It's not that I'd never thought about donating blood. It's just that I haven't been convinced that puncturing my body and letting a portion of its contents dribble out was particularly good for me. More to the point, needles HURT. I respond to a needle much the same way that a werewolf might respond to a silver bullet. When I learned that I had to have a blood test before I got married, I considered joining a monastery instead. And I suspect I'm paying way too much for life insurance, but I'm not willing to have a physical - and a blood test - to qualify for a new policy.
But when I found out that a friend was scheduled to undergo heart surgery, I figured it was time to quit being such a baby and kick in a pint of blood - or a quart, or a few gallons, or whatever you're supposed to give - in case he needed some.
I made an appointment at the local Red Cross office, and when the day came and I was driving there, my heart began to beat faster with every passing mile. Sweat trickled down my back, and I found myself almost hoping I'd have a traffic accident.
But I didn't, and I was soon in a waiting room, thumbing through a bunch of information sheets. One of them cautioned that anybody who had spent time in Great Britain recently should not give blood because they might have been exposed to something called "mad cow disease."
While filling out a donor card, I overheard a couple of guys behind the counter talking about somebody who had been in earlier in the day and had "sprung a leak." I looked up from my form. "What's that mean?" I asked them, not sure I wanted to know.
"This man had blood squirting out of his arm," one of them replied, gesturing wildly. "It got all over his shirt and was pretty messy."
The other guy must have noticed my eyes beginning to roll back in my head. "Oh, are you a first timer?" he asked. "Jeez, sorry. But don't worry; that doesn't happen often."
I wondered if I could fake the symptoms of mad cow disease. Or rabies.
Before I could run for the exit, a kindly woman took my arm and escorted me down a hall and into a big room, where she plunked me down next to another woman in a white smock. She told me matter-of-factly that she was going to stick a needle in my ear. I thought she was joking.
But no, she explained that she needed a few drops of blood to test before I could officially donate any, and it would hurt less being poked in the earlobe than anywhere else. But old-fashioned guy that I am, I would have felt silly having my ear pierced, so I asked her to jab me in a finger instead, and she obliged.
Ouch. I was reminded why I hated needles.
Next it was time to move to a cot, where a charming nurse named Tess told me to relax. She could tell I was nervous and tried kidding around with me, but her smile reminded me of Vincent Price welcoming an unsuspecting victim to his laboratory.
"This shouldn't hurt . . . too much," she assured me, wrapping a rubber tube around my upper arm. "People hardly ever die from it."
Ha-ha. I made a mental note to aim my vein at Tess's crisp blue smock in the event I sprung a leak.
I shut my eyes tightly and could feel Tess messing with my arm, swabbing it with a cool liquid. After a time, I asked her, "When are you going to stick me?"
"I already did," she said.
It can take as long as 20 minutes to complete a blood donation, and even then, some people can't fill up the little plastic bag. Tess said her fastest donor ever had filled the bag in just 3 minutes. "But then he stood up and collapsed," she added.
I was done in about 6 minutes, and Tess congratulated me, then helped me to my feet. To my surprise, I didn't collapse.
They made me sit in another room for a while, eating cookies and drinking juice. A volunteer told me that my body's blood supply would regenerate itself in a few weeks and I could donate again after 56 days.
"See you in a couple of months," she said cheerfully as I left.
Maybe she will, as long as they don't try again to make me get my ear pierced.
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