and on more occasions in the future  -- provided this goes well. "Civic duty" can only compel me to do so much, and after a number of failed attempts at finding a vein, I may feel differently.

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