January is a weird month: we’re all trying to recover from the busyness of the holidays, it’s cold (good Maude, I hate the cold), and we have to relearn how the write the date—I’ll finally get it right sometime in March. January is the time to eat hearty soups, drink hot tea, and curl up under a heated blanket; this month, for me, is time to hibernate. January is also the time when blood donations drop off—actually, wintertime always sees a decrease in blood donations because people are busy with the holidays or, like me, at home trying to hibernate through the misery that is the cold. That’s why January, since 1970, has been observed as National Blood Donor Month: it’s a campaign to drive donations back up again. This year, bringing blood donations back up is more important than ever since having a global pandemic thrown into the mix has only made things more complicated.
It’s me. I made it. Luckily, that was one of the warmest days we’ve had this month.
Transfusions of whole blood and blood products—plasmas, platelets, red blood cell concentrate—is vital to the medical treatment of millions of people each year. Most of what we see in popular culture shows blood transfusions almost exclusively in trauma and surgery settings. While blood transfusion are vital in those places, donated blood is also used in the treatment of cancer patients, burn victims, and patients with sickle cell disease. A single unit of donated blood can save up to three people; that’s because whole blood transfusions are relatively rare, rather most whole blood donations are separated into component parts which are then used in different therapies. There are also specific types of donations wherein you give a particular blood product: Power Red, plasma apheresis, and platelet apheresis.
Photo credit: Ahmad Ardity – “Two by two, hands of blue.” j/k—we hope.
Red blood cell transfusions are helpful in anemia patients, trauma, and surgery patients because red blood cells are what carry oxygen through your body. Platelet transfusions are one of the types of transfusions given to patients whose blood won’t clot, as with hemophilia, some autoimmune diseases, and leukemia—my sister received a lot of platelet transfusions and those transfusions gave us more, cherished time with her (and gave me just enough knowledge about blood clotting to be dangerous… and silly*). Frozen fresh plasma donations are used in a variety of circumstances because it plays a vital role in maintaining blood pressure, carrying electrolytes, maintaining blood volume and pH levels, and because of the clotting factors it contains. Plasma donations can be further separated, taking out just the different clotting factors.
Photo credit: Obi Obyeador
I started donating blood last spring. Looking at the absolute hellscape that was 2020, I felt helpless—we were wading into the reality of COVID19 and its spread in the US; we’d already seen Australia burn and my friends on the US west coast were starting to report on the fires there; oh, and there was that little international kerfuffle that could have led to a massive war—and by little kerfuffle, I mean the rapid and terrifying escalation in our relationship with Iran when we assassinated Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani and killed nine others in the process. All of that is to say, by April of 2020, I was already feeling absolutely impotent to do anything helpful. Completely overwhelmed by the world, I retreated into podcasts and doomscrolling on Facebook until a blood drive popped up in that “events happening near me” section. That was something I could do. That was something that could help the people around me. So, I booked myself an appointment.
Since April, I’ve donated half a gallon of whole blood. I plan to keep donating this year and the year after and the… you get the idea. It’s such an easy thing to do. I set aside an hour every fifty-six days or so, I answer some questions, and then I sit and listen to music or a podcast or just people-watch for a few minutes while I pump a pint of blood into a bag. It takes less time than a lot of grocery shopping trips these days and, at least, at the Red Cross center where I donate, everyone wears masks and wears them properly. Plus, the Red Cross app will actually let you know what stage in the process your donation is at and will even tell you which hospital it went to which I think is the coolest shit ever! There’s something totally metal about that and I love it.
Just me, hanging out, waiting for my intake with the nurse.
There are restrictions on who can donate when, the most controversial of which used to be the federal lifetime ban of men who have sex with men from donating. Then it was updated to say that men who have sex with men can donate blood after a one-year period of abstinence. As of the summer of 2020, that restriction was replaced with one that states men who have sex with men can only donate after 3 months has passed since the last sexual encounter… which still sucks because that basically eliminates men who exclusively have sex with men and have any kind of sex drive, including those in a long-term, monogamous relationship. So, there’s that—which is frustrating. Beyond that, though, there are other reasonable restrictions, including certain medications, temporary illness, major injury, and so on. After accounting for all eligibility requirements, it’s estimated that 37% of people in the United States are eligible to donate, less than 10% do so annually. We can do better than that, y’all. Plus, right now, as we continue to wait on the full-scale COVID19 vaccine rollout (which, *ahem* and I think I’m gonna have a heart attack and die of not surprise), the Red Cross is actively recruiting folks who have contracted and fully recovered from COVID19 for plasma donations: convalescent plasma may have antibodies that could help patients currently battling the illness.
So, please, check the eligibility requirements for donating in your state—different states have different deferral periods for tattoos and piercings—and see if you can donate! I donate through Red Cross because they have a donation center here in town but there are other organizations through which you can donate blood here in the US, including member organizations of America’s Blood Centers, regional blood banking organizations, and some hospitals even have blood donation centers of their own. If you can—if you are able—please, get out there and BLEED: you’ll be metal AF and you might just save a few lives!
As always, please, wash your hands, wear a mask (it goes over your nose), and stay safe out there folks.
*So, one of the interesting side effects of growing up with a sister who had leukemia is that I learned interesting things about how bodies work. On the last day of school in 2nd grade—I think that’s when it was—we were outside playing kickball and it was awesome! I was about to make an awesome play (okay, I was probably just running after the ball after it got kicked foul or something) and I managed to, as I was running, misjudge where the ball was and step on it. I busted HARD. Mom took me home early and told me to take a bath to get all the grime off of me. I started crying—I mean, I CRIED: I was absolutely terrified that getting in the bath would mean getting the huge patch of skinned knee and the little bits of road rash wet because that would dissolve the platelets and I would bleed everywhere. Not kidding. I actually told my mom that. We had to have a more extensive talk about how platelets and other clotting factors actually work. …man, I was a weird kid.
Lead photo: Original image by Mohamed Hassan