An Illustrated Guide To Giving Away Your Blood

It looks like the People Who Get to Donate Blood Club is opening up to include a few more queers. On July 1, China lifted its 1998 ban on lesbians, finally welcoming lady-loving-ladies and all of their fluids. Canadian Blood Services is hoping to submit a policy to Health Canada this fall that would remedy the self-confessed “archaic laws” preventing gay men from joining up. In light of a national shortage, the FDA is finally reevaluating its stance on gay male exclusion.

Hey guess what Autostraddlers? Applications are still open for you to join the People That Get to Donate Blood Club! The fact is, donor numbers are dwindling across the board, so why not step in and help? It isn’t that hard or that scary! There are people who can’t donate — either for valid reasons or ignorant ones — but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. So roll up your sleeves and learn how to pop your blood donor cherry. Let’s get started!

The Prep

Just like an academic test, there’s a little bit of homework. Start by calling your blood donor organization to make an appointment with a clinic or mobile blood-drive.

Eat properly (including iron rich foods) in the days leading up to your appointment. If you’re an omnivore, keep it up! Meat is rich in heme iron, a form of iron that your body readily absorbs. If you’re more of a herbivore, you’re still covered! Lentils, beans and dark leafy greens will raise your hemoglobin levels when eaten in large enough quantities. You won’t get pumped like Popeye by gulping spinach, but did you know you can more out of your greens by munching them with vitamin C and saving your tea for dessert?

Drink a lot of fluids before you go. The more fluids you drink, the greater your blood volume will be. Your veins will be easier to find and your blood will be collected more readily.

Oh and get a good night’s sleep.

The Registration

Start registering by presenting your ID and contact info to the receptionist. If you become a pufferfish by simply touching latex (or rubber or anything else in a clinical environment) talk that shit out.

At this point the receptionist will clip your identification to all of your paperwork. You will promptly forget this. Then, when anyone asks for your ID, you will freak out and imagine you lost it. You will start to give yourself a full body pat-down as the nurse calmly unclips your card. This dance will happen during 99% of your donations.

The Screening

Canadian Blood Services, Hema-Quebec and the American Red Cross diverge a bit when it comes to the screening steps. If you’re in America, you get to proceed straight to a one-on-one interview with a nurse. If you’re in Canada, you get to partially fill out a questionnaire all by your lonesome. Just like in middle school, they will give you as much information on proper bubble form filling technique as possible.

When you go to the private nurse’s office, try to remember that you aren’t in elementary school anymore. Resist the urge to rifle through the drawers looking for lollipops since you’ll get your treats later.

Easy stuff first! He or she checks your arms for lesions and takes your blood pressure, pulse, and temperature. The worst this gets is squeezey.
Discomfort Level: Anaconda hug from your uncle.

Testing your iron levels is neat. The nurse draws a sample by poking your finger with a spring-loaded needle (read: it will be over instantly) and checks if its a sinker or a swimmer (in a graduated cylinder of copper sulfate) or runs it through a magical machine called a mini photometer. This would be a great time to nerd out.
Discomfort Level: Rifling through a drawer of pushpins

When you pass with flying colours, you move on to the intimate conversation round. Rowr. If you’ve ever spoken to a new fling about the state of your lady bits, this’ll be easy by comparison. The nurse walks you through your medical history. If your memory sucks like mine, pack your planner. The questionnaire covers your history in terms of family, travel, sex and drugs. Oh and whether you’ve ever had a work relationship with a monkey. Do not freak out. Learning about you and your health is important! Certain diseases are hamfistedly screened against to try to protect the recipient. In some cases having a common background may help the transfusion. Plus, if any new issues emerge, they can track the blood from the recipient to the donation and back to you (winwin!). If you still feel uncomfortable, speak up!
Discomfort Level: Comparing your Number with your girlfriend’s Number.

The Donation

The nurse leads you to a chair and narrates every single thing that’s being done. (It’s kind of like being tucked in with a bedtime story. Yeah, think of it like that.) The nurses will see if you have an arm preference then begin the search for Your Best Vein. Once its found, they’ll make a light-hearted joke and proceed to tape and tourniquet your arm. A nurse will swab your inner elbow with sanitizer for what seems like a century.
Discomfort Level: Being licked incessantly by a dog with a cold tongue.

