Posted on Tue 15 October 2013

I got banned from donating blood. Can you take my place?

Something odd happened to me last week. I'm going to share this story with you because I think it's unusual and kind of funny. But I'm also sharing it because it caused me to think about something important, and I'd like you to think about that too.

Saving lives is harder than I thought

My blood-donation experience has been a bit of a rocky ride. It certainly wasn't what I expected when I first chose to give it a go.

Strike 1

My first donation attempt was around 5-6 years ago. It started with an outing for a pancake lunch, since you're told to eat a big meal and drink lots of fluids better donating.

At the Red Cross building, I filled out some paperwork and was taken into a little office to have all my details checked. Part of this pre-donation check is a finger-prick to check that your iron levels are high enough for you to donate. The prick doesn't hurt much (though surprisingly, it does throb for quite a while after), and the nurse squeezes three or four drops of blood out of your finger before you know it. This part doesn't take long at all.

Unfortunately, the fainting that occurred after this took up half of my afternoon.

I don't have a problem with blood or needles, and I felt fine before I went into that little room. But for some reason, that little finger-prick was enough to make me feel dizzy and for my vision to blur. I woke up laying down in another room some time later, with nurses all around me.

After sitting in the Red Cross sipping lemonade and holding in my pee (going to the bathroom could drop my blood pressure and make me faint again, so they didn't want me to risk it) for what felt like hours, I went home. A little shocked by what had happened, I wasn't keen to attempt donating again soon.

Strike 2

Skip ahead 5-6 years to the start of 2013, and I decided to give it another go. A friend of mine came with me this time, and I hoped that she would lessen my nerves and everything would be fine.

It wasn't.

I did get further than before—this time I actually got to the point of having some of my blood dripping into a bag. But it wasn't long before I started to feel dizzy and strange. The nurse looking after me had trouble understanding what I meant when I said I felt "woozy" and when the feeling got worse and she offered little explanation of why I was reacting badly, I asked her to take the needle out.

I didn't quite pass out this time, but I was close. Apparently, they send off all the blood bags, but with one as small as mine the nurses said they would "probably just throw it away," because it wasn't really usable. Fair enough, too. I wouldn't want to be in an operating room and find that the blood bag on offer contained only a quarter of the required amount.

So I had another fun bout of sitting around with cold cloths on my face and drinking juice while my friend cheerfully filled up her bag and waited for me outside.

Strike 3

I waited about 9 months before trying again. I had a good feeling about this time. I thought I would finally manage to fill up a bag and save some people's lives. After all, the Red Cross had been sending me automated thank-you letters for saving lives for years, so the least I could do was live up to their thanks.

To start with, things seemed a little shaky. My arm felt tingly and vague, like when you get pins and needles and you're not sure where the edges of your body are. Squeezing on a rubber ball helped the blood flow and my bag started filling up. My nurse was confident enough to leave me alone and start hooking up someone else, so I was pretty sure that things were going well.

It didn't last long.

I sat quietly looking at the word puzzle on the wall until I struggled to focus on it. I moved my eyes over to the TV. I tried to ignore the slight dizziness in my head, and the heaviness entering my limbs. I kept squeezing the rubber ball, willing the feeling to go away.

It got stronger, and my vision started to go blurry. A nurse attending to the man next to me looked across and I told her I was feeling dizzy. She nodded and started walking towards me.

I was having a dream. I don't remember what it was about, but it was vivid. I opened my eyes and I was looking at someone blonde. She was fanning me with something, waving cool air across my face. She'd been talking to me, I realized, but I hadn't heard anything she'd said, as if she was behind thick glass. As if someone turned up the volume, I could suddenly hear her voice, and the noises all around me. I remembered that she was the nurse who set me up to start with.

But my eyes were heavy and I felt sleepy. My whole body felt tired. I closed my eyes and relaxed, but I heard the nurse saying my name, asking me to open them. I noticed another three nurses around my chair, and I realised I was laying down now. They must have lowered my chair while I was out.

I struggled to stay conscious for a few more minutes until I finally started to feel awake. I felt energy returning to my body and I moved my head to look around and what was happening. I felt a nurse wrapping a bandage around my arm—they'd obviously taken out the needle when I fainted.

