Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Save a Life: Donate Blood

One of the things I want to cover in the blog is why I support the causes I do.  I think it will give me a chance to explore some of these issues intellectually, which in turn should help me talk about why I am doing what I am doing.

The easiest topic for me to write about is blood donation. One of my coworkers in grad school was a regular blood donor, so I often would go to blood drives on campus with him.  The Central Blood Bank had an ad campaign that went something like "Donating Blood Saves Lives."  It's so fantastic it's a little unbelievable.  I would donate when I could, but often I had more important things going on (like grad school).

When I moved out to Seattle, I started interning at the C4C, and I got hooked up with a group of innovators who were thinking really deeply about blood donation.  My first question to them was, "Isn't this a solved problem?" This project gave me a chance to look into the blood donation system, how amazing it is that it works, and how fragile the system is.  In most cases, most of the time, there is enough of the right kind of blood around, which is a miracle of the generous spirits of donors.  But it doesn't take much to tip that careful balance, in which case it is an immediate, lethal crisis.

This gets us to part of the reason I am doing this project at all.  I used to spend my time looking for a cure for a rare disease that might have saved millions of lives.  It's easy to put off a blood donation, or a drop off at the food bank when you are working on something like that.  But now I write lessons for high schoolers.  This is important too, but I have lots of free time now. It's hard to rationalize that I have "something more important to do" than invest in my community, support good causes, or save a life.

Let's back up a little.  Blood is the organ that circulates oxygen in your blood.  Without it, you would asphyxiate from a lack of air.  It's pretty easy to think of catastrophic injury, the once in a life-time accident, as being the main time that you will need a transfusion of donated blood.  But I found that many blood donations go to people who need it as a result of something more predictable.  There are several types of surgery that often rely on blood transfusion, and many genetic forms of anemia (low levels of blood cells) that are treated by regular blood transfusion.  In fact, the preferred treatment for these patients is to get their transfusions from a single other donor.  Picture that, you could have a life long relationship with someone based on giving them blood they can't make for themselves; you'd be saving their life over and over again. (If you are a person of color who donates, talk to your blood bank about becoming a matching donor as you are more likely to be a rare blood type).

That's one of the things I think is so awesome about blood donation.  Without thinking about it, I make heaps of blood.  I make so much, I have some to share.  Blood donation is such a no-big-deal thing for me to do- they give you cookies for heaven's sake!  But for the person getting my blood (and I sometimes think about them while I donate), they are probably scared, feeling sick, and in some intimidating hospital environment. And my blood might save their life. Actually, it is rare for blood transfusions to happen unless there is an acute need for blood. When you need blood, you can't really do without it. It's wild how disproportionate the return on this is.

Another thing I learned in my internship: in a lot of other countries, there is not a centralized system for blood banking.  Here, blood banks manage pretty large geographical regions.  They use fancy inventory and distribution systems to make sure the right types of blood are in the right places so that someone is very rarely not supplied with the blood they require. (Because when you need blood, you can't wait.)  In other countries, if a loved one has cancer, or is going to have a Cesarian section, or god-forbid has an accident and needs blood, the family will be taken to the lab at the hospital where they will donate blood that is immediately piped back into their loved one.  Can you imagine donating blood while worried your wife might bleed out during delivery?

So we are lucky to have good systems in place to allow people like me to give a drama-free donation, eat a cookie and then someone's life gets saved because they didn't bleed to death during surgery or they were able to survive their chemotherapy treatments that caused them severe anemia.  This awesome system is actually one of the things that makes blood donation more important.

Blood banks carefully monitor the blood supply so that only healthy patients donate healthy blood.  They go to great lengths to prevent spreading disease in blood.  This is good, it would be terrible to come back from open heart surgery to a diagnosis of hepatitis C.  But the broad generalizations about which populations are at greatest risk for carrying a transmissible disease mean that huge swaths of the population can't donate.  Travel to exciting places often earns you a "deferral" (which is what the blood bank calls it when they won't take your blood). Gay men can't donate. Service members often can't donate.  When my building was having a blood drive recently, I asked if any of my coworkers wanted to go with me.  I work with about 10 people.  Most of them had deferrals, but really wanted to donate.

And that is why I donate.  Because I can.  And it matters.  I actually hate donating.  Needles freak me out, all the blood makes me queasy.  I can't pretend it is fun.  But I always think about that person, scared, sick, worried, who needs my blood.  I'm pretty lucky to be able to donate, so I give as often as I can. (If you cannot donate blood, most blood banks are nonprofits, so you can donate money instead.)