Okay so there are needles. (Did I mention there are needles?) Find your happy place! If you’re afraid, let the nurse know. If you can’t bear to look, turn away. If you feel like running and jumping, resist the urge since you’re attached to a lot of medical doodads. If it’s way too real and you can’t deal with it, that’s okay too.

When the needle goes in, you may get a hit of adrenaline that makes the room wobbly and shit. Do the in-and-out lung thing and lay back. The spinning should stop. The pain should be bearable. If this really isn’t working, let the nurse know that you want off the ride.
Discomfort Level: Variable! Unfortunately I can’t give advice here. If you’ve gotten a body mod before, you can handle it. One friend described it as, “a bee sting without all of the anaphylactic choking fun times.” I think it feels like a cat sharpening its claws on my leg — which I’m okay with since it happens far too often.

So now you have a metal arm accessory. Ask someone to cover the site if you can’t stand the sight. A few samples will be drawn off for testing, then the nurse will leave you alone. Or not. If you need the company and feel like whining, they’ll listen. Would a blanket make you feel more comfortable? Do you want your feet elevated? Do you feel thirsty? Are you bored? The nurses will help you within reason and probably have stories about someone that freaked out way more than you did. (If you’re getting antsy or competitive, wiggle your fingers to increase circulation and speed up the process. Ask for a rubber ball or a glove filled with warm water and massage that shit.)
Discomfort Level: Waiting for a bus that just won’t come when your arms are loaded with groceries (and the bags are cutting into your inner elbows).

Once they’ve drawn your pint you can shed the needles and tubing! You will be told to press a cotton ball on your booboo. Now would not be the time to rebel and show how tough you are since pressure stops your arm from turning purple. After a brief rest, the nurse will apply a band-aid (hopefully with a smiley face) and ask if you’re feeling well enough to stand up and shove your face full of food.
Discomfort Level: Standing up too fast and banging your arm on a table.

It’s juice and cookie time! A volunteer monitors you for about ten minutes and fulfills your need for OJ and sugary pucks of happiness. Munch that shit. If you have a dietary restriction that prevents you from eating Free Cookies, eat the snack you brought instead. If your earlier discomfort hasn’t subsided, let the volunteer know. Otherwise, you’re done!
Discomfort Level: Eating cookies.(Maybe you aren’t into that?)

The Aftermath

So now you’re no longer a blood donor virgin, what should you do?

 

The Feelings and Doubts

If at any point you felt like you shouldn’t be giving blood, you can stop! Whether it’s before you’ve made it to the clinic, when you’re sitting with a nurse or a week later when you’ve come down with a cold, it’s okay to say no! Things happen and memories kick in. You may suddenly feel sick. You may remember that one night stand. You may realize that your tattoo was in fact five months ago, not six. Talk to your organization and tell them you don’t think you should continue and that your blood shouldn’t be used. Don’t feel bad! The operator/receptionist/nurse/doctor will appreciate that you are a responsible human.

At some point along this process, you may be temporarily deferred. You may have any number of feelings when you learn that you aren’t “healthy” enough for the donation. Rejection sucks, and we know how to deal with that right? So start processing.

Being scared or worried is okay. No one likes to learn that they aren’t healthy. This may be a blessing in disguise. Talk to your family doctor and figure out a game plan to become a better you. For all you know, you’ll discover a way to improve your health.

You may be angry or disappointed. It may seem like you just wasted an afternoon, but you know what? Unlike a lot of people, at least you tried. Don’t give up. If you were rejected this time, you can still try again in 56 days.

The Ban?

Unfortunately, your deferral may be permanent. You will feel offended. It’s weird to think you’ll be permanently deferred by being too well travelled. It’s upsetting to think you’ll be permanently deferred because you have had sex with a man who’s had sex with a man after 1977 when you were born in the 90s. It sucks when you’re rejected for something you can’t control.

