Someone, somewhere needs donor blood roughly every two seconds in the U.S., according to the American Red Cross. Unfortunately, summer is a rough patch for blood banks from coast to coast, as the number of donations fall when regular donors go on vacation and schools close.
“Giving blood isn’t really top of mind for a lot of people [in the summer]. That obviously can cause a pretty significant drop in our supply,” Jonathan McNamara, spokesperson for Red Cross, told the Virginia Gazette on Monday.
The nonprofit org aims to always maintain a five-day blood supply to meet national demand, but recently warned that it’s falling short of that standard in July. Consider it a call to arms, if you will — there’s no better time than now to show up at your local blood donation site, be it a Red Cross facility, a local hospital or a blood drive at work.
Admittedly, it can be an intimidating task for those who are new to it. I still remember the lump of nerves that sat in my gut as I arrived at my first-ever donation appointment at my high school, at the freshly eligible age of 17. When I sat down with a nurse for the eligibility examination, my head swirled with questions about what to expect and what could go wrong.
Turns out, the nerves were for naught. The biggest takeaway for me was the sheer speed of the process — and the fact that the thick 16-gauge needle they inserted into my forearm hardly hurt at all. Which really makes you wonder: How come only 2 percent of Americans donate blood even though 38 percent are eligible? Especially when you consider that a single donation can help three different people survive a medical emergency.
And so, to do your part — and whether you’ve never donated or just forgotten about it for years — here’s our handy guide to giving blood…
More than 38,000 blood donations are needed every day, according to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, and it’s not just life-threatening accidents that require a transfusion. For example, each year, about 650,000 Americans receive chemotherapy for cancer, which often uses donor blood. Plus, those who suffer from anemia and other blood disorders require regular blood transfusions. In some cases, donor blood is even used to help replenish a mother’s supply after childbirth.
Not to mention, a single donation is just a pint of blood, but the average transfusion of blood requires three pints, so supply is always chasing demand. Some blood types are especially in demand — for example, O-negative whole blood can be used by a person of any type, but is rare, making O-negative donors a critical resource.
Where do you go?
Finding a place to give blood is easy with a quick internet search. The Red Cross is probably an obvious choice, and the org offers a handy blood-drive locator (as do several other nonprofits). You can also check in with the major hospitals in your city — in my current homebase of L.A., Cedars-Sinai, UCLA Ronald Reagan Medical Center and Children’s Hospital Los Angeles all offer blood-donation appointments. It’s possible to walk-in and donate at a pop-up blood drive, but generally, an appointment can cut down on waiting time and smooth out the process.
Most donors opt to give a pint of whole blood, which usually takes less than 10 minutes to extract. You can only give whole blood once every 56 days, but there are two other types of donations that you can do more regularly: Platelets, the critical cells that allow blood to clot, and plasma, the liquid that carries blood cells.
These procedures take longer than a whole-blood donation, ranging from 90 minutes to three hours, and use machines to separate certain elements from your blood and flow the rest back into your body. Because of this, these procedures require an appointment at a specialized donation center.
Note that you need to be at least 110 pounds and 17 years of age (16 in some states with guardian consent) to donate. Teens may also be subject to additional height and weight requirements for their safety.
Another big issue in the U.S. is that gay men still face restrictions on giving blood, even though the science behind the FDA’s restriction is controversial. Currently, the federal guideline requires anyone who identifies as male to abstain from sex with another male for 12 months before being eligible. (Here’s the full Red Cross fact sheet for LGBTQ donors).
How do you prepare?
There are two things to consider: Diet and rest.
You want to consume foods rich in iron (e.g., red meat, fish, beans, hearty greens and fortified cereals), because the body needs a lot of iron to replenish the blood you’ll lose. Make sure to stay hydrated, too. And you want to get a good night’s sleep, because the process is physically taxing on the body. Two other pro tips: Wear a shirt with sleeves that are short or can be rolled-up, and bring some reading material to keep you occupied during the procedure.
What actually happens?
You’ll discuss your medical background (medications, illnesses, travel history, etc.) with a nurse, who will also take your blood pressure, temperature and pulse. They’ll then collect a small blood sample to make sure your hemoglobin levels are good enough for a safe donation.
If you pass, you’ll be escorted to a room with a bunch of padded chairs. A nurse will disinfect a patch of your arm and insert the needle to begin the collection process. It looks scary, but the needle feels like a pinch and shouldn’t irritate while you’re hooked up.
Those with thin or hard-to-find veins sometimes have a tougher time, because it can be challenging for a nurse to place the needle correctly on the first attempt. This is frustrating, but it’s unusual for a needle to be re-inserted more than a few times max, unless you’re really unlucky. As one redditor explained in r/BloodDonors: “Sometimes, all the prep in the world just can’t overcome genetics. The good news is that [veins] can change over time, especially if you have other body changes due to diet and exercise (as an example). Maybe just give it a couple years before trying again.”
Once you’re hooked up correctly, it’s just a matter of waiting. Ask for a blanket if you feel a chill (totally normal). Once you’re done, grab a free snack and beverage to regain some energy. You’ll want to keep the bandage on for a few hours — if the needle site begins to bleed, apply pressure and raise the arm. Drink four glasses of water and get another iron-rich meal in.
Oh, and definitely avoid strenuous exercise and alcohol for a day or two. Seriously: I once tried to play pick-up basketball after giving blood, and nearly passed out onto the asphalt after jumping for a rebound.
Finally, don’t forget to pat yourself on the back. You’ve saved lives by offering up some of your own sweet, sweet blood.