I remember breathing hard, trying to control my terrified heart while a sort of unbreakable resolution took over my troubled self. My mind was clear enough, but my hands shook, my legs felt like jelly. I was using the little strength I had at the tender age of nine to force my small body against the kitchen counter, using my butt to prevent anyone from getting near the drawer full of knives. It wasn’t anyone that I feared would try to gain access to it, though. It was my sister.
I don’t believe that she had the physical endurance at that time to get up from the bed and walk to the kitchen, take a knife and end her suffering. But she was in deep pain, and in her desperation to stop feeling it, she shouted that she would, and I, in my impressionable nine years of age, believed her. So while she was agonizing in the bedroom, I was plastered against the drawer, completely horrified that she would get up and come to the kitchen, but more determined yet to stop her in whatever way I could.
My sister wasn’t feeling suicidal because of a broken heart. She was hemorrhaging due to a problem in her uterus, one that she had been born with and that reached its peak when she was 15. There were just the two of us in the apartment. My mother had left to buy medicine (before the pain got this strong) and had found herself caught up in the middle of one of the biggest traffic jams in the region in recent history (it was even on the news – the traffic jam, not my sister’s situation). It was while my mother was away that the hemorrhaging had begun. There was no ambulance to call because of the traffic (none could reach us), and in such youthful age, I had no idea what to do to make her feel better. Maybe there was nothing I could do.
The rest of my family, in case you’re wondering, was in Sao Paulo, where we lived at the time. A few days before, my mother had decided to bring me and my sister to spend some days at the beach during a long weekend. We never suspected that this would happen – but then again, I don’t believe we ever do.
That night, she lost three quarters of her blood. Eventually the ambulance managed to get there and take her to the hospital. She survived and she healed well – she even got healthy enough to, ten years later, have her first child (today she has two). And none of that would have been possible if people hadn’t been kind and concerned enough about the rest of the world to donate their blood.
That’s why blood donation is paramount in my life. I couldn’t donate in Brazil because I was born in Belgium, and there is a law that prevents people who lived in Europe between 1990 and 1995 to donate to Brazilian hospitals. It has something to do with a disease that was particularly present in the United Kingdom during that time, but I’m not sure about the specifics.
In any case, as soon as I was allowed to donate in Belgium (if you lived in a South American country, you have to wait six months to donate in Europe), I did. And I felt wonderful; even the nano-second pain that clicks when the needle connects with your vein was a reason for me to smile. Because I knew that my blood, this small portion that I was giving of myself and that would not be missed, could save up to four people. Can you believe it! Four lives that we can save with such a simple act.
There are a lot of misunderstandings regarding blood donations, though, and these misunderstandings usually lead people to avoid or not do the donation at all. Hospitals all over the world need them, even if you don’t hear anything about it. Love and blood are always needed anywhere in the world at any given time. So, in the hope that I could give you some extra incentive to donate, I created a little “frequently asked questions” with some information so you can decide whether you’re up for it or not with more knowledge than fear.
Who can donate blood?
That depends on several small factors that vary from country to country, but as a general rule, everyone that is healthy, not pregnant and has from 18 to 65 years of age can donate. There are some temporary impediments too; if you took on a new sexual partner, for example, or if you received a blood transfusion, you have to wait four months. But no one will take your blood without giving you a questionnaire to fill in beforehand (in which you’ll know if you can donate or not), so you shouldn’t worry too much about specifics.
Does it hurt?
Well, the needle is big and might give you some discomfort. But no, it doesn’t hurt. I’m sure you’ve endured worse before.
Do I have to stay without eating before the donation?
On the contrary. You’re supposed to eat in the healthiest possible way on the day you donate.
How much blood is taken?
Again, it varies from country to country, but usually it’s around half a litter (500 ml). The human body normally has four litters of blood.
Will there be consequences on my body?
It takes 24 hours for your body to replace the blood you gave away, so during that time it’s possible that your pressure drops or that you feel dizzy or weak. That’s why you can’t do sports on the day you donate, and it’s not recommended that you stay on your feet for too long. Some people faint. But it varies from person to person; for me, I usually feel more tired than I would otherwise, but other than that, I never had any side effects.
How long do I have to wait before donating again?
Three months. That’s how long it takes for your body to fully recover, in terms of vitamins and proteins. Some people say that if you donate every three months, your body gets used to it, and it starts to produce more blood than you need – so you’ll be in this sort of physical obligation to donate, to avoid flooding your body with your own blood. I’m not sure how truthful that is, but just in case, I alternate my donation time; sometimes I donate after three months, others after five, others after four.
How can my blood save up to four people?
It’s not like they will use one quarter of your blood bag to each person. Actually, through tests and chemical procedures, they can separate components in your blood and use each of these components to a different person. They are: red cells, platelets, plasma and cryoprecipitate.
How long does it take to do it?
The blood donation in itself takes 10 to 15 minutes, but before that you have registration, medical history and mini-physical evaluation. All in all, it should take around one hour from the moment you get in the center to the second you leave.
I hope I satisfied some of your curiosity today, and that you felt motivated to at least research more about the subject. There is always need for blood, I repeat – it is not only used for accident victims but for people who are in treatment too (for cancer, for diabetes and for a number of other diseases). You can help them survive longer, maybe heal. It’s free, it’s painless and it’s fast to do it. So why wouldn’t you?
Don’t ever underestimate the help that you give to people. It might seem small, maybe even insignificant, but it never is. I once saw a movie that said something very beautiful that stayed with me forever: “By each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.” Donating blood is an incredible act of kindness.
When I was holding on to the kitchen counter on that fateful night, I remember thinking something of the sort. I knew there was nothing I could do to stop the pain she was feeling; the only action I could take to help her live longer was to prevent her from gaining access to those knives.
As I said, she was too weak to get up. Eventually, when I realized that, I calmed down. I walked to the bedroom, seated beside her and held her hand.
When I learned all the facts that followed, I understood that other people had metaphorically held her hand that night too. They had given her the means to survive and to recover. And, because of their kindness, she thrived.
Years later, when I started to search for information about how blood donation worked, I decided that I would also donate my blood whenever was allowed. I want to give people a second chance to live, as those random people who saved my sister did. I am happy that I can do that now.
If you are still doubtful about this, please don’t hesitate to contact me. I’ll be more than happy to answer any questions you might have.