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How to Donate Blood and Why it Matters

When I was in high school, our student council held blood drives a couple times a year. The first time I remember hearing about a blood drive was during my sophomore year, on the border of 15 and 16, where only those who were “old for our grade” were able to donate, the legal age to donate blood being 16 (with parental consent). The first time I was eligible, I showed my history teacher my pass and headed to the gym which had been converted into a full-fledged blood bank – complete with the “canteen” of snacks for those who had just donated.

Since then, I’ve been a huge advocate for donating blood – and not just when your school or work hosts a drive. Last week, sitting in my chair at the New York City Blood Center, I realized there are a lot of misconceptions about giving blood and a lot of simple barriers to entry that a little bit of understanding could clarify. So, this week’s blog is purely informational, an ode to something of which I find myself extremely passionate.

1. Are you eligible?

When you get to the blood center, they will go over all these guidelines with you, but to save you time, let’s make sure your eligible before you make the appointment.

  • You must weigh 110 pounds and be 16 years old (with parental consent), 17 without.

  • If you are above 76, you need a written note of approval from your doctor.

There are also things that make you ineligible to donate. You cannot donate blood if you:

  • Got a tattoo in the last year

  • Traveled to an area with Malaria is present in the past year or lived in such an area in the past three years

  • Ever used intravenous illegal drugs or injectable drugs

  • Have spent five cumulative years or more in Europe from 1980 – present

  • Have lived in or visited the United Kingdom for three cumulative months between 1980 - 1996

  • Have engaged in prostitution since 1977

  • Ever tested positive for AIDS or tested positive for hepatitis B or hepatitis C or lived or had sex with anyone who has hepatitis B or C in the past year

  • Are a man who has had sex with another man in the past year (for more information about donating blood as a member of the LGBTQ+ Community, click here.

Only approximately 38% of the population is eligible to donate blood. If you are not eligible, there are still great ways to be involved, like advocacy for blood donations or hosting a blood drive in your community.

2. What happens when you get there?

First, find your local blood bank and schedule an appointment. The day before your donation, make sure to get a good night’s sleep, drink lots of fluids, and eat a healthy meal – preferably some iron rich foods such as spinach, quinoa, lentils, broccoli, eggs, or even dark chocolate. Make sure to bring identification day of, like a driver’s license or passport.

When you arrive, you will likely fill out a quick questionnaire (outlining some of the eligibility questions above). Then, a staff member will take your pulse, blood pressure, and temperature. They also check your iron level – a simple prick on your finger. If any of those tests are of concern, they won’t let you donate.

If you’ve made it past the screening, you’ll find yourself on a lounge chair squeezing onto a stress ball of sorts while they put the blood pressure wrap around your arm and clean the injection spot. Then comes the needle.

For most, this is the scary thing about donating blood, but just like a little kid getting a shot, it will only pinch for a second. The rest of your time will be spent sitting in a chair, occasionally squeezing the stress ball, and waiting. When your donation is complete, they keep you comfortable again as they wrap, clean, and bandage everything.

Next comes what I still affectionally call “the canteen.” The canteen is the snack center. Usually filled with juice and snacks like pretzels, Oreos, and crackers, you sit in the canteen as long as you need. If you feel any bit of dizzy, medical professionals are there to help you.

That’s it. Then you’re all done and good to go. Until next time.

3. Why does it matter?

I love donating blood for a number of reasons. You don’t need to have a high school degree to donate blood. Don’t need to be bilingual. Don’t need to make a certain amount of money. Don’t even need to know your blood type (they’ll even tell you what your blood type is)! All you have to do is show up with a readiness to give back.

And it is so, so, important. Your one pint of blood can save as many as three lives. Your one pint that in a few hours you won’t even notice is missing can save three people’s lives. In the United States, someone needs blood every 2 seconds. 4.5 million Americans will need a blood transfusion this year. Sickle cell disease. Cancer. Car accidents. All these people (and so many more) will require a blood transfusion at some point in their life. And you can provide that.

Still, less than 10% of Americans donate blood annually. One of the most common reasons given for not donating is a lack of time, information, or understanding. If you have any further questions, contact your local Red Cross office. Ask your doctor. Heck, send The Smile Project an email and I’ll do the research for you.

Start to finish, it’s dedicating an hour of your day to save three lives. I don’t know anything else that pays that well.

One last thing. Blood donors can give every 56 days (8 weeks). Find a friend who is eligible. Go with them every 56 days. Skip the coffee date and instead catch up over apple juice and Lorna Doones. Donating blood is an easy and powerful way to give back. Find your person. Give today.

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