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.

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