Thinking about donating blood?
It takes about an hour, especially if you have an appointment. There is more info here.
The people who draw blood at the blood bank are some of the best with needles you will ever encounter, drawing blood is their job.
Type O blood is the universal whole blood donor.
Type AB blood is the universal plasma donor.
Drink lots of water the day before you go.
I take a multivitamin religiously for the week before and after, since I am often on the low end of iron.
Enjoy the cookie and gatorade, it will make you feel better.  Enjoy the feeling you saved someone's life even more.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Donor's Choose

I would like to use the blog to describe some of the causes we'll be able to help, and why they are important to support.  I'd love to have guest bloggers share their experience.  This is the first Guest Blog, written by my Dad about a donation he made recently to one of my favorite charities, Donor's Choose.

When Sandlin was a graduate student zeroing in on her dissertation, she was also involved with science education in the surrounding schools system of Pittsburgh.  In exploring the needs of the huge community of Pittsburgh K-12 students, she was introduced to the organization of “Donors Choose”, a place where teachers all over the country could post wish lists of special projects and resource needs that couldn’t be met by their communities.  Interested donors could shop among the various interests, locations, programs and needs to make incremental contributions to a project that appealed to them.  When enough folks got on board with a project, it was funded and completed, sort of like Christmas all year round for straining classroom teachers. We completed several project in honor of her graduation and have now gone back to some of the same teachers to give them another boost  in honor of “30 for my 30th”.  Lots of options, locations, needs, and gratitude from some folks who are doing their best with limited support that we can augment.

Ok, that sounds kind nice, right? Two years ago, we helped provide pencils and a pencil sharpener for a class whose students were too poor to afford their own, which was making it hard for them to learn to write. Ack!  I liked this because, seriously, children need writing utensils, but it also reminded me that my Dad used to send me to school with markers and things for teachers.  Donor's Choose allows people like me and my Dad (and my Mom) respond to specific teacher's needs and feel like we have a direct impact.

So to get my birthday party started, they looked up that teacher in Penssylvania to see if she needed help.  Yes!  She sent back a breathless response that she has just put together a request for tablets, which are a great tool for classrooms with multiple learning levels.  Bam!  It's funded.

You can see her joyous response here.  It makes me so happy to read this!  I hope I get this feeling all year long, it's going to be a great birthday!


If you want to support Donor's Choose for my birthday (and I love what they do) pick one of the underprivileged science classrooms in my area or find a need that speaks to you.  Let me know what you've donated and we can share this awesome feeling together!

Saturday, February 9, 2013

$30,000 or 900 hrs

$30,000 or 900 hours.

These numbers are going to come up a lot.

At some point, it is going to be pretty obvious I am using a shady accounting system to keep them equivalent, so let's just get that out of the way.

Both are arbitrary numbers. I had an idea that a good fundraising effort would net about a grand, and take about a week of full time work to pull off. I have no idea if this is true.  Much like the rest of the project, it's an experiment.  And maybe they aren't exactly the same thing, but I will be using a conversion factor to keep track of our total progress to goal.

1 hr = $33.33

This seems more than fair to me.  It's more or less what I make right now, and a lot of my professional friends make a lot more than that.  Seriously, our time is worth a pretty penny, and it seems fair to account for it as such.  When I think about that, the morning you spend helping to set up a charity 5K is basically a hundred dollar donation of your time.  Not shabby, right?

So when you email me to say you spent an hour running the 50:50 at the high school basketball game for the band, I'm going to convert that in dollars, and track our total progress to goal.  Make sense?

And as for hitting 30 total projects... I haven't decided how to deal with that yet.  I want this effort to represent the diversity of my own interests and the communities that we live in.   If we make $30,000 for only a few charities, I think that is still in the spirit of the project.

Monday, February 4, 2013

The Project Takes Shape

When I started daydreaming about this project, my little sister (who works at a non-profit, has been a Vista volunteer, and is basically a subject matter expert in charity and philanthropy) told me it was a pretty crazy idea.  Well, the original idea was kinda dumb actually: it was just me, running this crazy marathon of projects for charities, mashing out 2.5 charities every month.

She had some really awesome ideas to fix that.  Like, make it more social.  Make it accessible to people (she suggested business cards with a website). Find some way to get other people involved by paying it forward.

