Polly Campbell: Donating blood is easy way to share a miracle

Blood is one of the most potent words in the language. We refer to it to talk about family and temperament, about race, about violence and war and disease. 

But the strongest metaphor is not really a metaphor at all. Blood is life. 

Polly Campbell
Polly Campbell

This was impressed on me memorably years ago, when my children were little. They came with me to a doctor’s appointment during which some of my blood was taken for testing. The nurse or phlebotomist who had taken it showed the sealed vial to my wide-eyed girls. 

“Look how beautiful it is,” she said. “How deep and rich the red is.” She let them touch the vial to feel the warmth. “That’s the stuff that circulates in your veins and keeps you alive,” she told them. She said she wanted people to think of blood as not just scary, but as a miraculous, vital part of our body. 

I think that moment she took to show them that vial is a reason I’m a regular blood donor. 

Outside the body, blood is a bright red warning sign. Inside the body, it circulates and warms the body, it heals and regenerates. Its pulse, along with breath, is the presence of life. 

To share your blood with another person is a deeply meaningful act. That your own blood can be transferred to another body to keep that other body alive or healthy is amazing, and the fact that people do it willingly, for other people they don’t even know, well, I find that quite moving. It invisibly binds us together in community. 

I figure giving blood has the most favorable ratio of effort to effect of any normal do-gooding activity. A tiny bit of pain and some effort from the donor means a huge benefit to the receiver. With an hour and some free cookies, you could save someone’s life. That’s a lot easier than running into a burning building or diving into the flood waters. 

When I was busy working and raising a family I didn’t do a lot to offer help to my fellow human beings. Donating blood on a fairly regular basis seemed, literally, the least I could do. It’s been my baseline of altruism. I can’t say I’ve ever exactly looked forward to it, but it’s just not that hard. The worst thing is one prick as the needle goes in. Then you just lie there and chat with the nice people who work at any Hoxworth Blood Center

I wish more people donated. Hoxworth, Greater Cincinnati’s blood bank, always needs more donors, and particularly a more diverse bunch, including more young people and more minorities.

Fear of the needle is what keeps people from donating. I was surprised at how few people donate. First, only 30% of the population is actually eligible, what with the restrictions they use to keep the supply safe. But of the 30% that could, only 10% do. 

Most of them are from my demographic: Baby Boomers. But we’re aging and more likely to have restrictions on our blood, with more time to develop health problems and to need medications on the do-not-donate list. 

It’s time for younger people to step up. Enticing them is the big topic among blood banks across the country, Jackie Marschall, public information officer for Hoxworth, told me. So there are more rewards and premiums and incentives than there used to be. 

Also, they’d like more minorities to donate. And that’s an interesting story. 

At the beginning of blood banking in the 1940’s (a system developed by Charles Drew, a Black man), blood was often separated by race, or – in the case of the U.S. military during World War II – simply not accepted from Black donors. Everyone knew there was no scientific reason for this, they were just pandering to some white people’s racist reluctance to get “black blood.” (Drew, the nation’s top expert on blood banking, resigned as head of the National Blood Bank because of the military’s decision.) 

Black and white people can of course exchange blood, if their types match. But beyond the well-known ABO typing system, there are hundreds of blood types based on the presence of different antigens, some very rare, like U negative or Duffy negative. These are heritable, so are associated with racial or ethnic groups. 

Some patients, especially those who get repeated infusions, need to receive an exactly matched blood type, down to these rare variations. Kids with sickle cell anemia, who are most likely Black, and who often get many transfusions over their lifetime, need particular blood types that are most likely found in Black donors. 

More recently, there’s been controversy about not accepting blood from gay men, a restriction put in place by the FDA during the AIDS epidemic. Many people feel the screening questionnaire should be reworded to more accurately screen for behavior related to HIV transmission. Hoxworth advocates for new screening criteria, based on what’s used in Canada and England. You can sign a petition to the FDA at a donation center. 

Maybe donating should be its own reward. But last time I gave, I got a $50 gift certificate to Lowe’s, which I used to buy begonias for my hanging baskets. I told the cashier how I’d gotten the gift certificate, and she said her grandmother had gotten two blood transfusions the week before. 

Who knows, maybe she got some component of mine. 

Beautiful all around.

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