Seconds after I settled into the contoured recliner, there was the whir of an electric motor and the chair changed position, leaning me back so I was staring directly at the ceiling and into the face of a tall, dark-haired nurse named Elizabeth Almengor.
Calmly, she was going to stick a needle into one of the veins in my left arm (she left the choice--left or right--up to me) and separate a pint of blood from my custody. This has happened so frequently during the last decade that I have come to perceive lying back to bleed as just another part of my life style. Easy to Stick Almengor, who works in the blood donor center at Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena, had stuck me before, and I knew her technique. From what might be called the "consumer" point of view, the most important part of the interaction between a blood donor and the person taking the blood occurs in that split second when the needle is slipped into the vein.
It can either sting slightly, be totally painless or something in between. Some people with very small veins have more of a problem in this regard, but I'm blessed by being pretty easy to stick. The first time I ever gave blood, in Chicago 10 years ago, a nurse took one look at my arm, which features large diameter veins quite close to the skin, and exclaimed, "Gee, you could have been a great junkie!" It sounds a bit strange now, but it was funny at the time.
After that first split second, there's very little to blood donation, except at the end when, experienced bleeders will tell you, there are tricks to avoid being left with a black-and-blue mark where the needle was slipped into the vein, and everyone has to learn his or her own body characteristics and know, from experience, how long to simply lie back before trying to get up.
To avoid the black-and-blue mark, those who have been frequently drained learn early to apply as much pressure as possible to the tiny puncture on the arm just after the needle is withdrawn. If this is done right, a blood donor can escape shedding even a little drop of blood from the small wound.
Almengor is highly competent as a sticker, and the little puncture was scarcely noticeable. I'd called up Huntington one day last week after I read and heard appeals from local blood banking officials for donors to help relieve what many of them agree has been the worst winter blood shortage since the late 1970s.
Most Common Type My blood type is O-positive, which, because it runs in the veins of 45% of all human beings, is the most common there is. It also means O-positive is the most in demand since, among blood specialists, it's known as the "universal donor," or the one type that can be given with the greatest safety to anyone in an emergency.
Earlier, while I was having my blood pressure checked, Almengor had come into the little examination room at Huntington and looked over the shoulder of a nurse who was handling the exam. "O-positive who hasn't taken aspirin?" Almengor mused. "Bring him on." Since aspirin compromises the blood's ability to clot, taking aspirin is one of the many disqualifications for blood donation.
I've been in Huntington's regular donor file since a bit less than a year ago when another Times reporter and I went out to give blood for a friend's heart surgery. As it turned out, the friend didn't need what we gave and our blood went to other patients. As a regular donor, I'm one of what the American Red Cross says is less than 10% of the population.
While a little more than half of all Americans have given blood at least once, according to a Louis Harris poll the Red Cross commissioned in 1981, most blood givers apparently don't return after their initial donation. And that's too bad, because donating blood is something that can be accomplished easily by even the squeamish.
I switched to Huntington as a matter of convenience after a few years on the regular donor registry with the local Red Cross chapter.
The Red Cross doesn't have a blood monopoly, although it is unquestionably the biggest game in town. Nevertheless, 24 hospitals in the Los Angeles-Orange County area have blood donor centers, making it geographically easy for anyone who's inclined to give to do so without having to travel very far from home.
(According to the Red Cross, the hospital blood donor centers are at St. Mary's Medical Center in Long Beach; Brotman Medical Center, Culver City; Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Los Angeles; Childrens Hospital of Los Angeles; City of Hope National Medical Center, Duarte; Daniel Freeman Hospital, Inglewood; Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, Torrance; Good Samaritan Hospital, Los Angeles; Hoag Memorial Hospital, Newport Beach; Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center; Humana West Hills Hospital, Los Angeles; Huntington; the Kaiser Foundation Imperial and Sunset medical centers, Los Angeles; Martin Luther King Jr. General Hospital, Compton; County-USC Medical Center, Los Angeles; Memorial Hospital of Long Beach; Northridge Hospital; San Pedro Peninsula Hospital; St. John's Medical Center, Santa Monica; St. Vincent Medical Center, Los Angeles; Torrance Memorial Hospital; UC Irvine Medical Center, Orange, and UCLA Medical Center, Westwood.)
Potential Catastrophe On this particular day, Huntington had a real problem--one that underscores why it's important that more people not only give blood, but do so regularly. The hospital prefers to have at least 120 units of blood on hand, of which 45 or 50 should be O-positive. But on the day I gave, the hospital was down to only 20 O-positives--in other words, a potentially catastrophic situation.
With only 20 units of this particular type of blood, the entire stock of the blood bank could have been easily wiped out by the arrival of a single traffic crash injury case or gunshot wound victim. With the Red Cross also dangerously low, Huntington would probably not have been able to get any additional O-positive and doctors and the patients would face an agonizing choice: The hospital would exhaust its supply of O-positive, then its supply of O-negative (a slightly different type). Then, said Dorothy Hunt, Huntington's blood bank coordinator, the patients "would be on their own."
The same tension was present in virtually every hospital in the region, as well as at the Red Cross headquarters near downtown Los Angeles, according to Jerry Sohle, who runs the Red Cross program. Despite the network of hospital blood banks, the Red Cross still supplies 90% of the area's blood needs. On this particular day last week, the Red Cross was down to less than half its usual stock of O-positive, and the whole blood system was registering only slightly more than 50% of its normal levels. By the end of the week, things had improved a little. On Friday--which, by then, was long after my pint of blood had been transfused into someone I'll never know at Huntington--some hospitals reported they had recovered to a full day's supply of O-positive. But the rule around the area was still that hospitals were having to delay surgery and the plea for donors continued, unabated.
Myself, I tend to think of giving blood as one of the routine events of life. It's a slight, half-hour inconvenience that anyone could put up with once every three months or so.
It takes a little bit of nerve to do it the first time. After all, there is a transparent plastic tube leading away from your body, draining off 1/11th of all the blood in your body. If that's what bothers you, however, there's a simple solution: Don't look at the tube.
Donating blood is only a psychological trauma if you let it be one. The secret is not to think of it as anything unusual. Why don't you try it?