Be angry. Then channel that energy and refocus — people still need blood. Volunteer your time as another way of giving. Encourage others to donate by organizing a blood drive. Tell others they have the option.

Or make a big change. Groups like Carleton University’s student association are debating the need for political action as well as an individual’s need for blood. Look into petitions that are trying to change unfair laws to accept more donors. That’s how China got to join the club.

For more information on blood donation visit Canadian Blood Services, Héma-Québec or the American Red Cross.


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Hailing from Vancouver, Kristen's still trying to figure out how to survive Montreal's Real Legitimate Canadian Winter. So far she's discovered that warm socks, giant toques and Tabby kittens all play a role in her survival. Her ultimate goal is to rank higher than KStew in the "Kristen + Autostraddle" Google Search competition.

Kristen has written 140 articles for us.

62 Comments

  1. I just started donating blood this year because one of my friends dragged me along, I was impressed! I always end up having fun chats with the nurses and I lurv getting free t-shirts, however I’m bummed that you’re supposed to wait after you get a tattoo. That kept me away for a few years but now I’m looking forward to reaching a gallon!

  2. I don’t find donating blood to be uncomfortable AT ALL besides the hemoglobin finger prick, which is basically like your friend snapping you with a rubber band. The insertion of the needle for the donation itself is basically painless, for me. I really like donating blood, for so many reasons:
    1) The nurses/technicians are usually super nice, and are statistically more queer than the average population.
    2) You get to just lie down and chill and listen to music for ten minutes in the middle of your day.
    3) SO many free snacks and drinks. It’s like recess all over again, trading cranberry juice and pretzels for cheezits with your brand new recovery-table friends.
    4) FREE STUFF. I have the coolest t-shirt ever with a blood type chart on it that says “sorry, you’re just not my type.”
    5) You can just casually mention in conversation that you saved three lives today. WHAT. How often do you get to save three lives? (Answer: every 8 weeks.)

    • Update: all of my dreams just came true. I left this comment, went to go mail something, and in the parking lot was a blood donation van! I just became eligible again after travel, so I was all over that mofo. I will concede that this time the insertion of the needle hurt for a hot second, but it was nothing that a few minutes with my feet up chilling out to some Elton John couldn’t fix. I chatted with the cute Salvadoran nurse about where to get pupusas, enjoyed my free chex mix, and got a cool teal armband that makes me feel like I’m in a special club. Now I’m at home being a couch potato, cause, you know, doctor’s orders.

  3. I have funny little veins and I tried to donate blood a few times. I think it failed 50% of the time–my blood also clots fast so the flow stopped.

    (disclaimer: if you’re really afraid of needles skip over this next part)
    The last time I tried (still in high school) the needle kept turning in my arm and then the flow would stop (valve or something?) and the nurse kept having to turn it back and then move it around and it was terribly, terribly, painful. And then my mom made me stop trying to donate blood.

    But then I sold my plasma a few times when I was extra poor, which isn’t really worth it because even tho I didn’t do it much now I basically have track marks.

  4. I like donating blood! Unfortunately I tend to flirt with anemia, so I don’t get to actually give blood half the time I go. And it’s really annoying (and kind of painful!) to have the pinprick on my finger when I don’t even get to give away any blood. ): But the first time I gave blood, I got a free pass to a local amusement park which was the greatest thing ever.

    But yeah, I find it more relaxing than stressful, and it’s also a great excuse to do nothing the next day if you’re even a little bit tired.

  5. I’m happy to see this because I LOVE donating blood. I’m almost eligible to donate again, and I’m really excited. I don’t know why I like it so much when I’ve actually had some pretty bad experiences (make sure you’re really well hydrated!), but I do.

  6. I’m a trans woman who had a relationship with a man sometime after 1977. I was able to give blood recently while being honest at every step of the process. Passing privilege I guess?

    • I’m trans, and my documentation says “male” and “”, which makes the whole process ridiculously humiliating. The staff doesn’t try to rub it in or anything, understand, but I feel singled out answering the “male” questions, and it really stunk until they learned to quit calling out my legal name to a roomful of people.

