Donation and Gratitude


One day when I was a college student, I wandered into the student center and spontaneously decided to donate blood through the Red Cross. Little did I know that relatively insignificant choice was the beginning of a long personal tradition. From school to church to BellSouth and now AT&T, I’ve been offered regular opportunities to share this mysterious fluid essential to life, and to vampire plots. I’m not sure how much I have donated, but a few years ago I got a little gold pin for donating 8-gallons. 8gal

About the same time I received the pin, my venipuncturist (not kidding) suggested I consider donating platelets. Now, that’s a bit more of a commitment. Whereas a regular blood donation usually happens at work, and only takes about 30 to 45 minutes, in order to donate platelets, I have to drive to the local donor center, and the process itself takes a couple of hours.

It’s different in other ways, too. Where it takes up to 7 weeks to replenish a pint of blood, a platelet donation is replenished in less than a week. (The RC does monitor the overall impact to the donor. My current donation schedule is platelets once a month, and whole blood two or three time a year.)

Whole blood is usually used for replacing blood after an acute event, such as a trauma or during surgery. Platelets are needed on a continuous basis by people with long-term diseases.

Since the product is different, it makes sense that the process is different. While a whole blood donation is simply removed from the body, platelets are retrieved by removing blood, spinning it through a centrifuge, keeping the platelets in a bag, and returning the blood, fortified with some saline, to the donor. It’s a pretty amazing process that works continuously. Typically this rather complex machine, about the size of a washing machine, and just slightly quieter, is connected to the donor in two places, an output and an input. There is also a single-needle system that runs in batches. While it does free up one of your arms, it takes longer.

I’ve done this enough that it has become more or less routine. Just before they hook me up, I connect my ears to my iPod, which I can run with minimal movements of one thumb, start it in Shuffle mode, and prepare to spend the next couple of hours listening to random music, dozing lightly, and squeezing a rubber ball every ten seconds or so.


Now that the process has become somewhat routine, I’ve become aware of strong feelings of gratitude that occur at several points in the donation process. The first is in the "history" stage. To try to maintain a safe supply of blood, the Red Cross quizzes donors about the most personal details of their medical and personal history and habits. It used to be an oral quiz, which was downright embarrassing, not to mention intense. I was dreadfully afraid of misunderstanding a question and unintentionally admitting to some behavior or condition that would not only eliminate me as a donor, but also make me a social pariah. Recently, they changed the process to allow the donor to scroll/stroll through the questions and click the appropriate answers.

Some of the questions concern lifestyle choices (tattoos, body piercings, sexual practices), but many of them list medical procedures (transplant, transfusion) or diseases (cancer, malaria, CJD, unpronounceables I’ve never heard of, and many others I have.) So my first surge of gratitude is that I am able to donate simply because I’m in relatively good health, and because I’ve never felt the impact of any of these procedures, diseases, or lifestyle choices. With every passing year, the odds increase that some unexpected event will remove me from the donor pool, but for now I am grateful.

The other surge of gratitude happens during the actual donation. I have taken to pausing the iPod several times in the middle of the process to focus on, think about, and pray for, the unknown recipients-to-be of my platelets. That inevitably leads to the feeling of gratitude that that particular bell hasn’t yet tolled for me.

I didn’t write this with the Thansgiving holiday in mind, but it certainly seems appropriate.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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