You're A Bag Of Blood, Give Some Away

Image via Getty
Image via Getty

Several times a year—five if I can—I get stuck by a needle. A friendly hand hunts the crooks of both my elbows for a vein fat enough to poke, swabs it down with iodine, and dabs the spot with a marker as if it were a treasure map. Depending on whether or not I’m in the mood for sterile and unthreatening gore, I either watch as the needle slides under the skin or thumb at my phone in my other hand. It’s not bad: there’s a brief, piercing pain, like a bee sting but duller and more fleeting and minus the element of surprise, and then you lie down and painlessly drain for a few minutes, giving a stress ball some idle squeezes to keep things flowing through the needle and into a thin tube and into a translucent pouch which swells up with your wine-dark, deoxygenated blood. By the end you’ve produced a warm, fat, iron-flavored Capri Sun; one of your own 10 pints of blood is now sealed inside plastic for someone else’s consumption.


One of the first times I donated I picked up the pouch, felt my body warmth at a remove, and felt strangely proud of it, like I’d birthed a healthy little blood son, ready to venture out into world. Maybe, as the Red Cross brightly reminds its donors, it would “save up to three people,” if separated out into its plasma, platelets, and red blood cells, and given to separate patients. Maybe it would go towards research, taking a more indirect but potentially higher-impact route to good. Maybe it would merely expire, since blood has a limited shelf life, and medical advances make blood transfusions less and less common. But either way my pint would be sitting there and waiting, available in case bad things happened to other people and spilled their blood, requiring a refill. The dozens of pints of blood needed in, say, a car accident, need to be out of your body on the shelf well before a car careens into another car. My phone gets only three kinds of calls these days: dentist, parents, and the blood bank informing me of a shortage and asking me to schedule an appointment.

My last scheduled appointment happened to be set for the day after a man killed 49 people and hurt many more, and even a thousand miles from Orlando the waiting room was filled with more people than I’ve ever seen at a blood drive. My friendly phlebotomist introduced herself as my “vampire for the day” and glided through the whole process in four minutes and 53 seconds. (She timed it all.) After bandaging me up and ensuring I wasn’t swooning and lightheaded after the blood loss, she let me proceed to free Cheez-Its and chocolate chip cookies, cold water and cranberry cocktail—crucial to rehydrate after losing some of your own juices—and the rest of my day. No matter what little I did with the remainder of that day, I had done something constructive with it merely by lying there and letting someone siphon off some of my blood.

Donating blood is one of the most passive ways you can do a small, measurable amount of good for other human beings, demanding nothing of you besides showing up for half an hour, tolerating a needle, and being still. Either you’re scared of the needle, and then you’re brave for overcoming it, and doing a lifelong favor to yourself by desensitizing yourself to needles, which will inevitably come poking at your skin again; or you’re fine with needles and this whole process is a benign interlude in your otherwise regular day. You’re not a at risk of “running out,” since your body constantly produces more, and in any case, it’s eight weeks before you’re even eligible to donate again. You’ll get to snack relentlessly and wear a little sticker thanking you for your time. You don’t have a blood type that they have no use for. You can bring a book or headphones to stave off a few minutes of boredom. As a totally unrelated benefit, you get a check-in on your vitals, hemoglobin count, and, later in the mail, cholesterol level. Some factors can disqualify you: certain medications, anemia, travel history, weight requirements, and—heavily contested in the wake of Orlando—being a sexually active gay man. But you’ll be educated and screened before any needles go anywhere, and can read up on your eligibility before even showing up.

There are many responses to this sort of tragedy: the emotional work of grieving and supporting the LGBTQ community that was targeted; compelling the people who make our laws to prevent massacres like this and working to elect less craven ones; and the cultivation of small personal habits. For most people, being good does not come packaged in a few isolated acts of heroism, but little ones scattered regularly across a lifetime. (Unless you’ve seen children stuck on subway tracks lately, you’ll need to rack up these points one way or another.) So long as you are a healthy bag of blood, and there’s medical demand for it, you should be happy to leak occasionally.