Let’s talk about Blood (donations, that is)

Yes blood…human blood, vampires, Bela Lugosi, Dracula…

OK let’s not, but let’s talk about donating blood and why, especially in this Corona virus-afflicted world, donating blood is so much more important than it normally is.

I have been a regular platelet donor at Stanford’s Blood Bank for over 25 years and this week, I donated for my 110th time, lifetime. This time I did a “triple donation” of platelets and added on a unit of plasma. The whole thing took 106 minutes hooked up to the machine and about 3 hours total from the time I walked in the door until I walked out clutching my last sips of POG (Passion Orange Guava) juice and my cookie.

Platelets are a component of whole blood. Platelets are the cells that circulate within our blood and bind together when they recognize damaged blood vessels,” says Dr. Marlene Williams, assistant professor of medicine and CICU director at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center. “When you get a cut, for example, the platelets bind to the site of the damaged vessel, thereby causing a blood clot. There’s an evolutionary reason why they’re there. It’s to stop us from bleeding.”

When you don’t have enough platelets, it’s called thrombocytopenia. Symptoms include easy bruising, and frequent bleeding from the gums, nose, or GI tract. Your platelet count drops when something is preventing your body from producing platelets. There are a wide range of causes, including:

  • Medications
  • An inherited condition
  • Certain types of cancer, such as leukemia or lymphoma
  • Chemotherapy treatment for cancer
  • Kidney infection or dysfunction
  • Too much alcohol

I’m told that they are critical components of treating patients, particularly those whose blood is compromised due to illness or a suppressed immune system or in patients undergoing chemotherapy or other treatments that cause damage to a patient’s own blood.

I happen to be particularly desirable as a donor because I am genetically predisposed NOT to to be infected with something called “CMV.”

Cytomegalovirus (CMV) is a common virus. Once infected, your body retains the virus for life. Most people don’t know they have CMV because it rarely causes problems in healthy people.

If you’re pregnant or if your immune system is weakened, CMV is cause for concern. Women who develop an active CMV infection during pregnancy can pass the virus to their babies, who might then experience symptoms. For people who have weakened immune systems, especially people who have had an organ, stem cell or bone marrow transplant, CMV infection can be fatal.

Most healthy people who are infected with CMV may experience no symptoms. Some experience minor symptoms. People who are more likely to experience signs and symptoms of CMV include:

  • Newborns who became infected with CMV before they were born (congenital CMV).
  • Infants who become infected during birth or shortly afterward (perinatal CMV). This group includes babies infected through breast milk.
  • People who have weakened immune systems, such as those who have had an organ, bone marrow or stem cell transplant, or those who are infected with HIV.

So, CMV is bad and I don’t have it. Tie that to the fact that I am also O+ blood type and that makes me a Universal Donor. The vampires at Stanford are all over me to donate.

What’s it like to donate blood?

You typically start by making an appointment. For platelets, as I mentioned, the whole process takes about three-hours from start to finish. Whole Blood takes significantly less time and often times there are walk-up slots available. The good news is they do everything they can to make you comfortable during the process and typically I fire up Netflix and watch a good movie while I am sitting in the chair. They’ve got other streaming options available as well. Last time I was able to watch Hamilton from start to finish.

But what about COVID-19? Isn’t it dangerous?

There are risks everywhere but in my experience, Stanford takes social distancing and hygiene very seriously. Donors and Staff must wear a mask and the staff are double or even triple-protected with medical grade masks, face shields, gloves and disinfectants.

The first person you encounter on walking into the center is a tech who takes your temperature and asks some basic screening questions to make sure you aren’t sick.

Next you are handed an iPad with a bunch of very personal questions about your medical and sexual history. After you’ve done it about 20 times, questions about accidental needle sticks, HIV exposure or sex with prostitutes are kind of second nature. They used to have to ask you all these questions orally but it’s nice they’ve streamlined the process so it’s simple, requires less staff overhead and is more private and less time-consuming.

After you complete the iPad questions (the device is wiped down with disinfectant after each use) you are ushered into the screening booth where a nurse goes over your history and weighs you and takes your temperature, BP and does a small finger stick to test for appropriate levels of hemoglobin in your blood.

Assuming all are a pass (I only once had low hemoglobin but it could have been due to dehydration and it also happened in Israel so who knows what their standards actually were?) you are taken to the donating area.

For platelets you sit in what amounts to a COMFY CHAIR! I suppose on request they could POKE YOU WITH THE SOFT CUSHIONS!!!

They’ll offer you a disposable blanket (like an airline blanket) if you want and there is also a heating pad if you are susceptible to cold room temps.

Once you have positioned yourself in the chair, you have to keep your arm extended and you can’t move it once the donation process starts.

Ready to go!

They clean your arm and find a suitable vein to insert the catheter. (It’s no more painful than a blood draw and honestly these guys do it so often, they are real professionals and I hardly feel a thing.

Once you have been stuck they’ll withdraw a small sample for testing and then start running your blood through a Trima Machine that separates out the required blood products and then replaces everything back in your arm. Think of it as a car wash or a centrifuge. Everything it needs, it takes, and the rest is returned to you.

During the process (called Apeheresis) you squeeze a small warm bottle that makes sure the circulation is good (and I think also is a means they have of keeping you awake so your arm doesn’t slide off the chair. During the procedure they use an anti-coagulant

(If you really want to know). Sometimes you may feel some slight tingling in your lips which can often be taken care of by and OTC antacid like Tums.

After about 2-3 hours (again the length of a good Netflix movie) they unhook you and you go over to the canteen for the traditional POG Juice

and a COOKIE!

Why do I do this?

Well there are lots of reasons? First and foremost because there are a lot of people that need platelets? It is a blood product that is critical and often damaged in Immuno-compromised patients or those vulnerable folks undergoing cancer and chemotherapy treatments. Even if you don’t have 2-3 hours to give, a simple whole blood donation can be done and over with in less than an hour. Secondly, it’s a life-saving Mitzvah and one that I am happy to to. As the saying goes, מצווה גוררת מצווה “Mitzvah Goreret Mitzvah” (Pirke Avot: 4:2) which loosely translated means “one good deed will bring another good deed.” It’s relatively painless and I feel good doing it.

Also Stanford takes really good care of it’s donors. Their 100+ donor club members are rewarded with a lovely breakfast in November (pandemic pending this year) where they say thank you.

Also the schwag they routinely give you has filled out my tie dye collection very nicely! 🙂

So, if you have any questions about the process or whether apheresis or whole blood donation is right for you, feel free to ask me any questions. I am happy to get you the information you need. I hope you’ll consider joining me in this life-saving Mitzvah.

Giving IS Groovy!


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