Week 32: Donate Blood

I once almost thought about getting a tattoo.  I don’t even like writing notes on the palm of my hand with a pen but for some reason I thought I could handle a tattoo.  I was in a band in high school and we created a logo for our tee shirts that was the Japanese symbol for fate.  While we were designing the shirt, we talked about getting the logo tattooed on all of our wrists one day, maybe after our first platinum record, and I really thought I’d be able to go through with it.  It’s a good thing it never came to fruition – it turns out a shady website with banner ads for porn and free iPods isn’t the best place to research Japanese characters with any accuracy.  For all we know, we were about to tattoo “washing machine” on our wrists.  I actually might have been fine with “washing machine.”

Even if we had picked the right symbol, I doubt I would have had the courage to go through with it because I’m such a wimp when it comes to needles and blood.  I can deal with copious amounts of gore in movies, but when it comes to real life, I can’t handle even the slightest bit.  So when I started asking friends for ideas for manly challenges and someone suggested that I donate blood, I nodded and said it was a great idea while simultaneously searching my brain for a worthy excuse not to do it.

I’ve never given blood before.  When a blood drive would visit my school or place of work, I would either feign ignorance about its existence or convince myself I was exempt for some reason.  Truly, Q and I were ineligible to give blood for most of this year because of where we spent our honeymoon.  However, it’s now been more than a year since our vacation and despite a close examination of the eligibility requirements, I’m free and clear to give blood.  With the challenge to donate nagging my conscience, I finally scheduled a donation appointment at the New York Blood Center for Q and myself.

Before we visit the Blood Center, I speak with Q’s aunt Carola, who when not serving as my wine MANtor, works as the Director of Community Development at the Houchin Community Blood Bank in Bakersfield, CA.  I ask her for tips to make my first donation experience as smooth and painless as possible.  In addition to eating beforehand and drinking as much water throughout the day as we can manage, Carola suggests that I don’t dress too warmly, since overheating can cause nausea.  She also says I can constrict my stomach muscles during the actual donation process in order to counteract any discomfort.  These tips make donating blood seem more complex than I had originally thought, and although I’m thankful for the knowledge, just thinking about the preparation process makes me anxious.

nybc sign

The New York Blood Center is located in a nondescript concrete building on the east side of Midtown.  As Q and I get closer to the double doors at its entrance, our collective nervous energy makes aborting our plan an extremely enticing option.  However, we’ve told so many people of our intention to donate and have enjoyed so much presumptive praise that we’re basically pot committed.

donor room door

A smiling receptionist greets us after we walk inside and congratulates us just for showing up.  Life would be a lot easier to swallow if I could receive this level of enthusiasm for all the menial tasks I endure.  So I accept her kind words gratefully, along with a comprehensive medical form to fill out to prove my eligibility to donate.  She asks me to complete the form in a privacy booth – a desk with tall walls on three sides of it, blocking any onlookers.  It reminds of the manila folder contraptions we used to employ during elementary school tests, and the unwanted flashback of fifth grade math tests does nothing to alleviate my anxiety.

After finishing the form, I see the nurse who decides if I’m healthy enough to give blood today.  She takes my blood pressure and then pricks my finger in order to determine if my red blood cell count is at an adequate level.

I used to cry all the time getting blood drawn as a kid.  Then one magical day a nurse told me that if I just didn’t look at my finger getting pricked or the needle going into my arm or what have you, it would hurt a lot less.  She was absolutely right – ignorance truly had a marked health benefit.  After spending most of this year filling in the gaps of my man knowledge, I’m beginning to think this particular discovery may have affected my outlook on more than just doctor visits.

empty donation chair

In any case, ever since learning the wonders of ignorance, I’ve managed to stop crying and persevere by averting my eyes at every stick of a needle.  But this doesn’t seem very manly, now does it?  I’m hoping today can be the start of facing my fear head on.  But when I see the nurse swab my finger with an alcohol wipe, I instinctively turn my head away and don’t look back until the damage is done.  It doesn’t bode well that I turn away from a simple finger prick, but lucky for me, I get another chance to prove myself.

