I first gave blood in high school, where they had a bunch of high school volunteers whose task it was to hang out with you and chat with you as your precious bodily fluids were being drained. A nice concept, because of course you can use some distraction under these circumstances and chatting with your classmates is as good a way as any to keep your mind off the hole in your arm, but not 100% successful, because they wanted to talk about how cool it was being a volunteer at a blood drive and did you know that the bags of blood are still warm when they take them out to the blood van and isn't it neat?
I continued to occasionally donate blood through high school and college, but after an unpleasant experience after which the track mark or whatever the hell it's called got infected (squeezing puss out of your arm is sort of an interesting experience, but I decided it wasn't one I wasn't in a big hurry to repeat), I decided to give it a rest and let the rest of my fellow heterosexual non-Jamaican people who hadn't been to Africa or eaten British beef or had sex for money, even once, take up the slack for a while.
This lasted until September 11, 2001, on which date there were certain events that some of you may recall. I wasn't under any illusion that there was suddenly a hugely inflated need for blood, nor that I could do much of anything that would make a difference to anything, but I theorized that any sort of organized attempt for Americans to help one another would be a step in the right direction, so I decided it was time to break my moratorium. I called up and made an appointment -- the earliest available being some months later.
I went in and they told me that they thought I would be a good candidate for plasma extraction, which, I figured, you know, they are the experts, so I said fine. How it works is: They hook you up to this big machine, and it sucks out your blood, puts it through a centrifuge, extracts the plasma (so they end up with a bag of foamy yellow liquid), and then puts the red blood cells and whatnot back in your arm, with the plasma replaced by saline solution. This goes in cycles, so first the machine takes out the blood, then it puts the saline/blood mixture back, then it takes out more blood, then it puts more back.
I gather that plasma is particularly useful with burn victims but I'm not really sure what its other benefits are from the blood bank's perspective. From the donor's perspective, the advantages are that you don't give blood as often and you're not supposed to feel busy afterwards, so you can just go home instead of hanging out for twenty minutes eating Fig Newtons and drinking cranberry juice and avoiding eye contact with the other donors and wondering if you're going to pass out. (Although you can do all those things if you want to, but you have the freedom to choose. Isn't that what America's all about?)
So anyway I said OK, and so they strapped me up to the machine, and away I went! If you are not particularly careful you will eventually note that blood is a really dark red, and that one of the ways you can tell when the saline solution is being pumped into you is that the blood in the line turns a very light pink. (Another is that the saline solution is really cold, so it feels really weird getting injected into your arm.) This is good for seconds of entertainment, so bring a book. But it wasn't as disturbing as I thought it would be, and when they were pumping me full of saline the second time I happened to glance over and notice that a little bit of blood was oozing out from around the needle. "Hm," I thought, and the next time a tech happened by I brought this to her attention. She immediately brought the machine to a halt and explained to me that it was good that I caught it when it did, because if the needle had come out -- well, she didn't really explain what would happen in this case, but she made a little hand gesture that seemed to indicate the passage of water from a lawn sprinkler, leaving me with the impression that half the room would have ended up covered with a light spray of my life's blood. I was duly impressed.
This meant that I didn't get all my blood put back into me after all and so I would have to stick around for a while eating cookies and avoiding eye contact &c. &c., but those are the breaks sometimes, and I signed up to do it all again in a few months.
The next time things went a bit smoother, except I wasn't able to give all the blood I was supposed to, because a clot blocked the opening in the needle and it wasn't able to escape my arm the way blood is supposed to. They assured me that they would still find some use for the plasma, even though it wouldn't be injected directly into anyone. I didn't ask. They speculated that I might have been a little dehydrated; I guess if you drink a little water you're just bursting with liquid and your blood just can't wait to leave your body! I made a mental note of this information and vowed to guzzle water like it was something you'd drink like water (but obviously not water itself, or that would just make the analogy ridiculous) before future trips to the blood bank.
The third time went fine (and after it they gave me a coffee mug), and yesterday was the fourth time and also went fine, except today I've been very thirsty and headachy. After yesterday's donation I went out and got a nice steak, so maybe the lesson is that you shouldn't eat really big meals after losing a lot of blood, although at the time I figured, hey, replenishing my iron stores! Can't be bad, right? This is maybe why you should not take medical advice from me.
This livejournal entry peters out right about here, I think.