Giving blood during a global pandemic

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Leer en español: Donar sangre durante una pandemia global

Editor’s note: Daily Universe reporter Emily Andersen gave blood on Tuesday, April 7. The American Red Cross routinely seeks volunteers for blood donations and states on its website that giving blood is still safe during the pandemic.

I left my apartment a half-hour early, even though Google said the Orem Red Cross blood donation center would only take me seven minutes to get to. I was nervous, and as I drove I tapped my fingers on the steering wheel. I had never given blood before. A few years ago I donated plasma at one of those places that gives you money every time you come in, but after trying it twice and almost fainting both times, I didn’t go back.

I told myself that this was going to be different. First, I’m not as tiny as I was when I was barely 18, and I’d had a good breakfast, so I figured I didn’t need to worry about fainting. Second, blood donation was more important now than ever, with COVID-19 and everything going on, so I could feel good about performing a much-needed service.

As it turns out, neither of those assurances were completely true.

Immediately upon walking through the door, I was given hand sanitizer and told to hold a thermometer under my tongue. After verifying that I was fever-free, the young man at the door asked if I had an appointment, as the Red Cross is no longer accepting walk-ins. I told him I did, although I’d had a hard time getting it.

There hadn’t been any available appointments for whole blood donation for the next several weeks, so after searching for a time I was available, I had signed up to donate platelets, which is a bit more intense than regular blood donation. During the platelet donation, blood is drawn from one arm, then a machine extracts the platelets from blood before returning the remaining blood components back to the other arm.

A young man, whose name tag read “Stephen,” came over to check me in. After seeing the kind of donation I had signed up for, he asked if I had donated platelets before. I told him I hadn’t and that I had never even donated blood before. After explaining to me that the platelet donation was a two-hour process in which I wouldn’t be able to move either of my arms, Stephen asked if I’d prefer to do a regular whole blood donation since this would be my first time. I agreed that was probably a better idea.

The check-in process involved a lot more hand sanitizer — I was offered some after touching anything that wasn’t my own body, such as the computer on which I signed my name. Stephen then directed me to a chair, and after taking a minute to find the best vein, hooked me up to the machine.

Daily Universe reporter Emily Andersen donates blood. (Emily Andersen)

For the first few minutes, I asked Stephen about how the donation process has changed since the outbreak of COVID-19. He told me that at first there was a flood of people coming in to donate, mostly because all of the blood drives had been cancelled. Then after the donation center stopped accepting walk-ins, the donations went back to a normal volume, though it is evident from how steadily booked the center is that a lot of people want to help out.

During the time I was there, two different women in masks entered to ask if the center was taking walk-ins. Stephen also mentioned that the demand for blood has actually gone down recently, due to the cancellation of all non-essential surgeries and the fact that with everyone being cooped up in their homes, not as many people are having accidents that leave them severely injured.

Of course, there is always a constant need for blood donations, as is emphasized on the Red Cross website. They’ve dedicated a page on the site to COVID-19 and how it’s affecting blood donation, saying, “In times of crisis, the Red Cross is fortunate to witness the best of humanity as people roll up a sleeve to help those in need. We greatly appreciate the generosity of the public to keep hospital shelves stocked during this uncertain time.” 

I learned a lot from my conversation with Stephen, but after a few minutes, I wasn’t able to say much more. It would seem that regardless of how much weight I’ve gained or what I ate for breakfast, my body doesn’t respond well to having blood taken. I managed to tell Stephen that I didn’t feel well, and almost immediately I felt him pull the needle from my arm. Another woman brought me an apple juice while Stephen bandaged my arm. After resting a bit, I was able to walk over to the rest area, where I rested with my feet on a chair sipping juice for the next 10 or 15 minutes.

Luckily I never lost consciousness. After I started feeling better, Stephen assured me that they’d been able to get a full unit of blood before he’d removed the needle. I was surprised at how glad I was to hear that, and it reminded me of why I’d wanted to do this in the first place.

I grabbed a small bag of crackers from the table, and as I walked out to my car, I reflected on how I’d made a difference. Maybe there wasn’t as big of a need as I had anticipated coming from COVID-19, but there are still always people who need my healthy blood. And though I was left with a slight feeling of dizziness, I remembered that it was nothing compared to what whoever would receive my blood was probably suffering.

According to the Red Cross website, approximately 36,000 units of blood are needed every day in the United States. I had just contributed one of those units. It was a satisfying feeling, knowing that I’m contributing to the general health of other Americans during this time of crisis. I encourage you to do the same.

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