Proud to Be a Blood Donor Despite First Time Embarrassment

I have always wanted to be a blood donor, but I didn’t get around to doing anything about that desire until a few months ago. Now I have given blood twice. My plan is to be a regular and reliable blood donor, thanks to last week’s good experience. After my first time in May, I wasn’t so sure.

Why Be a Blood Donor?

This chart from Canadian Blood Services shows how many blood donors are needed for different situations.

Chart showing how many blood donors needed for heart surgery, car crash, cancer, leukemia

If you aren’t a blood donor and are sitting on the fence, unsure of whether or not you want to donate, here are seven serious and not-so-serious reasons to give blood.

  1. Donating blood is the easiest possible way to be a hero. You can save up to three lives with one donation.
  2. You will weigh one pint less than you did before the donation. (Full disclosure: Your weight loss will be negated by the free juice and snacks.)
  3. Going to a donation site will make you feel like Norm on Cheers. Everyone will be happy to see you!
  4. If exclusive membership matters to you, being a blood donor makes you part of an elite group. According to the World Health Organization, 32 out 1000 people are blood donors in high-income countries, 14 out of 1000 in upper-middle-income countries, and 4.6 out of 1000 people are blood donors in low-income countries.
  5. One in every two people will need blood at some point. That’s you, a friend, or family member.
  6. Blood for one human can only come from another human. Rich or poor, you possess a valuable resource. And you have enough to spare. A donation takes less than 1/2 litre from the 5 litres (10.5 pints) in your body.
  7. You get a mini physical every time you donate. Blood pressure, temperature, hemoglobin (iron) are checked, and your blood is tested for various infectious diseases. If you have any, you are notified immediately.

Who Can’t Be a Blood Donor?

Canadian Blood Services uses the tagline, “It’s in you to give.” I chose to be a blood donor because I can. Feeling good about myself after donating makes this a great self-care activity. Helping to save lives makes it an amazing community-care activity.

Each time you donate blood, you complete a lengthy online questionnaire. Reasons people are deemed ineligible to donate include:

Age restrictions; you must be at least 17 Currently taking antibiotics for an infection Excessively high or low blood pressure
A blood transfusion in the last year Recent tattoos, body piercings or electrolysis. You need to wait six months. After a diagnosis of blood cancer; if other cancers, you can usually donate after 5 years cancer-free.
Dental work; you need to wait 24-72 hours depending on the work done. If you’ve had a heart attack, have type 1 diabetes, or various other medical conditions. Time spent in an area where there’s a higher risk of malaria, Ebola, Mad Cow disease.

The reasons and length of time a person is ineligible to be a blood donor vary a bit from one country to another.

One of the conditions that renders all of us ineligible at different points in time is our hemoglobin (iron) level. To keep iron levels in a healthy range, men are allowed to donate every 12 weeks in the United Kingdom, every 56 days in Canada, or every 8 weeks in the United States. Women may donate every 16 weeks in the United Kingdom, every 84 days in Canada, or every 8 weeks in the United States.

Despite the various reasons for ineligibility, more people are eligible to give blood than actually do. In Canada, for example, 1 in 2 Canadians is eligible to be a blood donor, but only 1 in 60 give.

Is Your Blood Needed?

Everyone’s blood is needed. People with O-negative blood, are considered universal donors. Their blood is given in emergencies because it works for everyone. People with AB-positive blood,  are universal recipients. They can receive blood of any type.

For the most part, however, medical professionals prefer to use donations from a blood donor of the same blood type. That reduces the likelihood of antigens in the individual’s blood triggering an immune system attack on the transfused blood.

In the U.S. population, the approximate distribution of blood types is:

pie graph blood type distribution

Percentages vary by ethnicity. For example, Latino-Americans have a relatively high number of O+ (53%), while Asians have a high number of B+ (25%). Chances of immune system reaction can be reduced for some patients if they are given blood from someone of their same ethnic group.

My blood type is A-, something I didn’t know prior to donating. What’s yours?unit of blood in labeled plastic bag with other equipment behind

My First Time Giving Blood

I made an appointment online and arrived fifteen minutes early. My pride in finally taking this step was echoed by a volunteer at the community centre door warmly thanking me for being there. When I entered the large room, however, I felt insignificant.

At one end of the room, ten people were in the process of donating. Another ten had finished and were enjoying snacks served by smocked volunteers. There were cubicles around the edge of the room, each with a nurse doing a private health assessment of a blood donor. There was a bank of iPads where we could complete our health questionnaire. And then there were two holding areas, each with a couple of dozen chairs. Every one of those chairs was occupied by someone holding a plastic number of the kind you get at the butcher’s. One area was for those who had completed their questionnaire but hadn’t met with a nurse; the other for those who finished their assessment and were waiting to donate.

The typical time for a donation, from start to finish, is one hour, a little bit longer if you’re a first-time donor. Unfortunately, my first time was on the same day as a busload of high school students, all first-time donors. In the abstract, I couldn’t have been happier. There’s a real shortage of young blood donors. We need them.

