Being a blood donor

Being a blood donor could be one of the most rewarding things you'll ever do if you hang in and stick it out; literally saving 3 lives for every pint according to the SANBS.

I’m sure all of us do things that make us question, why am I doing this? It causes me so much grief of one sort or another. The answering echo from the cliffs on the other side of the ravine is now loud and clear; you have literally saved over 200 people's lives. But in the early years the silence was deafening; I just soldiered on.

Why do we put ourselves through so much angst? I don’t know; I suppose it is some deep part of our psyche.

My first attempted bleed about fifty years ago was an unmitigated disaster. Standing in the queue the nurse pricked my finger to test my iron levels and seconds later I was flat on the floor; the donation that never happened.

The second was both better and worse. The vampires got their pint but afterwards I passed out for twenty-minutes; the sister in charge told me never to come back. I scared the hell out of them.

Blood donor tips.

I took her advice; it had scared me too. Ten years passed with me strictly avoiding the requests for donations. Then I went to train as a DC in Chicago; drawing blood was a normal part of our education in the USA. I couldn’t even prick the arm initially, let alone the vein but eventually got on top of my torment.

I passed the course, could do a tolerably good draw and have not done it once since.

I returned to South Africa, started practice and after a couple years there was some crisis. SANBS was pleading for donors; they were desperate. Should I go? The altruistic side of my personality prevailed. Luckily the vampires had learned a few things in the interim. I wasn’t standing when my finger was pricked and the atmosphere was generally a lot less frenetic.

Nevertheless every donation was traumatic for me. Could I do it? And so I began to go now and then. Often I would feel faint and at least half a dozen times I passed out completely; for a few minutes.

This is lunacy, my family said and they were right. Yet the stubborn streak in me was determined to get on top of this. Lots of people donate blood. Why can’t I? My BP would sometimes soar to unknown heights scaring both the nurse and myself. Really I should have stayed at home but I soldiered on.

Gradually I learned little things. SANBS was getting more sophisticated too and started asking questions about when you last ate and so on. I was determined to get on top of this; why I really do not know. It's totally dumb, many said.

Finally and it’s taken fifty years of doubt and misery, I can donate a pint of blood without angst; and I have not fainted completely out cold for a decade.

The reason for this outburst has been a little article in the Journal of the American Medical Association that I peruse regularly. In January the Red Cross which supplies 40% of the blood used in the US, said it was facing its worst shortage in more than a decade. On some days it could only accommodate hospitals with less than a quarter of what had been requested.

I’m pretty confident in saying that the situation in SA is probably no different. Would you consider paying the vampires a little visit? It will be horrible most likely but I can assure you the phlebotomists are a whole lot better than they were fifty years ago.

One of things that surprises me is that my iron levels are always so good. We tend to think that you must get the mineral from red meat but it seems that beetroot, kale and true wholemeal bread provide more than enough; and our free-range eggs. Our crazy “flexitarian” diet gives my cousin full opportunity to derisively call me a Food Snob; we eat pork, mutton and beef only occasionally.

Freshly-harvested beets in a bucket.

Being a blood donor

So what are my tips for being a blood donor? If you are one of those who freak out at the thought of a big-bleed give some thought to these little rules. They work for me.

  1. Plan on a quiet day. Drawing half a litre of blood out of your body really is quite a big stress; this is not the time for rushing about.
  2.  Find out when the vampires are coming to your neck of the woods; email SANBS and inquire. Ask a friend or family member to drive you. You don’t want to faint behind the wheel on the way home.
  3. Have a solid meal before setting out and drink half a litre of liquid before leaving home. Then ask for a glass or two of water over and above the fruit juice offered.
  4. Tell the nurse if you are anxious; you will find them understanding. You are not alone. It's difficult for probably a full half of donors.
  5. Don’t watch your finger being pricked or the needle going in. Let your mind soar elsewhere.
  6. Ask them to put the table back an extra notch so your head is lower than your legs; it all helps.
  7. One phlebotomist gave me a great tip; it really has helped. A slow draw is better so don’t pump hard on the sponge.
  8. And lastly stay on the table for a full ten minutes or longer after the draw is finished. Lie quietly and let your body get used to the new status-quo. You’ve just lost an awful lot of blood; perhaps another glass of water.
  9. And then finally sit upright in the chair quietly for a few minutes before you start to meander home. That was often the time that I used to feel wobbly.

Something like this peanut butter sandwich with natural honey and strawberries should be standard fare before being a blood donor.

Peanut butter, honey and strawberry sandwich

Is peanut butter keto? Yes, but do look for those brands with no added sugar.

All I can tell you is that after fifty years it finally becomes old hat. Perhaps if you have a stronger constitution it will be easier. Being now a veteran of some 70 pints, I’m afraid I cannot promise you a bed of roses. It is one of the hardest things that I have ever done.

Modern medicine would collapse without those who come forward regularly. Women giving birth, children with malignant tumours and routine operations all need blood-donors.

Won’t you consider joining us?

There is one little plus. You or a family member could be the next person in desperate need. No one will promise in black and white but I am told you’ll get free blood or at least at a greatly reduced rate.

Blood ain't cheap. Will I see you there?

What happens to your body after donating blood?

Your body has just lost a whole pint of fluid after donating blood; it's important to restore that liquid as soon as possible. So drink water before, during and after the session.

And secondly you have lost red blood cells; the drop in the level of oxygen is sensed by the kidneys which start to produce a hormone that stimulates the bone marrow to synthesise more corpuscles. They are replaced within a few weeks.

So as not to exhaust supplies of iron you will not be allowed to donate again for two months; longer if you are elderly. There is plenty in our food if eating a well-rounded diet. Vegetarians get theirs from legumes,  whole grains and leafy greens like spinach; potatoes, nuts and seeds too.

Being a blood donor is not detrimental to your health.

It's now been shown that we need have no concerns over the oxalates in spinach; it is not the cause of kidney stones.

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