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Blood Donation 101: A crash course in donating blood and why you shouldn’t be afraid

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Blood donation, as a process, is not scary. However, in the telling and retelling of stories of fainting and getting sick, it has cultivated a reputation for itself as a terrifying thing — it’s not. 

So, let’s break it down. 

There are two main methods of blood donation. 

The first is apheresis. Apheresis is a process in which you are hooked up to a machine that can separate your blood into its individual components — red blood cells, platelets, and plasma. Depending on the type of donation, the machine will extract one of these components and return the remaining ones into your bloodstream. This whole process, from start to finish, takes about two hours. But, on the bright side, you get most of your blood back, right then and there, and the rest just takes a couple of days to regenerate. 

The second type of blood donation is the one you’re probably familiar with — whole blood donation. This process, significantly shorter and far more common than apheresis, has you donate a pint of your blood. Whole blood donors can donate again in 56 days, as it takes a little longer to replenish itself.

Bloodworks Northwest is the largest blood donation organization in the Pacific Northwest, providing lifesaving blood to over 90 hospitals in the area. From collection to distribution, they see the process through. 

“Well over 95% of the blood transfused in the Pacific Northwest comes from Bloodworks and Bloodworks donors,” Vicki Finson, Bloodworks’s executive vice president for blood services, said.

So, that’s what blood donation is and who, for the most part, oversees it. Now, let’s talk about how it works, starting with the big question: who can donate? 

In the state of Washington, someone who is in good health, is over the age of 18 (over 16 with parental consent), and who weighs at least 110 pounds may be eligible to donate blood

“Good health” is a vague term and is determined by a questionnaire that a donor fills out upon arriving at a center. 

“This questionnaire does two things,” Finson said. “One, it makes sure it’s safe for the donor to donate blood, and two, it makes sure that your blood will be safe for someone else to receive.”

There are some misconceptions about who can or cannot donate blood. A big one is that those who have diabetes cannot donate. This is actually false. As long as your diabetes is stable and under control, you are allowed to donate. 

The biggest barrier to blood donation is travel restrictions. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has laid out specific guidelines for waiting periods to donate blood for those who have recently travelled to countries with a high malaria risk. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published an online document, known as “The Yellow Book,” that outlines malaria risk by country. 

Up until July 2019, China was on this list. The lifting of the ban on blood donation from those who travel to China is monumental for blood donation centers across the United States, but particularly for ones in the greater Seattle area. 

The UW has a large population of Chinese students who, thus far, have been ineligible to donate blood. 

Wesley Tanoto is working with Bloodworks to recruit students across campus and raise awareness of this change. 

“At the UW alone, we have almost 4,000 Chinese students from mainland China,” Tanoto said. This creates a massive new pool of eligible donors.

Let’s look at the next big thing to address: what exactly happens when you donate blood?

For a typical donation (that doesn’t involve apheresis), the whole process can take less than an hour, with the blood collection itself taking less than 10 minutes. 

When you first enter the donation center, you will be asked to fill out a questionnaire to ensure that you are healthy and eligible to donate. After this, a nurse will check your temperature, pulse, and hemoglobin levels. 

Next comes the blood collection. This process is extremely quick, taking between eight and 10 minutes. Once you’re done, the phlebotomist will keep you around for a couple minutes, providing you with some light refreshments (usually juice and sometimes cookies) to help you rehydrate and get some energy back. 

If you’re a UW student, you’ve probably seen signs for the Bloodworks truck around campus. Usually parked outside of By George or the HUB, Bloodworks has a truck on campus somewhere almost every day of the week. 

According to Tanoto, these trucks are doing a massive amount of good for the organization. In 2018 alone, from the trucks on campus, Bloodworks successfully collected 3,264 units of blood. 

Before you go donate blood, make sure you’re hydrated and have eaten something. It’s better to have avoided caffeinated and alcoholic beverages. Drink lots of water, both before and after donation. 

The process itself is not scary. 

In a study done by Bloodworks, researchers found the number one excuse for avoiding blood donation to be a fear of needles. While this is a phobia that affects nearly 10% of the population, it is not an insurmountable issue. 

“The needles that we use are vastly superior to what we once used; you barely feel it,” John Yeager, a senior media content strategist with Bloodworks, said. 

For most people, any uneasiness can be combated by simply looking away before the phlebotomist pulls out the needle. In almost every case, if you tell them beforehand that you don’t want to see any needles or blood, they are more than happy to comply. You can always take a friend with you to talk to you for those eight minutes and keep you distracted, while some blood donation centers give you look-and-find books to keep you occupied while your blood is being collected.

At the end of the day, the process is merely a pinch and a couple minutes of discomfort, but its impact is astronomical. 

“For every pint of blood that you donate, it has the impact and potential to save up to three lives,” Yeager said.

Every two seconds in the United States, someone needs blood. 

You can help. 

Reach reporter Ash Shah at Twitter: @itsashshah

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