Being a blood donor

Being a blood donor can be one of the most rewarding things you'll ever do if you hang in and stick it out; literally saving lives.

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. And there is no answering echo from the cliffs on the other side of the ravine, but we just go 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 I passed out for twenty-minutes and 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. Then I went to train as a DC in Chicago; drawing blood is a normal part of training 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 few 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.

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 don’t know. Dumb many thought, and they were probably right.

Finally, and it’s taken fifty years of doubt and misery, I can finally donate a pint of blood without angst and I have not fainted out cold for about 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 supply hospitals with less than a quarter of what had been requested.

I’m pretty confident in saying that the situation in SA is probably little 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 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, no, it seems that beetroot, spinach and kale provide more than enough; and the free-range eggs. Our crazy “flexitarian” diet makes my cousin describe me as a Food Snob; we only eat pork and beef 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 find out. 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 of water, I usually have two, over and above the fruit juice offered.
  4. Tell the nurse if you are anxious; you will find them understanding. You are not alone. Probably a full half of donors find it difficult.
  5. Don’t watch when your finger is pricked or the needle is going in. Let your mind soar elsewhere.
  6. Ask them to put the table back an extra notch so your head is lower, and legs higher. 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. Just 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’s often the time that I used to feel wobbly.

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 60 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 donate 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 one of your family could be the next one 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.

Will I see you there?

  1. South African National Blood Service

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