Twenty Gallons and Counting

I started donating blood in 1979 as a student at George Mason University. I was walking by the student union building and saw a Red Cross bloodmobile. I had a few hours before my next class so I decided to roll up my sleeve and do some good for someone I’ll never meet. I wasn’t afraid of needles, found that giving a pint of blood didn’t make me overly dizzy or tired, and I liked the karma bump.

In the 31 years since I’ve donated blood, or plasma, or platelets, pretty consistently. I’ve had some good experiences and met some fun people.

  • In about 1982 I was at Dulles Airport and my flight was delayed. I saw that there was a bloodmobile at the fire station next door and I decided to fill the time by giving a pint. It went well with one small exception. It was a cold day with the temperature in the low 20s. They had moved the fire trucks out of the station and moved the gurneys in; unfortunately when the fire alarm goes off, it automatically raises the garage doors. We were there, lying on the gurneys, needles in our arms, when the doors opened and the cold air blasted in. Amazing how fast blood stops flowing when it’s that cold; also amazing that nobody there knew how to close the garage doors. It was a frigid 5 minutes or so.
  • When I lived in Boston there was a bloodmobile at the Boston Children’s Museum. In an interesting twist, they had a unique giveaway. If you gave a pint of blood you got a free pass to visit the museum, but you also got a coupon for a free pint of ice cream at any Brigham’s Ice Cream Store. It was called “Give a pint, get a pint.” I did.
  • As a seminarian I gave blood at a bloodmobile at the Washington Theological Union. The Red Cross folk knew we were all studying to be Catholic priests, and the questions they had to ask about our sexual histories were hilarious for us and deeply embarrassing for them the ask. I loved every minute of it.
  • In my brief time at St. Patrick’s Church in Memphis, Tennessee in 1994 I connected with St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital. When they found out I would be a regular donor they suggested that I switch from donating whole blood to donating platelets. It was more invasive in that (at the time) they needed to put needles in both arms. The blood was drawn out of one arm, the platelets were spun out, and the blood was replaced in the other. It took two hours and they would set me up with a movie in the VCR. The technology is much improved now; they can draw and return the blood with the same needle and it takes less than an hour. I donated platelets until 2006 when my veins made it harder for the return cycle. I’m now back to donating whole blood. I guess all the donations have built up so much scar tissue on my veins that they aren’t as sturdy as they used to be.

From 1979 to 1995 I donated blood in several different locations for several different organizations. I have no idea how much blood I gave during that time. In 1995 I moved to San Diego and connected with the San Diego Blood Bank. As of this past Tuesday, I have now given them 20 gallons of blood. That’s almost an entire gas tank for a large SUV. Pretty amazing.

As I look back, I feel very, very blessed. I know many people who would be happy to give, but can’t (Nancy included). I’m grateful that I can. I’ve never known where my blood has gone and that has been a gift in itself. It’s given me the opportunity to imagine that I’ve saved lives.

The medieval Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonmides (1120-1190) wrote about what he calls the “ladder of tzedakah.” Tzedakah is often translated as “charity” but is probably better understood as “justice.” The lowest form of tzedakah is to give unwillingly (e.g. being guilted into it). The 2nd highest form is to give anonymously to an unknown recepient and the highest form is to give to someone before he is in need of it. I like to think of blood donations as the 2nd highest form. Over the years I’ve given to people I’ll never meet who will never be able to repay me. I like that.

There are many who can give blood who don’t. If you are one of those, give some thought to sharing in the joy I have experienced in the last 31 years and (more than) 20 gallons.

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