Adventures in…Donating Blood and Saving a Life (Or, How I Got Over Almost Passing Out Every Time I Donated)

Most of us really and truly want to make the world a better place. A few weeks ago, I posted about little ways to make the world a better place and one of the ways listed is to donate blood. This is definitely my favorite way to help make the world a better place because it’s something I can do on a repeat basis and it’s so very needed. Don’t think though that I enjoy giving blood because there were many years when I actively avoided donating because I would nearly pass out every time I donated. These days though, I donate every 8 to 10 weeks like clockwork and have found ways to make the whole process go more smoothly. And most importantly, donating blood literally saves lives.

A thank you email that I recently received. This, right here, is the main reason I donate blood.

I Used to Almost Pass Out Every Time

I first donated blood at age 18 during a blood drive at my high school and it didn’t go well. I felt queasy, almost passed out, and took the entire afternoon to recover. While it was nice to get out of class for an afternoon, I felt awful and didn’t enjoy it. The next time I donated, the same thing happened again. In fact, I felt queasy, almost passed out, and took hours to recover every time I donated for the next several years. Granted, I only donated about once a year, but I dreaded it because I literally felt sick to my stomach, couldn’t drive afterward, and felt woozy for hours and hours. Finally, I gave up donating for years because it was just too hard for me. Then 2 years ago, I started donating again because my company awarded wellness points for blood donation and I LOVE my gold stars. The first couple of times I went back were just like my previous experiences, which really sucked. So, I started figuring out how to make it better.

The 2 biggest things that help me are to be upfront with the staff that I may get queasy and to drink an inordinate amount of water. Being upfront with the staff helps both of us out because prevention is often worth more than the cure. They get me an ice pack and keep a close eye on me. Also, drinking water makes me feel so much better. Now, I chug a glass of water before I donate and I can donate a pint of blood in 4 ½ minutes, drink an apple juice, then walk out and back to work feeling great (I can’t stand very much though, but that is such a small issue). Now, the main thing I have to worry about is my iron – as a woman and frequent blood donor, I’ve developed a slight iron deficiency which has prevented me from donating for short periods. For that, I make sure to take an iron supplement, eat dark leafy greens, and eat a hamburger or 2 leading up to a donation.

Why I Donate Blood

You might be wondering why I kept donating blood even when it clearly was hard on/for me, and that is a legitimate question. Blood donation is a cause very near and dear to my heart for several reasons. First, my dad has been closely involved with our local blood bank my entire life and donating blood was a given growing up. Second, we’ve had various family members and friends who have undergone operations or had medical conditions and needed blood, so I saw firsthand how critical blood donations are. Third, I have struggled with self-esteem throughout my life and donating blood was one small way that I KNEW I could add some value to this world, regardless of how worthless I felt at the time. Fourth, bigger meanings motivate my life and it is important to me to know that I can save someone else’s life with a little bit of my own. Last and definitely least, I thoroughly enjoy getting to eat more after donating blood.

Benefits to Donating Blood

There are easily some benefits to donating blood. While this is a somewhat short list, the items on it are bigger than life:

  • You get to eat more than normal for 24 to 48 hours- this is a very real, very immediate benefit for me because I love eating.
  • You reduce your risk of heart attack – donating blood is akin to flushing your system and can reduce your risk of a heart attack
  • You extend a life – see thank you picture above
  • You save a life – you might never know it, but your donation could literally make a life or death difference for someone

What to Expect When You Donate Blood

If you’ve never donated blood before, you might have some questions and be wondering what to expect. To start, you don’t need to know your blood type before you donate. Blood banks accept any and all blood types, and they test all donated blood before using it. Those tests include your blood type and you’ll get that result after you donate!

When you decide to donate, it’s helpful to schedule your donation so you and the blood bank know when you’re coming in. However, every blood bank I know about accepts spontaneous donations. So, if you find yourself with a free hour or so one day, you can walk in to donate without an appointment! Once you get to the blood bank, you’ll have to answer some questions about your health (e.g., if you’ve had any surgeries or illnesses), your history (e.g., if you’ve ever received a blood transfusion), your travel plans (e.g., where you might have traveled in the past 1 to 3 years and during your life), and a few other things (e.g., if you’ve had a tattoo within the past 12 months, if you’ve ever paid for sex). They’ll also take your weight, make sure you’ve eaten a good meal in the past 6 hours, take your blood pressure, and prick your finger to test for iron levels and cholesterol. The finger prick is the most uncomfortable part of the whole thing, but it’s just like accidentally poking yourself with a safety pin – momentarily painful.

