I’m against the ban on gay men giving blood, but I am very pro giving blood – if you’ve ever known someone who’s needed it, it’s likely you are too. I can’t tell you it might be morally right to lie about your sexual history if you know you’re healthy. But I CAN tell you all about what it’s like to give blood.
I have now given 10 pints of my blood away. I know this because they give you a badge when you reach 10. And a certificate. That’s enough to fill up a whole other one and a half people.
First off, make an appointment. You can just walk into most blood donation sessions, but if you do you’re likely to be waiting a while as people with appointments get to go first. So make one and save yourself the hanging around.
Once you get there you need to check in, and you’re given a questionnaire to fill in. This asks about things like whether you’ve had any piercings or tattoos recently (you can’t give blood for 12 months afterwards), as well as your travel and sexual history (in broad terms; they’re not asking if you’ve ever done it doggy style in Caracas).
You take the questionnaire into a small booth where a donor carer goes through it with you, asks questions about anything that look odd, and checks you’ve had a chance to read the patient care information and understand it.
A quick note here – you are going to hear some questions several times. Everyone you meet will ask you to confirm your name, address and date of birth. You will be asked at least 3 times if you’ve read the patient care leaflets, and even if you have several visible plasters on already they’ll check you’re not allergic before giving you another one. This used to drive me batty until I figured - duh! - they’ve just built in lots of checks to look after people and make sure the blood is correctly labelled. And then I chilled the k out.
As well as the questionnaire, there is a small blood prick test to check you have enough iron in your blood to give some away. This sounds like it should be painful but it’s not – they use a special device to prick your finger, use a pipette to take a drop of blood an then drop it into a tube of blue liquid. If the blood sinks, you move on to the waiting area. If it floats, you’re going home with some dietary information and advice to eat more iron.
Over the relatively short time I’ve been giving blood several improvements have been made to the system, and there’s at least a slight tweak every time. You’re now encouraged to drink water while you wait, to eat beforehand, and to do some simple exercises while you’re giving blood. Considering that some of my first donations could have gone better, I can say these definitely make the whole thing easier.
Of course, the bit that worries people is the bit where they put the needle into your arm. I you’re phobic I can’t really reassure you here, but if you’re like me and just a bit squeamish I can tell you this – it's usually fine, the nurses there spend all day doing just this, so they are much more likely to get it right than your doctor (I’ve had them roll their eyes when I said blood tests at my doctors are always horrific - “oh they would be, doctors are TERRIBLE at taking blood. Now you’re going to feel a sharp scratch... there, done.”)
There are horror stories. Well, I say horror – discomfort is more like it. I always get blood taken from my right arm now, as the veins in my left arm are apparently hiding bastards who ended up bruised or slipping away from the needle.
And once it’s in the blood goes into a bag designed to hold just under a pint. It also sits on special scales that weigh the blood going in and set off a beeper when it’s almost full. I am telling you this to reassure you that even if the nurses forgot about you and wandered off (unlikely – I’ve never met one who wasn’t lovely and chatty), you wouldn’t end up with all your blood draining out.
And once you’re done and they put a plaster over it (plus a little tube to stop bruising), you get a free cup of tea or glass of squash and as many biscuits and crisps as you want. And if that’s not incentive togive then what is? The moral high ground and ‘be nice to me, I gave blood today’ stickers!