However, the backlog created by this unexpected windfall of donors meant that although I was expecting to give blood at 2:05 p.m., I didn’t get back to the nifty reclining chairs until 3:40 p.m. I’m a bit hypoglycemic and when my blood sugar dips, I get grouchy, foggy and lightheaded.

The Embarrassing Part

Giving blood didn’t bother me at all. I didn’t feel the needle being inserted, and I couldn’t see the blood accumulating in the bag. Wisely, that happens below eye level.Blood donor Karen Hume

It typically takes 15 minutes to collect 450 mL or one pint of blood. It only took 7 minutes for me, a fact of which I was unreasonably  proud.

After donating in a reclined position, the chair is put upright and you are left sitting there for five minutes, ten if you’re a first-timer. I watched one of the high school students, a girl, being fanned by a nurse and felt sorry for her. Feeling a bit woozy myself, I casually mentioned it to the nurse who put me back in the reclined position for another five minutes.

When questioned again, I lied and said that I felt fine. I was sure I just needed some food, and really wanted to get to that snack area.

When I’m foggy and lightheaded, all I want to do is eat as much and as quickly as possible. In short order, I downed three juice boxes and plowed my way through two donut holes and a bag of Bits and Bites.

It didn’t work. In addition to being lightheaded and foggy, I was now nauseous. Volunteers noticed me, unsurprising since my face had lost all colour and I was bent over with my head in my hands. People came running, and a garbage can was proffered in case I needed to vomit. In front of all these people at a snack table? I don’t think so!

Eventually, I was able to stand just enough that I could slide onto a gurney and be wheeled into a private hallway. A nurse stayed with me until I recovered.

Blood Donor Observations

Last week’s blood donation was incident-free. I was able to pay more attention to the environment, and I made a few heartwarming observations.

The medical staff and the volunteers were, to a person, kind, friendly, and appreciative. They sometimes appeared distracted and hassled, but the moment you were in their company, they were completely present. It was a wonderful feeling.

Many of the blood donors were clearly regulars, addressing staff and volunteers by name and chatting about their lives. I met one woman who has donated 111 times. She’s trying to beat her dad who has 127 blood donations to his credit. One hundred and eleven donations seemed a huge number to me, until I read of a retired Canadian nurse, Joyce Crompton, who has given blood 450 times. Now, she’s in an elite group – one of only six Canadian women!

After last week’s post about negativity in news broadcasts, it truly was a pleasure to spend time with a terrific group of people, all committed to making a positive difference in the world.

Have you given blood, or done something else that made you feel you were making a positive contribution? Please tell us about it in the comments below.



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  1. Hi Karen,
    I have only given blood twice in my life. So thanks for the reminder and all the information about donating. I like idea of the mini physical as well. Your first experience was interesting. Who would have thought all that could have happened after donating one pint of blood. Walter and I need to get into the practice of donating blood particularly when you see how it can be used.

    1. Hi Fran,
      Just another benefit of being retired – having the time and the peace of mind to actually be aware of the need for donating blood.
      You’re right – the mini physical is a great little bonus.
      I think my experience after donating the first time was a pretty rare one. I’m so glad it didn’t happen a second time!

  2. Hi Karen – I volunteer in the local hospital emergency department and I know how vital blood donors are. Although I haven’t had Mad Cow Disease, Ebola or Malaria, I did have a disease many years ago that precludes me from donating blood, and every time they have a blood drive in my area I really regret that I can’t do it. Good for you for going back a second time after your initial experience!

    1. Thanks, Anna. I can certainly understand that you wish you could donate, but it’s wonderful that you are a hospital volunteer. Such an important position and such a challenging one, especially in an emergency department!

  3. Good for you, Karen! I think donating blood is a wonderful way to give back and help others out. My mom has been doing it for decades in Belgium. Not sure they give snacks there, but she could leave work early for those occasions.

    As for me… while I really would like to do it, I’m not sure I can. Each time I need to go to the nurse for a blood exam (which has been happening every six months the last two years), I get queasy and light-headed. I do feel the needle and it is all but enjoyable. Also, it goes very slowly for me and my veins are hard to “find”, so multiple pricks are needed. Frequently, I end up with a blue arm for a week. And that’s for the smallest amounts of blood.

    That being said, I might still try it one day and see what happens, but I’m sure I will need a long, long time to recover…

    My blood type is A+. We know this as a child in Belgium and carry a card about it in our wallets. I was surprised my husband didn’t know his blood type when I asked him many years ago. He figures it is very easy to check once it needs to be known. He hates thick wallets… 🙂

    1. Thanks, Liesbet. I totally get why you’d be hesitant. It’s no fun being a human pincushion on those occasions when you have to give just a little blood sample. No wonder you feel queasy and lightheaded when you know what you have to look forward to every time you have a blood test.
      By the way, I love Mark’s reasoning about the thick wallets! With all of the various loyalty cards and such, I find that I have a regular wallet with a bunch of them and then TWO of those wallets that are just for credit cards for a whole bunch more. It’s crazy! Once I find out that a company will just take my phone number and doesn’t need the card, I’m always so relieved.

