a special kind of donation

As I left the office this afternoon I said to my colleagues, ‘I’ll be in a bit later tomorrow, I have an interview with a vampire.’ At which they all laughed, because they know this means I’m off to my regular appointment at the NZ Blood Service centre, over by the hospital.


I’ve been donating for a few years now. For a while I gave whole blood (plasma, platelets, red blood cells, the whole lot) but for whatever reason this used to see me getting a bit anaemic & I could only donate 3 times a year max. So I discussed my options with the Blood Service staff & the upshot was that I changed to being a plasma donor (the process involved is called plasmapheresis), & make a donation every 2-3 weeks.

So what does plasmapheresis involve? Well, tomorrow  I’ll get up early (as usual), walk the dog etc, & have a good breakfast (very important to do this before donating). Then, when I arrive at the Blood Service, the first thing I’ll be asked to do is present my donor card (I’m O+) and confirm my name & date of birth. (This is done 3 times in the visit, to make sure they’re dealing with the right person throughout.) Then I complete a form providing a range of details about my health status & hand it in at the desk. Soon after that one of the staff will invite me into an office, where my haemoglobin levels are checked using a drop of blood from a thumb-prick, my blood pressure is taken (& my weight0, & the details I’ve provided are verified & discussed. Then – if all’s well – it’s on to the donation room.

There, the phlebotomist will check my details again & I’ll hop up onto a nice comfy reclining bed/chaiir thing. (They have wireless at the Hamilton centre so I’ll be able to read my favourite blogs while I’m there!) To one side of the bed is the plasmapheresis machine & on the other (usually) is a locker with magazines & a space where the staff place a drink of one’s choice & also cookies 🙂 One arm goes up on a pillow on an arm rest & an inflatable cuff goes round the upper arm; I’ll be asked to repeatedly clench that fist on a rubber ball while the cuff is inflated & that will bring up the veins. (Mine are pretty pathetic really & in fact only the right arm is suitable for sticking needles in.) The phlebotomist will wipe down the crook of my elbow with antiseptic wipes, check once more that I am the right ‘me’, & slide a catheter needle into my vein. This causes a brief moment of discomfort (ouchy ouch ouch, during which I wriggle my toes & look away!) – but I figure that the people who’ll be getting my plasma are almost certainly enduring far worse, & the moment’s quickly past.

Next they’ll take 3-4 vials of blood for testing (to make sure that my blood chemistry is OK & there’s nothing going on that shouldn’t be), before plugging in the tubes connecting me to the plasmapheresis unit. This is a complex-looking machine that will quietly hum away for the next 40 minutes or so as it draws off around 700ml of plasma. The system that’s used is ‘discontinuous flow centrifugation’, where the machine goes through a number of cycles of drawing off around 450ml of whole blood & then spinning that in a centrifuge to separate the plasma from everything else. It’s rather neat watching that happening & seeing the yellow plasma trickle down into the collection bag. Once the 450ml (or thereabouts) of whole blood’s been drawn, the centrifuge stops, the arm cuff deflates, & the cellular components of my blood (plus platelets etc) are returned to my body through the catheter tube with enough plasma to keep it fluid. An anticoagulant’s added to the blood to ensure there’s no clotting (which would otherwise be quite likely) – this can make your lips tingle during the first return cycle 🙂 Then the cycle repeats (4 times, in my case) until they’ve drawn off the volume of plasma that’s allowed for someone my age & weight.

At which point the machine beeps shrilly, and the phlebotomist comes back, checks everything’s completed, removes the catheter & tubing (this doesn’t hurt), & puts on a nice technicolour fluorescent pressure bandage. And I’ll hop up, collect my bits & pieces & perhaps a toffee or two, & make an appointment to come in again in a couple of weeks.

So – blood donation’s easy – and it’s an an easy way to help other people. I used to worry at times that I don’t do enough in the way of community involvement, volunteering, that sort of thing. And then my husband sat down with me & said, ‘Look. Every couple of weeks you give up time to do something that is almost certainly saving a life. So get over it – you’re doing good.’

And that gave me a warm fuzzy. So if you’ve ever thought about donating blood, make an appointment at your local Blood Service centre, & go along to find out if you’ll be suitable as a donor. It’s an easy way to make a difference in someone else’s life.

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3 thoughts on “a special kind of donation”

  • I understand the necessity behind the very long and conservative deferral periods on homosexual men giving blood, but I often think it’s shame. I’m O- and in a high risk group.
    I’m glad that a lot of people I know do give blood though. I understand we have a shortage.

  • Alison Campbell says:

    Yes, there is a nationwide shortage, especially in the rarer blood groups – although from time to time they even run short of O+… Probably the main reason I wrote this post was to get some people thinking about the possibility of donating. It really isn’t a big deal for the donor (I got a purple bandage today!!) but makes a huge difference for those receiving the stuff.

  • You are a very good person Alison. I cannot donate blood due to a health condition, however I have enormous respect for people like you that make time in their busy day to help others.

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