I couldn’t look down at the tube of blood wrapped around my forearm because I knew I wouldn’t return if I did. I didn’t need to know the mechanics of it. I just needed to trust the process.
Following Hurricane Maria’s devastation in Puerto Rico last year, a cherished friend and roommate invited me to support recovery efforts by donating blood for the victims. I had another roommate years ago who donated every six months. Learning this about her made me think she was noble and strange. I would later discover that she left an impression on me because the moment I was personally asked, I thought of her and cautiously agreed.
That Saturday, we drove to a church attended by a large population of Puerto Ricans on the other side of town. The congregation had mobilized 200 or so volunteers to pack much-needed supplies and load them on to trucks. A OneBlood donation bus was parked outside and a woman with a clipboard took down the names of people wanting to contribute. We wrote ours in the margins of her sheet wherever we could find space and she estimated we’d wait an hour.
I wish I could say I felt particularly giving or noble this morning but I didn’t at all. I side-eyed my friend and started testing the waters on how seriously we were committed to doing this instead. After all, she had driven. To the luck of those who would receive our transfusions, she was a far more selfless human than I was in that moment and shrugged off the inconvenience. We returned to her car to sit. An hour turned into two which turned into three and then four. Finally around mid-afternoon, two slots opened up when the people scheduled became no-shows. She and I were in.
We filled out some documentation on the iPad handed to us and relaxed into our designated seats. The inside of the bus resembled a camper-sized ambulance or a doctor’s office in a box. My forearm was cleaned and the attending nurse inserted a needle connected to a hose leading to a pint-sized bag. They tell you to drink a lot of water and eat foods high in sugar before you donate but they don’t tell you how unfamiliar the strain will feel on your veins. As I sat flowing, I became acutely aware of my body and the underacknowledged miracles it performs just to remain operational each day. While I’m mindlessly scrolling and writing and lounging and running, my body is just doing its thing and making it all possible. Your heart’s just in there right now pumping 5 quarts of blood through the entirety of your body every minute like it very casually does all the time.
Everyone looked at their phones as we sat, even the nurses which made me think it was probably what we would be doing in any other circumstance. The woman coordinating the volunteers was around my age and almost full-term with her second child. She looked up from her phone to announce another earthquake in Mexico was reported moments ago, following the devastating 8.2 magnitude Chiapas earthquake just the week before. An aftershock. We all remained quiet. It’s hard enough to process natural disaster when you’re contained within your body, it becomes harder still when you’re certain you’ll feel the rise in your pressure.
The hemoglobin nurse was the first to break, “That’s why I tell my children ‘you know what’s happening’ and they say, ‘but we’re not ready.’ We’re never going to be ready.”
“You want to talk about ready? I’m trying to introduce a new child into this world right now,” clapped back my preggo peer without missing a beat.
At that moment, the expression on my face must have betrayed me because they looked at me and asked if I was okay. I wanted to tell them this talk about finality made me want to call my parents. Instead I thought, I can contain myself long enough to help someone live in a world that’s ending. So, I nodded and took a sip of the cranberry juice handed to me. After 15 minutes scrolling Instagram, I was done. The nurse returned to my side to remove the needle and apply a band-aid. We received free movie ticket vouchers as a gift. My friend and I left. She seemed largely unfazed by the whole experience.
I was privately proud and changed.
Since then, I’ve regularly received postcards and texts from OneBlood notifying me when and where their local drives are being held. I also learned I’m O+ in blood type which I thought was the rarest one and made me feel really cool. A quick Google search revealed I was wrong. O- is the rarest blood type. I had O+, the most common. I was a commoner.
Another search later, I learned that although I can only receive O+ or O- transfusions, O+ blood can be transfused to any positive blood type. My imagination ran from commoner to public servant. I was briefly pleased again.
I’ve decided to follow the example of my former roommate and donate once a year. Maybe twice if I feel like a hero or really want to go to the movies. I’m headed to honor my commitment by visiting a OneBlood bus this morning. I drank enough water, charged my phone, and prayed all natural disasters would wait until the afternoon. I think that should cover it.
In the five minutes you’ve taken to read this, 600 people have required a blood transfusion. That’s one every 2 seconds, or 21 million each year. Researchers are trying to manufacture blood and platelets but they’ve not been successful. Still, only 10% of the eligible population donates blood every year.