  4. Karen, you are doubly courageous, going back again after that first experience. Your determination sets a shining example. It must be an amazing feeling to know you are saving lives. I have learned not to mind needles and would like to give blood but, sadly, I have been advised that my pernicious anaemia precludes donating. I console myself with the knowledge that at least my O+ blood type is the most common. I salute you!

    1. Thanks, Dinah. It does feel wonderful to be a blood donor. However, I’m not at all surprised that you can’t donate. Canadian Blood Services has just changed their donation period for women because, even among women with normal iron counts, those counts would go too low if donating occurred too frequently. With anemia, I imagine you’d be putting yourself in danger or, at the very least, feel too exhausted to move.

  5. I am so thankful you are now a blood donor, Karen. I used to donate years ago, regularly (read as often as they would let me). I had a plastic wallet card with my name and blood type embossed on the front and a paper sticker type thing on the back with a double row of boxes outlined in red (of course) with blank white spaces where they would stamp the date every time I went. It reminded me of an old library date due card. I forget now how many times I donated but I went through a few cards. My blood type is A-.

    Unfortunately, I am no longer able to donate since I am on medications and have type 2 diabetes. I can echo your sense of pride in giving…I used to feel that same way.

    One drawback to the A- blood type is if you are with someone with type A+ and you happen to have a child together things can shift in a bad way. That happened to me. We had two children in total: my first son is A+ like his father and the second thankfully was A- like me, you’ll see why I say thankfully as you read on.

    When a baby is born there is a natural back flow of blood from the baby through the placenta. When my first son was born that A+ blood flowed back into my system and my body with it’s A- blood created antibodies to attack the foreign blood type. Had I been given a gamma globulin shot (I think that is what it is called) it would have gone better when I had my second son. Little did I know that at the time. Well, so I went into my second pregnancy not knowing and lo and behold things started going wrong with the routine blood tests. There were problems with the numbers and this is when they discovered my body had developed these antibodies. I was sent to a specialist that told me that my body could kill my unborn child in utero. I was devastated. I was sent to a special hospital for tests and told that I may have to travel out of province for a risky operation that would mean a transfusion for the baby in utero and due to that a very high-risk pregnancy. One test, an amniocentesis, which in itself is risky (involves inserting a large needle through the abdomen and into the amniotic sac to draw a bit of the fluid) told us that my second child had my blood type A- which is what saved his life. Talk about heaving a huge sigh of relief!

    Sorry for the long comment, again, but I thought to tell my Rh story here would be a good idea. I know before this happened to me I had no idea it could happen.

    Again, I am so proud of you for committing to being a blood donor Karen and I absolutely LOVE the picture up there, of you donating in your Profound Journey t-shirt. Who did you get to take your picture? 🙂

    1. Wow, that’s fascinating, Susan, and very scary. I imagine when you marry, the last thing most people think about is whether or not their blood types are compatible in case of a future pregnancy. I’m glad it all worked out for you.

      The nurse took the photo for me. I felt a bit goofy asking her but, hey, anything for the blog!

      1. You’re right about it being the last thing you think of when you get married, it certainly was in my case but then again…who knew to even wonder? LOL, I am glad you fought through the goofy feeling and asked the nurse to take the photo…it was the icing on the cake (er blog).

  6. I have a pin somewhere that I got to mark 25 donations. However, I haven’t given blood in years so should really get back to it, thanks for the reminder! I’m AB+ so relatively uncommon.

    1. Good for you, Anabel! I’m starting my donating pretty late. Now that Canada has changed the rules for women, it’s only possible to donate 4 times per year. I’ll only be in my mid-sixties by the time I match your 25 donations so it shouldn’t be any kind of problem, but I do wish I’d started much earlier.

      AB+? I imagine that the donation clinics are really wanting your blood!

  7. Good for you!!! Unfortunately, a past illness has meant that I can’t contribute but I know how important it is that people like you step up to the plate! Thank you!

    1. Hi Janis,
      Sorry for the delay in replying. And I’m sorry that you had an illness that prevented you donating blood. However, blood donation is just one of so many ways we give back to the community. Despite knowing you only a little bit, I can state with absolute conviction that you are a giver and I’m sure you do a great many things to support the people in your community.

  8. I have never donated blood. I am a total wimp about needles. Despite my fear, I went to a blood donor clinic when I first started attending university as a young woman. After waiting in a long lineup, upon reaching the nurse, she turned me away because I weighed less than a hundred pounds. Then a few years later, I had an infectious illness and was told that I could never donate blood for the rest of my life. However, recently I was told by my doctor that was incorrect. She said my blood tests are fine and that there is nothing to prevent me from giving my blood (and being underweight certainly is no longer the case!). So I need to screw up my courage and go. Although I do have hard-to-find veins and am embarrassed to admit that I have been known to hyperventilate and start weeping at the sight of a needle. But being a big chicken is not a good excuse.


  9. Oh, maybe it is. There are so many ways to support others and if needles make you hyperventilate, choosing one of those other ways makes good sense to me!
    However, if you do decide to go for it, try drinking so much water that you could float into the clinic. Hopefully that will help with your hard-to-find veins.

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