"Did I give enough this time?" I asked my blonde nurse. She looked at the bag behind me. "A bit over half," she said, positively. "We'll send it anyway, they might use it." It was better than last time, at least.

You're out

Once I came around and started the all-too-familiar hour of juice/blood-pressure-check alternating, the nurses started to ask me about how I'd felt and explain what would happen next. Apparently a recent rule change says that if you lose consciousness, you're not up to the task and they don't want you to come back.

In the nicest way possible, they said "Thanks, but no thanks."

This won't happen to you (probably)

I'm a rarity. Especially since I don't have any issues with blood. I just can't handle the quick drop in blood pressure, I guess. Nobody really told me why I keep fainting.

Anyway, this probably won't happen to you if you donate (in fact, the Australian Red Cross says that it only takes 5-10 minutes for the actual donation part to take place). And if you're not doing it already, you should donate.

This is why I'm sharing this silly story. I can't donate anymore, so I really want to implore you to give it a shot. Get it?

There are loads of reasons why you should donate. One that really stuck with me (because it's plastered all over the Red Cross buildings—on posters, on stickers, on the forms you fill out. I don't know why—they've already convinced you to donate by this stage) is that 1 in 3 people will need blood in their lifetime, but only 1 in 30 donates.

That's pretty unfair.

My sister's a nurse, and she said she fully realised how important it is to give blood when she saw how much a hospital uses just for one operation. I think giving blood is a pretty abstract thing to do—it's hard to really grasp why it's important. Even with all the Red Cross's hard work to put names and faces onto the lives you're saving.

But trust me, you should do it. People need your blood. And chances are high that you'll need some blood one day, too. And then you'll be glad you donated.

Oh, and plus—it's a good way to find out your blood type and get your iron levels checked regularly for free. Just as a bonus.

My advice for first-timers

I'm no expert at this—clearly. I've never successfully filled a bag of blood. But I have tried it three times and I've been through a more harrowing experience that one would expect, so I have some advice for making your first time less scary and more successful than mine was.

I guess at this point I should say something about how I don't represent the Red Cross or anyone else to do with blood donations, and that I'm not a doctor and can't give you real medical advice, right? Well, all of that. Here are some suggestions based on my own experiences and that's all.

1. Eat and drink what they say

You need to eat a big meal (they suggest salty food, since salt helps your body retain fluid faster, I think) and drink lots of fluids in the three hours or so before you donate. This is important to make the process smoother and more comfortable. Listen to their recommendations.

2. Get a good nurse

This is really important. Most of the nurses are great, but you really want to find one who's patient and explains what's happening, especially if you're nervous. Don't take any issue with asking for another nurse if you're feeling uncomfortable. You are giving them your blood, after all. It's their job to make it a smooth process.

3. Watch a friend first

This is probably my best bit of advice. A lot of the worry that comes from donating blood is that you don't know what to expect. When you recognise the rooms you're in, expect the questions you'll be asked and know what's going to happen at each stage of the process, a lot of the fear disappears.

4. Take a friend, or a book

Going with a friend makes it a lot more fun. There's usually a little bit of waiting around before you get started, and then once the needle is in you'll need to sit still for a while. Plus, afterwards they send you into the cafe for free snacks and some resting time. It's nice to have a friend around for that. But if you don't have a friend to take, grab a book or magazine.

5. Don't look at the needle

Unless you're a fan of looking at gross stuff (the friend I go with likes to watch her needle go in, and afterwards she feels the bag of blood just to see how warm it is), don't watch when the needle goes in. Usually the nurse will tell you to turn away before she does it, and my last nurse covered mine up with gauze once it was in so I couldn't see it.

Don't be afraid of it, though—it's just a little pinch, and it's over before you know it.

If you haven't donated before and you have any questions about the process I'd be happy to chat about it. Come find me on Twitter. Or, go call your local Red Cross or whoever takes blood near you and get yourself set up with an appointment!

And to those of you who already donate blood regularly: thank you. I'm sorry I didn't make the cut.

P.S. I make some stuff you might like: Exist, a personal analytics app to help you understand your life, and Larder, a bookmarking app for developers.

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