But the one thing she really impressed on me was that this could be really valuable to charities I cared about if I didn't do a terrible job.  She told me to pick ONE charity, and figure out what they need, get to know them and their team, and do ONE thing really well.  She discouraged me from starting my own spin-off projects: there is a Friends of Youth nearby (they support foster kids and homeless teens), I was pondering starting a tutoring program there.  Why?  Wouldn't the people who work with those teens everyday know what their real priorities are?  I somehow doubt it is SAT prep.

(I can't let go of the grandeur of 30 for 30, but I can spread out the insanity by asking for your help)

I told her I hadn't figured out how to set the scale of the projects, but I wanted to set it too high for me to just "buy my way out" every month. (I worry that the day before I turn 31, I'll be eating $50 worth of girl scout cookies and making $10 donations on my cell phone to every charity I can find. This isn't bad, it's just lacking in the grandeur I was hoping for.) She said $100 with no string attached can be an awesome gift to a small non-profit. A lot of their money comes from grants which must be used for specific priorities, or from donors who have really specific ideas about what it should do.  And there can be a budget gap between "what we have" and "what we need" that must be really frustrating.

Anyway, my little sister helped me decide to do the project this way. Big Goals.  No strings attached money. Supporting tiny charities if I love what they do. And asking for help.  Asking my friends and family and total strangers to join me in this crazy journey.

And that's when I made up my mind to blog about it.  It occurred to me, not for the last time, that I have NO idea what I am doing.  And that's really exciting- the older you get, the less that happens. So I am going to blog about it, to share my experience, share what I am learning and how it is changing me. 

Oh, and I made my first donation today.  A friend of mine is doing the polar plunge to support the special Olympics, and that rocks. We are officially 0.13% to goal!

Saturday, February 2, 2013

30 for my 30th

I am turning 30 this year.* 

Several of my friends have already been through this milestone birthday so I both expect to survive it but also to dread it quite a bit.  I don't want to dread this birthday, or treat it as just some other day in some year. I want it to be something really grand.

And for more complex reasons, I've been thinking about my legacy a lot lately.  I've got this PhD, which is cool, but I don't exactly use it for curing cancer.  I've had some great students, but they were destined to do great things before they met me anyway. I've been living in Totem Lake for about a year now, and I don't know a single soul in this community. I'm ok with the fact that I'm not going to win a Nobel Prize, but I still think I should still have an amazing life.  That's what it's for, right?

The day that Matt and I moved into our house, we jumped into the hot tub after dark.  The house was a mess, filled with our cheapo college furniture and all our dusty stuff that our friends and family mercifully helped us move over. We were exhausted from the move.  On our back porch, steam from the hot tub glossed all that over and we just looked at each other and said, "This is it. That's all I want."  I felt like I have no more ambition for myself; I've got a great house, a great job, a great life where I have tons of free time to myself.  To quote my brother, "This is why I went to college."

But, I still get the nagging feeling that I could be doing better, living a better life.  Be more connected to my community, and live a life of service.  That's important to me.

A huge amount of my 20s was spent on myself.  Getting through college, getting through grad school, finding a job.  These are things you have to do for yourself, and are important so that for the rest of your life you can focus outward a bit.  Now I feel like I've got those things mostly under control, I'm ready to start thinking outward. I've been thinking about various places I would like to volunteer with and support, and it's hard to find a single thing that seems like it's going to fill up that feeling.  I worry a lot about hunger in my community, but the FoodBank mostly seems to need volunteers during the week.  STEM education is really important to me, but it's hard to know which volunteer opportunities make a difference.

I had this idea on the bus one morning, and I need you all to support me in it.  It's too hard to find any one thing that will be as important as I want to be.  What if I do something HUGE instead?  Instead of fussing over whether one little thing is more important than some other little thing, I'll just do a BUNCH, and that will be a Big Deal.

Here is my idea: 30 projects for my 30th birthday.  Each project either takes 30 hours, or raises $1,000 dollars.  Think about it, we could raise $30,000 or 900 volunteer hours- how cool is that?? 

And, actually, that brings me to the next part.  You know what I want for my birthday this year? Your time or money, invested in our communities in the service on one another.  Help me in my efforts to raise money, or to rack up volunteer hours by taking on a project of your own, or supporting one of mine.

I haven't figured out how I will track all this yet, or what all these projects should be, but you will be hearing about it in the coming weeks.  I figure I have from now until my 31st birthday to get it all done.  That's more than a year to do meet this audacious goal, either by myself or with your help. So will you help?

* in July, don't freak.