      But.

      People need blood. I’m going to hold back to spare my fragile ego some embarrassment? No.

      I’m over 6 gallons now.

    • Some more details, I was on my phone before:

      It’s really pretty easy. (I gave via Red Cross in Vermont.) They take your hemoglobin level. I crammed Raisin Brain into my face the day before. Went with a friend who donated regularly. Funny thing was she got deferred for not enough iron while her two friends successfully gave their first donations.

      Best part is that afterwords you feel slightly loopy. It’s like a legal high! I don’t know why they don’t advertise that as a selling point.

  7. I’m starting to get freaked out by Autostraddle’s magical ability to post articles relevant to their readers’ lives so often and accurately. HOW DO YOU KNOW?

    A few months ago I finally gathered up the guts to go to a blood donation for the first time, but I was turned down because of a recent surgery. Since then I’ve been anxiously waiting/fearing the next ones in my town, I chickened out on the last one but today I just got a text that they’ll be there in two days. I was somewhat thinking about skipping it again, but this has just motivated me to go!

    I’ll make sure to drink plenty of water and eat irony food and re-read this article about a dozen times tomorrow, thanks for all the advice and explanations. Now let’s just hope I won’t freak out and have a panic attack in the middle of it.

  8. Nice graphics! Donating blood has been on my “to do” list for a while – haven’t donated since 2009, my first time. My blood spurted everywhere when they put the needle in and I had to lay there with the smell of bleach in the air.

    Recently I had a customer who was a phlebotomist and she saw my arms and told me I had beautiful veins. Um, thanks?

  9. I really want to give blood, but I pass out pretty easily (ie after ear piercings or drops at eye dr) and don’t think it’s a very good idea. I did try to donate a couple of years ago before I knew how easily I pass out, but I had a teeny tiny fever so the nurse wouldn’t let me (I’m pretty sure it was just because it was super fucking hot out and I was ovulating).

    Anyway, I just can’t bring myself to enter a situation that is almost definitely going to result in me passing out, but I feel really bad about it because people need blood, dammit.

  10. Being a college student, every month or two a van shows up on campus (or else signs appear around the entrance to the ballroom at the student center) letting us know that it is Blood Donation Time for all who are in the mood and eligible. I’ve only done it once so far, but plan to keep doing so.

    Nurses tend to compliment me and my dad on our veins – apparently they are noticeably high on the visible/easy to poke with sharp medical things scale. My dad still has me beat because a nurse once told him “Wow, I bet I could take a blood sample from you with my eyes closed!” Thankfully, that did not actually happen.

  11. I love giving blood, even though I’ve got a bit dizzy after my last few donations. Though that can have unexpectedly positive consequences…

    On my fourth donation, I took my (then very new, never-stayed-over) girlfriend with me. The hospital’s just outside town and we decided to cycle because a) the buses are crap and b) we could always walk our bikes back if we felt woozy. After the donation she felt fine, and I was probably in I’m-butch-I-can-do-anything-I-want-to-impress-you mode, so we cycled the 30mins back into town. We stopped at her house where we were going to say goodbye, but the moment I got off my bike I felt awful and had to lie down on the pavement. I kept trying to stand or sit up but the dizziness wouldn’t go away, so I graduated slowly from lying in her front garden, to lying in her hallway, to lying on her bedroom floor, to lying on her bed. I didn’t feel well enough to leave until the next morning. I really honestly felt really dizzy, you guys! For a long time! I really did.

    So, lesson of the day: no cycling after donating blood. Unless you have an awesome girlfriend who will fuss over you when you fall over. In which case, maybe pack a toothbrush.

  12. i had been to give blood a couple of times before and been turned away because my iron was too low. i therefore forewarned the french nurse of this, but she was no less startled when i whisper-shouted FUCK! after i scored too low once. i take iron deficiency really personally, you guys.

    • SAME. I donated blood just now and when she told me my iron was well over the limit, I said AWESOME! a little too loudly and enthusiastically.