Once you’re good to donate, you sit down in a big, comfy recliner and snuggle up to one side where you’ll rest your arm. YOU get to choose which arm is used – right or left. I always use my left arm so that I can do other things with my right arm, such as read, scroll through Instagram/Facebook, do a crossword, or call my mom. The staff will raise the footrest part of the recliner and you get to lay back and put your feet up (though, you aren’t allowed to cross your legs or ankles). The phlebotomist (i.e., the person who sticks the needle in your arm) will put a tourniquet around your upper arm and a squeeze thing in your hand. You squeeze the thing a few times so the phlebotomist can get a good look at your veins in the crook of your elbow. He or she will put some iodine on the spot, let it dry, and then get ready to start the donation. You squeeze the thing in your hand tightly 3 times, then hold it while the phlebotomist inserts the needle. It stings briefly for about 10 seconds, then goes away (assuming that the needle was inserted correctly). A piece of gauze is typically put over the needle so you can’t see it, and you’re donating blood! During the donation, you continue to slowly squeeze the thing in the hand every few seconds to encourage the blood to flow and you’re able to do whatever with your other hand.

While you’re donating blood, the phlebotomist will also collect a few samples to test your blood for things like blood type and HIV. The bag will be sitting on a scale out of sight and the phlebotomist will keep an eye on it. Each blood donation is 1 pint. When you’ve donated 1 pint, you stop squeezing and the needle will be pulled out. Immediately afterward, you hold your arm up like you’re excitedly raising your hand. The phlebotomist will put a piece of gauze over the needle hole and wrap your elbow in a stretchy wrap. After that, you stay in the chair for as long as you need. When you’re ready, you make your way over to a refreshment area where you’re encouraged to have a snack. Often, a variety of fruit juices, sports drinks, and sodas will be available to drink, with a variety of snacks, such as trail mix, cookies, pretzels, and peanuts. If you’re lucky, a restaurant will be sponsoring a blood drive and will provide food, like barbeque sandwiches. When you’re ready and feeling good, you’re free to get up and walk out. That’s how a good donation will happen.

Common Hold-Ups and Reasons for Not Donating

While some people can donate blood without a problem, some of us have a hard time. Here are some of the most common reasons I’ve come across for people not donating blood:

  • Passing out or almost passing out
  • Feel weak afterward
  • Iron deficiency
  • Needle phobia
  • Scared of blood
  • Little veins
  • Blown veins
  • No time
  • You don’t think about it
  • Disqualified from donating for a wide variety of reasons (including but not limited to pregnancy, overseas trips, tattoos, exposure to various diseases, and surgery)

Ways to Make It Better

If you’re disqualified from donating, I can’t help you there unfortunately. But, if you have other fears, consider trying some of the below ways to make your blood donation better:

