What to *really* expect when you give blood

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Yesterday, I gave blood for the first time [HOLDS FOR APPLAUSE]. As the first person in history to do this selfless deed, I decided to write a less clinical guide to what you can expect, as there are things the blood transfusion services won’t tell you.

Sorry, that’s needlessly sinister. They’re lovely, really, and it’s such an easy process. But yeah, there are a few things you need to keep in mind before you head to a clinic.

  • Thoroughly go over the disqualifying criteria before you make the trek. There’s so much that will rule you out, in Ireland at least. Look through this FAQ and check the rules for any of your ailments. Gotten a piercing or tattoo less than 120 days ago? Sorry. Had an abortion or given birth less than 12 months ago? Off with ya. Male-on-male sex with or without a condom in the past year rules you out, but a woman having had sex with a man who has slept with men in the past year is a no-go zone. Did Carrie Bradshaw write that rule? At least they lifted the lifetime ban. Travel’s a big one, too. Yesterday one person was sent home because they had been in Greece, where there was a malaria outbreak in 2017. You can check each country’s travel risk here. Funnily enough, I think Irish people can’t donate in the US because of mad cow disease! Furthermore, I was ruled out for years because I was underweight, but I’ve finally closed the thigh gap. I will not delete this pun, why don’t YOU delete your Anyway, here’s the form I filled out.
  • To avoid fainting, eating salty food the night before is a good idea. They also advise avoiding hot showers or baths and alcohol afterwards. Our university blood drive was held during the liver-destroying RAG week, which doesn’t bode well for the latter clause.
  • If you lose your nerve, you can leave any time before donating. Just tell one of the officials or nurses. I’m not sure what happens if you start having a panic attack after they insert the needle, though. Ask them about that…
  • Wear loose-sleeved clothing! Stupidly, I wore a long-sleeved shirt that was loose around the upper arm, but tapered in at the wrist without me realising. I ended up pulling my arm out from underneath the shirt and protecting my modesty with my cardigan wrapped around me like a blanket.
  • You need to spare a lot of time. I went in at two and I didn’t leave until around quarter to five, and there wasn’t a huge amount of people there or anything. If there’s a blood drive at your university, don’t expect to be in and out in the hour between lectures.
  • There’s loads of waiting, and you can’t really listen to music because they call out your name. The Wi-Fi will probably be kind of shitty as well because there will be dozens of other bored people there sucking on it. So bring a book or something.
  • They recommend drinking 500ml/two cups of water and eating something substantial in the three hours before donating. They’ll have loads of food and drink there, so you don’t need to bring anything, but it won’t be health shop fare if that’s your thing. My clinic had Nature Valley and Nutrigrain bars, biscuits, Taytos, still water and fizzy drinks.
  • When you donate for the first time, you’ll speak to a nurse. They will ask you all the questions you’ve already answered on the questionnaire, but more in-depth and really quickly, so make sure you don’t accidentally admit to being a heroin addict. I indicated I had fainted in the past, even though it hasn’t happened since I was a child, and they really grilled me about that. Then they’ll jab your finger to test your haemoglobin levels. It feels like a sharp pinch for half a second, nothing painful. Then, more waiting!
  • Finally, the time comes to drain you of your precious fluids! First things first, you lie back on a comfortable stretcher-like bed thing. They give you a stress ball (which, to be honest, was a bit too hard for me to squeeze without stress), get you to stick your arm out palm-up and put that tight inflatable cuff thing around your upper arm. They wipe your inner arm with alcohol (so bear that in mind if you have sensitive skin or eczema) and chat to you for a few minutes while you squeeze your ball or your arse cheeks (no really, they recommend trying that in the booklet they make you read).
  • Then, the scary part: inserting the needle into your vein. It hurts a liittle, but only very briefly. The actual blood transfer doesn’t hurt at all. I was just lying there, watching my blood flow down a tube, happy as Larry. They take about a pint of blood – the human body contains eight to ten pints, so not much at all. The time it takes varies from person to person, anywhere from 3-15 minutes. I think it took about 10 for me, but I wasn’t counting. Like I said, I could see your blood flowing into the tube, but not into the bag.
  • Once they remove the needle, they stick a really big plaster on the puncture wound and have you apply pressure on it for a few minutes with your other hand. They get you to stand up slowly, bring you over to another bed and have you wait around for 10-15 minutes in case of adverse effects. There’ll be drinks, chocolate, crisps and biscuits that you can take if you want. I spent my time Googling and came across an article that claimed that your body burns 600 calories replenishing a pint of blood, so go crazy. Then you can go home, taking all the chocolate, pens and trolley keys you want with you. I felt more energised than ever, for some reason, and had no issues with fainting or dizziness. I was practically bouncing out of there, which is probably a sign of delirium, but hey, free pen!

There can be soreness and bruising in the following days, but you’ll know this in advance because they really drill it into you. If you become ill in the following fortnight, you ring the helpline and… they help you, I guess? I can’t really say because I feel fine, if maybe slightly colder. Here’s my ‘wound’ 24 hours later:

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My arm is kind of purple, I realise, but that’s just my normal colour. A little bit of bleeding, but no bruising. The plaster’s all crinkled because I slept with my arm crooked, and in spite of that it’s not sore at all. I think the plaster itself is the most uncomfortable thing because there’s a big wedge of cotton on it, but I’m leaving it on for another day or two just in case.

I hope you’re a bit more reassured about the process, now! It’s scary in theory but it’s really easy. The number of blood donations keeps dropping and dropping, so donate when you can.

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