      Things besides upping your iron intake that apparently help you get a better hemoglobin reading: having warm hands and kind of massaging/squeezing them immediately beforehand (which makes you look nervous and weird but, oh well) and being on the less hydrated side (a slightly dangerous game to play, but an MD once off-the-record endorsed waiting until like ten minutes before they’ll prick you for iron, then hydrating a bunch in preparation for and during/after the actual donation).

      • Those are some awesome tips. I tend to have low iron, so whenever I’m donating I take my iron supplement and eat as many lentils and as much kale as my stomach will allow. I will have to remember to rub my hands maniacally every time I test.

        The less hydrated idea is interesting… but then my blood tends to flow like molasses. Really stubborn molasses.

  13. I’ve always wanted to give blood, but I never have! Like some people have already said, I tend to be a bit anemic, so I don’t know if my iron levels would be high enough. :/ But I guess I could try, since lately I’ve been taking an iron supplement. Also I have AB+ blood, which is rareish but I’m not sure if they need it since AB+ peeps can receive any types of blood.

        • I am a bit of a wimp when it comes to any kind of pain, but I am a big supporter of apheresis or ABC donations. I’ve been donating platelets 1X/month for the last couple years, and it is definitely not scary or painful (even though I DO turn my head every time they do the actual insertion).

          I admit, I was anxious the first time, not knowing what to expect… I think I actually watched the machine the entire time. But it was fine, and now I just get tucked in with a blanket and a movie. Actually, I prefer platelets to whole blood because (1) I tend to feel better afterwards – I sometimes feel nauseous after whole blood donation, but never with platelets and (2) the needle they use for apheresis is smaller than the one they use for whole blood….hollaaa

          The only downside is that it takes longer. But if you have the time, I would definitely recommend trying it out. It varies based on height and weight, but for me:
          whole blood: abt 10mins
          plasma: abt 45mins
          platelets: abt 80mins

          Alsoooooooo I love that you posted this!!! My family/friends tend to think I am a crazy person who will eventually sell my kidney in the black market =[ …Soooo it’s great to know people my age care about this (and not just the >50yo crowd I see at my donation center)!

          But I mean really….less than 5% of the [USA] population donates blood! Considering that a huge portion of the LGBT community is not even eligible to donate based on policy, I am kind of frustrated by how little some people seem to care. :/

          To random first time donors – I would recommend going to a donation center where the staff is fulltime and they are pros at painless donations. While I think large blood drives are great for getting immediate blood supplies up, they often send newbie doctors/doctors-in-training to these events. If a first-time donor gets someone who isn’t that great (yet), the bad experience can end up scaring off what might’ve been a potential lifetime donor. >> I had one such experience at a campus drive (multiple sticks, twisting, bruising, etcetc) which put me off for awhile. I decided to give it another try about a year later, and was shocked at how easy it was…THE NEEDLE IS IN??!…BUT IT DIDN’T HURT!!! YOU, LADY, ARE MAGIC!!

          Apparently…. if they know what they’re doing, it shouldn’t hurt at all. That tipped me over from a somewhat reluctant occasional donor to a frequent lifetime donor.

          Yea blood. And things.

          • Oh wow. I’ve always thought of apheresis donors as the hard-core folks. I’ve wondered if I’d do more good giving platelets every month, but I’m kind of scared to (and I use the excuse that I don’t have time).

            Anyway, you rock hard!

  14. I am constantly getting lab work done because thyroid issuez so needles are like meh. BUUUUUT I’m also forever anemic so no blood donating for me. I JUST WANT THOSE WEIRD BANDAGE STICKY THINGS THAT LOOK LIKE A CAST. IS THAT TOO MUCH TO ASK FOR?!

  15. It’s allllll about the cookies.

    People with low iron: try liquid iron! Like Floradix or Vital F (I get it from the natural health food store). I used to get turned down for low iron all the time before I started taking it in liquid form.

  16. I love donating blood. For me it doesn’t hurt much – the finger stick is actually the worst part. My biggest problem is that I always forget how many weeks it’s been since my last donation and since I am on a big college campus there are always blood drives going on so I’ll stand there trying to figure out whether it’s been seven or eight weeks.