  • If you feel queasy and/or have passed out, consider trying:
    • Drink LOTS and LOTS of water. And then drink some more water. Seriously, this is the most important thing you can do to make donating blood go better/easier/faster. This will also make your veins easier to find.
    • Eat a big pre-donation meal. Donating blood on a full stomach makes everything better. In fact, one friend can only donate blood if she eats a big hamburger beforehand!
    • Take deep breaths. If you get anxious/queasy, deep breaths can slow your heart rate down and help you not feel quite so nervous.
    • Listen to music. Bring your phone and headphones, then distract yourself with good music or a good audiobook while you donate.
    • Bring reading material. This is in the same vein as listening to music in that it is a distraction technique. Sometimes I’ll bring a book, a magazine, or even a report I need to read for work.
    • Call your mom or a friend. This is another distraction technique and, you’ll get to chat with someone you love!
    • Tell the staff that you have been queasy in the past. Ideally, they will go ahead and lay you down, maybe get you an ice pack or 2 (one for the back of your neck and one for your sternum area). If they don’t do this automatically, ask them to do it.
    • Tell the staff if you feel queasy. They will leap into action, lay you back, get you ice packs, and get you sugar fruit juice or a soda.
    • Take it slow. Do NOT rush yourself to get up and get moving. Sit or lay in that chair for as long as you need, then slowly move to the refreshment area. You are only allowed to get up to leave once you feel much better and can comfortably walk out on your own.
    • Have someone drive you there and drive you to the next place.
  • Feel weak afterward and iron deficiency
    • Feeling weak afterward is often caused by low iron.
    • Take an iron supplement. An iron supplement is the easiest way to increase your iron, but you’ll need to take it with vitamin C or it won’t be nearly as effective. It might also help to take the supplement at mealtimes because the pill by itself could give you an upset stomach.
    • Eat more salads. Dark, leafy greens contain a lot of iron, and the darker the better.
    • Eat more red meat. If you’re a meat eater, then a big, juicy hamburger or steak is a great way to get more iron in your diet.
    • Drink LOTS of water. Lots and lots of water!
  • Needle phobias:
    • Have a good reason. This advice came from a friend on Facebook who had a major phobia of needles, though her specific words were “power through”. What she didn’t explicitly say is that she had good enough reasons – needing to take a blood test to get married, needing to get blood drawn during 2 pregnancies, and now having a thyroid condition. While she still doesn’t like to give blood, she’s managed to reduce her needle phobia enough that she can get blood drawn and this has been by having a good enough reason. So, find your reason for donating and power through!
    • Take a Xanax (or something similar).
    • Ask if the staff can numb your arm somehow. This way, you won’t have to feel the needle stick.
    • Close your eyes. If you can’t see it, then it might not exist. Plus, the needle is covered up once it’s in.
    • Take 3 deep breaths. And then take 3 more. And then 3 more. Focusing on your breath will help distract you from the needle.
  • Scared of blood
    • Close your eyes. Do NOT look at the bag or anyone else’s bag.
    • Take 3 deep breaths. Then 3 more deep breaths. Then 3 more. And then 3 more. Really, just keep taking 3 deep breaths over and over until you’re done. This can be particularly effective if you take deep breaths while your eyes are closed.
  • Little veins and blown veins
    • Drink water! Water will help increase the volume of liquid in your body, particularly in your veins, which will make them easier to find.
    • Be up front with the staff that you have little veins/hard to stick veins, and that you would like someone who is good at sticking veins to get yours.
    • If they miss your vein on the 1st or even 2nd try, close your eyes and take deep breaths while they fix it. Yes, it’ll hurt like crazy while the needle is in the wrong place, but it’ll feel better immediately when it’s in the correct position. So focus on your breath and keep your eyes closed until the needle is correctly positioned.
  • No time or you don’t think about donating
    • Not to sound like a broken record, but drink water. There is a definite correlation between how much water I drink and how quickly I donate blood. If you drink water, you donate faster AND you recover faster.
    • Schedule it. Every blood bank I’ve come across will let you schedule your donation. That way, you can put it on your calendar and schedule it for a time that works for you.
    • Schedule a reminder. If you would like to donate but never seem to remember, put a recurring calendar reminder on your phone. It’ll ping you when you are eligible to donate and help you remember to schedule your next donation.
    • Make time. If donating blood is really that important to you, then find an hour somewhere to do it. And remember, you can multitask while you donate by talking on the phone, scheduling other things, or reading something for work.
  • You’re disqualified from donating
    • I’m sorry. If you are someone who wants to donate but isn’t allowed for a variety of reasons, I’m sorry. I truly wish that there was something I could do to let you donate.
    • Wait it out. Some reasons are time-dependent. For example, if you travel to certain places, you may be disqualified for 6 months to 3 years. Wait it out. Some antibiotics will disqualify you for a short period of time. If you’re curious if your medicine disqualifies you, call your local blood bank and ask them. They will happily look into it and figure out any way they can to get you in for a donation.
    • Encourage other people to donate. Even if you can’t donate yourself, you can encourage your family, friends, and coworkers to donate.

Please Donate, If You Can

It can be so easy to donate blood and only takes an hour of your time (maybe a little more if you donate slowly or get a little queasy). Hopefully, some of the items in this post can help make your next blood donation go better! Also, please share any other pieces of advice you have for donating blood.

Where to Donate

If you’d like to donate blood, there are so many great local and regional blood banks out there! Here are some local ones that I came across in the United States and the Canadian blood bank:

Arkansas: Arkansas Blood Institute http://arkbi.org/
Florida: One Blood https://www.oneblood.org/
Los Angeles: Children’s Hospital of LA https://www.chla.org/blood-donor-center
UCLA Blood Bank http://gotblood.ucla.edu/
North and South Carolina: Community Blood Center of the Carolinas http://www.cbcc.us/
Oklahoma: Oklahoma Blood Institute https://obi.org/
Texas Panhandle: Texas Blood Institute http://txbi.org/
Western US: United Blood http://unitedbloodservices.org/aboutUs.aspx?Locations

Canada: https://blood.ca/en

Let me know about local blood banks in your area and I’ll update this list!

Happy to donate! (and feeling good because I drank lots and lots and lots of water beforehand)

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