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Image / Editorial

A beginner’s guide to giving blood (and why it’s a lot trickier than you think)

by Geraldine Carton
30th Oct 2018

This week Geraldine Carton tried (and failed) to do something that she’s been meaning to do for ages: give blood. Here’s what happened when a righteous idea went unexpectedly wrong.

How many times have you uttered this phrase:

“Give blood? Oh yeah, I’ve been meaning to do that for ages!”

If your answer is somewhere between “one” and “a zillion” times, then same here.

Excuses excuses

Giving blood is one of those things that we all know we should do; the intention is often there, but then we get a tattoo (there’s a four-month ban after getting a tattoo); we go on holidays to the Bahamas (there’s a three month ban upon returning from tropical areas); we have a particularly heavy night out (sorry but nobody wants your stinking, boozy blood after a night out), and then before you know it, another year has passed without an ounce of your blood going to someone who desperately needs it.

Last week, I decided enough was enough. After nine years of excuse-making (nine years because we’re only eligible to give blood from age 18), I finally booked myself in to give blood.

Not so straightforward

First things first, giving blood is not as straightforward as it may seem; there are a vast amount of factors that need to be checked before you go pumping your “life juice” out into the ether. For starters, people who weigh under 7 stone 12 lbs (50kgs) can’t give blood, and neither can those who weigh over 20 stone 6 lbs (130kgs). You can also forget about giving blood if you’ve been injured or sick within two weeks before your appointment. 

With this in mind, going through the eligibility checklist on is daunting, to say the least. When I take on the task, it feels like hours until I make it to the last question. Nonetheless, I eventually deem myself eligible and make an appointment for the following day.

Sugar high

All anyone says to me when I tell them I’m going to be giving blood is “Eat loads before you go!”, whilst others elaborate further on this point: “YOU LITERALLY HAVE TO EAT AS MUCH SUGAR AS YOU CAN BEFORE, OR ELSE YOU’LL FAINT”.

I definitely don’t want to faint, so after lunch, I duly wolf down two chocolate bars alongside a big mug of coffee. With that, I bound off to my first ever blood donation appointment in a state of blissful, sugary, caffeinated ignorance.

A strong snack game

Upon arriving at the clinic, two details catch my attention.

Firstly, the clinic’s snack game is strong – very strong. Laid out around the waiting area are bowls of crisps, bananas and chocolate treats; plates of cheese and crackers, and a fridge full of sugary drinks. It feels like I’ve stepped into a dentist’s nightmare.

The second thing I notice is the presence of posters and pamphlets all over the place reminding donors to EAT BEFORE AND AFTER THE PROCEDURE, AS IT WILL REDUCE YOUR CHANCES OF FAINTING”. I take a quick scan around the waiting room and balk at my fellow donors eating and drinking like their life depends on it. I’m already feeling a bit woozy from my inhalation of those chocolate bars, but being a sucker for peer pressure, I follow suit. Two bananas later, and I am brought into the consultation room. I don’t even like bananas and feel more ill with every passing moment, but the nurse (let’s call him Bruce) is too busy launching into the Blood Donor Questionnaire to notice my spaced-out facial expression.

The questionnaire is carried out at lightning speed and then is followed by a quick check of haemoglobin and iron levels. This requires a little blood extraction, and when I roll up my sleeves, Bruce frowns. He comments that my veins look “…non-existent”.

“You didn’t have any teas or coffees before this, did you??” he demands, as I look back at him like an over-caffeinated, jacked-up deer in headlights. “Don’t you know those drinks are diuretics, and they make your veins smaller?!” he practically wails, before sighing and tapping the crook of my left arm, then my right arm, and then back to my left arm again (a bit less gently this time), until he finally finds a probe-worthy vein.

Bottom of the “normal” scale

After putting a little valve of my blood into a machine, a result comes through that makes Bruce frown even more (if that was possible). My iron levels are at the “very bottom of the normal scale”, and although I’m not anaemic per se, Bruce tells me that doing a blood donation today would leave me anaemic, which isn’t good. He’s saying that I’m no longer eligible to give blood. That my consumption of those horrible bananas was for nothing. 

Bruce tells me to come back after a few months of increasing iron-rich foods in my diet. “Absolutely!” I say cheerfully, but exit with an ever-so-slight slam of the door behind me. I’m furious at myself for being such an idiot, thinking back on all those crummy chocolate bars and bananas I consumed, when what I really needed was steak, Guinness and some spinach (down the hatchet – Pop Eye style).

I was a fool, and the fact that I knew I’d have to write about the whole experience here, only made the situation all the more humiliating.

Learn from my mistakes

Giving blood is so important, especially now that we’re coming up to the winter months when blood levels can dwindle. Let my experience be an example of what not to do. If you decide to take the plunge (and I hope you do – it’s such a good thing to do), be sure to prepare accordingly; don’t drink coffee beforehand, and definitely, do increase your consumption of iron for a couple of days in the run-up. The last thing you want is to walk out of that clinic with a bruised ego as well as a bruised arm, like I did.

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