I’m sitting at a long table, eyeing four types of brownies, surrounded by the sounds of beeping equipment, laughter, and music that everyone knows even though it hasn’t played on the radio in years. Suddenly, a few chairs away from me, a woman quietly exclaims, “Oh! I’m bleeding to death!” and stands abruptly away from her chair, coat off, holding her arm out so the blood staining her elbow can’t drip onto her clothes.
Red Cross personnel quickly usher her back to a donation table and reapply her bandages, using red wrap, the sticky bandaging typically used on first-time donors and to prevent bad bruising from getting worse. It seems like they’re using twice as much as usual. The woman is annoyed at the blood on the sleeve of her nice winter coat, but the stain is on the inside, and the lining is black, so it’s not a tragedy.
When I interview her a few minutes later, she tells me, “If I could give a gallon today, I would.” Since she started giving blood, her whole family has followed in her footsteps. Her reasoning is common but powerful: “It doesn’t cost me anything, and it saves lives.”
The woman setting out food encourages me to take a brownie. I can’t donate today and the food is technically for donors. She insists. I eat a brownie. “I used to [give blood], until I started passing out every time I tried,” she tells me. “So now I just work the blood drives.”
I’m at the March 11 blood drive at Third Reformed Church in Holland, MI, conducting interviews on why people give blood. Most donors are older members of the church’s congregation, and they speak to each other with familiarity. One man, who everyone refers to fondly as George, sits down next to me and asks if I’ve had any of the brownies yet. When I reply that I have, he takes one as well and remarks offhand that he would have felt rude if he ate when I hadn’t.
When I ask how many times he’s donated, his immediate response is, “That would be a wild guess.” He goes on, “I suppose forty, maybe more, if you count direct transfusions – without going through the bottles, just directly into the patient – ‘cause I’ve done that too.”
He lists a few reasons for giving blood. One is pretty run-of-the-mill: “Well, I’ve been blessed with good health. I know that there are people who need it, and apparently my blood is the right type to help.” One is more specific to his beliefs: “I’m a Christian pastor, and giving blood, shedding blood for others, is kind of central to our faith.” And lastly, “There’s a lot of satisfaction in knowing that you are helping other people, even if you don’t see them or know their names.”
Dave is very specific in his agreement with this last point. “I do it because it’s probably the truest form of altruism. ‘Cause I’ve no idea where it goes or who gets it or who benefits from it, but I do know somebody will benefit from it.”
He’s given blood about 140 times by his reckoning, and since he began attending Third Reformed, he’s made an effort to always give there – their snacks are the best, he says, and I can confirm that none of the other drives I’ve been to in the last year had four flavors (or any flavors) of brownies.
Another man, Marty, doesn’t bother trying to figure out how many times he’s given blood. He just says he’s given from the time he was 18 until now, when he’s 76. He started, he said, because “In the military, they gave us the day off!” Since then his donations have varied from twice a year to four times a year to six times a year, but he “always thought it was a good idea to help those who were injured, either in the military or civilian life.”
The last man I talk to, Mike, gives blood “kinda ‘cause of karma. I feel like if I can give then I probably won’t need.” He also “had an older friend who was kind of a grumpy old guy, he said ‘ah, it’s good to put that blood-making organ on overtime.’” This is donation number 86 for Mike, and he says “It’s very simple to do, it’s painless.”
Everyone I’ve talked to has mentioned how painless giving blood is; George said, “It’s almost painless. Very little pain. You stick yourself with a safety pin and it’s worse than [giving blood].” Dave said “There’s a little discomfort, but it’s pretty minor. Given all the other things we do in our day, from things that hurt, it’s not a big deal, and it goes away very quickly.” We all saw the woman bleeding from the elbow earlier in the afternoon, but she herself said giving doesn’t cost her anything.
Some West Ottawa students have legitimate worries about how giving blood could cost them. Soph. swimmer Micah Williams can’t give during his season. “I’m not allowed to give blood while in athletics such as swimming because it can give me problems such as passing out in water.” Athletes are very reliant on a high red blood cell count to carry them through strenuous practices and competitions, and giving blood can affect not just their performance but their health.
Jr. Morgan Davis hasn’t tried to give blood either, as “I have vitamin deficiencies that make it unlikely that I would be able to give blood, and I don’t weigh enough.” If she tried to give blood, she would likely faint, and her vitamin deficiencies could be detrimental to an ill or injured person receiving her blood. Similarly, Soph. Timberlyn Mazeikis said, “I have a blood disorder that may prevent me from giving blood” because it would likely transfer to the recipient.
Pain is also a real factor. Jr. Livia Konkle said, “I have had to have blood drawn before a few times for health reasons, and 3/4 of the time it hurt.” Frequent blood donors tend to be people with larger veins, because for them donating is almost always painless. But for people with very small veins, painful mistakes can happen easily. The last time I donated blood, my elbow bruised so badly in the first minute that the Red Cross personnel had to stop me well before the bag was filled.
All of these are excellent reasons not to give – donating blood is about lending your good health to others, not putting yourself at risk. But “If [you] can, [you] should,” Marty said, and I agree. I plan to attempt another donation as soon as I am eligible, despite the bruising I encountered last time.
Three-quarters of student respondents to a Google Form about blood drives want to give blood in the future, even if they haven’t already. Davis said, “I want to give blood because I think that it’s something important to do, and will do so as soon as my health complications stop being an issue.”
As George said, “There’s some satisfaction” to giving blood, and there’s always a need for it. “Yeah, it’s a good thing to do.”