Donating blood always sounded like a frightening event to me; needles filling up with blood, and the subsequently pale-skinned people standing around eating crackers, and people in white coats. (oh my!) Maybe I've seen too many horror movies.
I heard stories in high school of some poor soul passing out, and I didn't want that to be me. The word blood is really not an attractive word in general, but it's the only word for that dark red substance that flows through our veins and keeps us alive.
Turns out, that sticky red substance is valuable, and us healthy folk tend to take it for granted. According to statistics on Red Cross' website, redcross.org, every two seconds someone in the U.S. is in need of blood, and more than 44,000 blood donations are needed every day.
All seems fine as Assistant Lifestyle Editor Lyndsey Hewitt talks to Nursing Technician Lisa Provau while donating blood for the first time at the Scottish Rite.
Thomas Szulanczyk, the American Red Cross chapter executive of the Northcentral Pennsylvania chapter, 320 E. Third St., is a "couple-times-a-year" donor himself. Dedicated to helping others, he wants to see more people who can help, actually do it.
"A very small percentage of the population that can donate blood, actually donate blood," he said.
"These are professionals, they're doing a great job. They're Red Cross employees, traveling phlebotomists. This chapter supports 300 blood drives a year. That's 10,000 units of blood for this region," Szulanczyk said.
Young and selfish, I previously ignored these startling statistics. But, no one had ever asked me to donate before - I just kind of used my fear of the pain and passing out as an excuse not to donate. Being asked by someone was really all it took. Despite being asked to do it for my job, I realized I wanted to face my fear of needles and do something good.
The second I read that one donation can save up to three lives, I realized the importance of the story, and how maybe my story, that of being scared, uninformed and selfish, could perhaps persuade others that may think similarly to donate to a great cause.
Just so happens that March is Red Cross Month, a tradition that was declared by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1943.
"In 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed the first Red Cross Month in support of Red Cross fundraising efforts to respond to needs brought on by World War II. Since that time, every president, including President Obama, has designated March as Red Cross Month," a statement on their website says.
Red Cross' website is extremely well-organized. It has just about every single bit of information available, including the ability to schedule appointments online. In this technology-driven time, that's extremely important. Scheduling only was a few clicks.
To mentally prepare myself to the inevitable insertion of a needle into my arm, I read helpful tips online about this common fear. On the site, there is a section for first time blood donors, and one of the first things seen is a link to "Getting over the fear of needles." There are a lot of helpful tips on how to get over it and umpteen testimonials from other donors.
Reading information online, while somewhat comforting, still doesn't totally erase the fear. But the waiting stopped and the day to donate came. The process was simple, and every single volunteer was amazingly helpful.
I was scheduled at the Acacia Club, a part of the Williamsport Scottish Rite, a Masonic organization. The Masons also helped with the blood drive by providing post-donation snacks to rebuild sugar levels.
Also, for every pint donated, the Masonic Blood Donor Club of Pennsylvania would give $10 to the Dyslexia Center for the Valley of Williamsport to help children who suffer from Dyslexia. Thinking about the amount of people I was helping by donating a single pint of blood was very helpful in kicking my fear. Initially after arriving, I sat down, got a few facts about blood donations, then waited for a mini-physical that was conducted by a volunteer. Taken behind a little wall for privacy, the physical began.
They prick a finger to test iron and other things. Having a low iron level is a common reason people are deferred from donating, especially women, so eating meat and other foods rich in iron prior to donation day is important. The volunteer that helped me was a firm believer that the prick of the finger during the physical hurts worse than the actual needle for the blood donation. I found out that I think I agree with this. But it goes by quickly, and talking helps.
I happened to have a level that was above the minimum requirement. They also took blood pressure and a few other procedures that you might endure at a routine doctor visit.
Additionally, volunteers asked a long list of mainly yes-or-no questions about health and history. Some of them are rather strange, but necessary I suppose, such as if you've spent time with a prostitute or other obvious things like if you have AIDS/HIV and other health issues.
Continuing, all things checked out for me, so I was led to the sort of medical bed to lay down and finally give my blood. I was nervous as I approached, but the volunteers continued to make friendly conversation, which helped immensely to keep my mind occupied.
First, they rubbed my arm down with iodine and gave a round thing to grasp. This is to enable the vein to protrude and make it easier for the needle to reach the vein without complication. As that happened, the volunteer got other materials ready. After all preparations, finally, the needle was inserted to the arm of choice.
It's REALLY not that bad! It's true what they say: simply a short burning sensation, then nothing. The blood was flowing out of me, and as scary as that sounds, I didn't really feel much of anything. The volunteers and others around me kept making conversation, which made things very relaxed.
They told me I had a near-perfect pace for my blood flow, and after only about 7 minutes or so, my bag was full. I sat up, feeling a little light-headed, but walked over to the snack table with ease. I drank a can of apple juice and ate pretzels, and continued asking questions for my story. I received a pin in the shape of a blood drop to mark my first donation. After subsequent donations, other types of pins are given to mark the volume of blood donated.
I didn't faint, vomit or pass out; all of my previous apprehensions were absolved. Truth be told, it was easy and painless. Most importantly, I was helping people, something I don't do enough.
Afterward, I was able to meet a lot of really great people who also donated. Tom Cillo and his daughter, Nicole Cillo, both of Williamsport, had a great story to tell. Tom had wanted to set a New Year's resolution for himself about five years ago, one that he could keep. He chose donating blood.
"I had never given blood before and I thought this would be a great way to give back to people in need, so I did, and have been for the past five years, about every three months. It's a fairly easy resolution to keep," he said.
His daughter, Nicole, was donating for the first time. She is 16 years old, which is the minimum age able to donate, and anyone under 17 requires parental consent. She was moved to donate blood when her ex-coach was diagnosed with cancer and needed blood.
"They're working on finding someone who has the right blood type for him. I just thought that even though I can't help him, that I could help someone else," she said.
Over at the snack table, I met Gerald R. Young of Williamsport, who was clearly a veteran blood donor as he sat at the table with ease in his cowboy hat, eating a post-donation snack. He has been donating every 56 days, the shortest amount of time a donor can wait between donations, for the last 15 years.
"I have type O negative blood, a lot of people need it. I just like to help out, so why not share it? I'm healthy and I enjoy [helping]," said Young.
Between arriving and completing the donation, the process took only about an hour.
I can only hope sharing my experience will help others realize the great importance and opportunity to help so many people with hardly any work involved. To find more information about what you can do to help, visit www.redcross.org or www.ncparedcross.org for this region.