    Also, just a heads up to anyone who gets lightheaded: it’s a good idea to ask the nurse to start you off leaned back. Your chances of getting dizzy or passing out go way down. I learned my lesson after my first time donating in the middle of the summer.

  17. First time I ever gave blood (or even had blood drawn for anything) was two years ago in Africa–and now since I travel too much for the Red Cross to want my blood, I make a point of donating wherever I can (although it probably helps that I’m in the hospitals anyway for work).

  18. I’ll admit…I havent given blood. I want to and I feel like I should (i’m an O type, cant remember whether neg or pos though). I just…needles (which should be a problem, since I’ve had plenty blood test and a tattoo). I dont know. I will conquer my fear damn it!!!

    • It would be nice if they could do it without needles. No, wait… that would be creepy, if they just went “poof” and all of a sudden they had your blood.

      Anyway. Heroine time. Visualize your Autostraddle friends there with you, cheering you on!

  19. I used to donate blood frequently but my formerly awesome blood bank switched ownership or whatever and now instead of being able to donate immediately after piercings and tats done in-county and by licensed practitioners you have to wait a YEAR. POOP. I’m hoping to give at least once when I’m eligible again in November before getting tattooed again. Maybe I should look for Red Cross Blood drives in the future, now that I know that their rule on tattooing is much more reasonable. Thank you for the article Kristen!!

  20. Donating blood is so super important. Thank you for writing this article. When I was younger I was in an accident and needed a blood transfusion and I remember being in the hospital and having this moment in which the importance of donating blood became more than just an ad on tv or a presentation from Canadian Blood Services. It was real to me and I’m so thankful to everyone who donates blood because you really are saving lives!

  21. My girlfriend and I donate plasma together every couple of weeks. The blood donor centre we go to (in Australia) is this really lovely community, where you learn all the nurses/regular donors names— we look forward to our ‘blood donation date’ every fortnight!

  22. I’m needle phobic and the first and only time I gave blood I passed the fuck out and they had to send me home in a taxi. But I want to (try to) do it again, especially because I’m AB+ and people need my blood, dammit!

    I managed to read the whole post without chickening out and closing the browser, so I consider that pretty awesome.

    • Awesome! I went through at least three drafts with my needle-phobic roomie. “Does THIS want to make you puke..?” “After reading this, on a scale of 1-10, how close are you to jumping out the window?”

      • I got a little panicky around the halfway point (can’t remember when or why, just that I felt my heart in my throat). I have been through some cognitive behavioral therapy, though – before then I would have shut the browser window as soon as I saw the subject heading!

  23. and my favorite part when the nurse is like “in case you have been lying to me this whole time, I’m gonna turn around and give you some stickers and you can put this little sticker on this box and we’ll take your blood pretending like you weren’t lying about all your travels and sexcapades but we will destroy it immediately”

  24. I really want to donate, but reading this article has made me giddy and the room is still swaying slightly- I guess that’s a no? I reckon I’m probably too underweight/anaemic for it anyway 🙂

  25. I would if I could but I can’t. >:< Cause of the possibility of mad cow disease. I'm banned from giving blood cause I was born in the UK in '92 and lived there until the '00s so I'm not allowed to give blood which is especially annoying because I have O blood so I am able to give to anyone (but only receive from O) but ugh, I can't give blood. Neither can my folks or my siblings. My dad was annoyed that when he went to hospital, they took his blood sooo often, but they couldn't do anything with it. It'd be handy if there was some 'Mad cow disease' blood test formulated so that I could be cleared and then give blood.

  26. I used to donate blood every six months, but I’m too anemic now and it makes me really sick. For someone who generally freaks out at the sight of blood, I do fine when I’m giving blood. But like I said, I get really sick afterward…as in passing out and throwing up.

  27. I must convey my respect for your kind-heartedness supporting men and women that need help on this one subject. Your personal commitment to getting the solution across turned out to be astonishingly valuable and have truly enabled those like me to arrive at their pursuits. Your new warm and friendly guideline denotes a whole lot to me and much more to my office workers. Many thanks; from all of us.

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