The machine is unable to read the first blood sample so the nurse tries to take more blood from my finger, but the wound has already sealed.  As she massages my finger and I worry that I’ll have to be pricked a second time, the wound bursts open and blood spurts out as if she were squeezing a cherry tomato between her fingers.  It shouldn’t be such a disturbing image to someone who pops pimples, but it does gross me out and I have to take a couple deep breaths to compose myself.  When the nurse apologizes, I feign laughter to hide my real discomfort.  Thankfully, this sample works fine and I’m cleared for donation.

The actual room where the donation takes place is surprisingly welcoming.  There aren’t too many people here on a weekend afternoon, so the space is calm and relaxed.  The phlebotomist asks me to sit anywhere I like in the manner of a friendly diner waitress who uses “hon” at the end of every sentence.

happy donation

I turn on the TV attached to my comfy seat and change the channel to HGTV.  I figure that home decorating shows will be the most agreeable choice while giving blood, as opposed to college football, courtroom reality shows, or screaming housewives.  In a world where a congressional law was required to limit the ear-piercing volumes of commercials, HGTV is a welcome respite.  Save the occasional demolition show, people on this channel are literally using their indoor voices.

The phlebotomist rests her equipment on the arm of my chair as she reviews my paperwork once more.  While she confirms that I’ve eaten today and am feeling fine, Q walks in the room and takes the seat next to mine.  It gives me a reason to put on a brave face, though it’s all a façade and Q knows it.

After filing my paperwork, the phlebotomist wraps the blood pressure sleeve around my bicep while looking for a good vein around the crease of my elbow.  “We might be able to use that one,” she says.  Might?  I expected more confidence from someone about to shove a needle into my arm and start flashing back to my finger bursting open.  I smile wanly at Q.  EVERYTHING’S JUST FINE!

blood in machine

As the phlebotomist wipes my arm with an alcohol wipe, I steel myself up to watch.  She pulls the needle out of the packaging, and right before she plunges it into my arm, I blink.  It’s a slow blink, meaning when I finally force my eyes open, the needle’s in and blood is already flowing into the bag connected to the machine at my side.  Close, but no cigar.

I squeeze a stress ball every ten seconds to help the blood flow consistently.  This being my first experience with a needle stuck in my arm, it’s a little more uncomfortable than I imagined so I focus on deep breathing and the Canadian couple on the TV deciding if they would settle for a one-car garage.

Only about ten minutes pass before the machine at my side starts to make sounds akin to a ringtone on an old Motorola flip phone.  Having seen the phlebotomist attend to a fellow donor earlier, I know this sound means my bag o’ blood has reached its limit.  The phlebotomist comes to my side to remove the needle, but right before she does, a wave of nausea washes over me.

sad donation

Q says the color drained from my face so quickly that she was certain I was seconds away from tossing my cookies.  Thankfully, I at least have the wherewithal to remember another piece of Carola’s advice and speak up about my discomfort.  When the phlebotomist asks me how I’m doing, I mutter that I’m sick to my stomach.  She quickly retrieves an ice pack and presses it to the back of my neck, situating me in the fetal position and assuring me that my nausea will pass.

I try to put on another brave face for Q as I lie in a ball on my side, but without any access to self-tanner, the color of my skin fools no one.  As the phlebotomist prepares a needle for my wife, Q is most nervous that she won’t be able to find a suitable vein, but fortunately it only takes one try.  I resolve to watch the needle go into Q’s arm, and oddly enough, as soon as I see it dive beneath her skin, I feel better.  It’s most likely because the ice pack is soothing, but I like to think that (somewhat) fulfilling one of my manly goals helped to improve my constitution.

Q survives her donation and doesn’t feel the slightest bit of nausea.  Our wonderful phlebotomist hands us apple juice and pretzels, and we consume them quickly.  On the way out, we treat ourselves to some cookies and stickers exclaiming our recent accomplishment.

blood donor sticker

Even with the slight discomfort, giving blood wasn’t the dreadful experience I anticipated.  My experience may prove that I’m still ways away from being brave in the face of blood and needles, but I think this was a challenge where the completion of the activity meant more than my composure.  I might still be a wimp, but I don’t feel any less deserving of the ribbon on my chest.  Who knew that apple juice and stickers could be such a manly combination?


Though it may not be as essential as learning first aid skills, donating blood still falls under the category of crucial man activities, since it’s helping others on a primal level.  If you can donate, it’s really a no-brainer and the gratification is immediate.  Definitely wish I hadn’t waited so long to do it.  4.06.