Human blood is a miraculous substance. Not only does it transport oxygen and nutrients throughout our bodies, blood also helps fight infection and carries away carbon dioxide and other waste materials. It’s scary to imagine how quickly serious blood loss can lead to death, but thanks to the tiny cells called platelets, blood also seals off many small wounds in moments. Unfortunately, the platelets cannot cope with more serious injuries, and many current medical procedures, including organ transplants and cancer treatments, can require dozens of units per patient. 

At the Salina Red Cross W.H. & Helen M. Graves Blood Platelet Center, you can donate platelets to help save lives. Platelets can be donated every seven days up to 24 times a year, and since they have a shelf life of only five days, they are in constant demand. Only three percent of people in the U.S. donate platelets, which makes every donation all the more important. The process takes around two hours. Here’s an idea of how one of my typical donations proceeds… 

First, I have to make an appointment. Because of the special equipment and the time involved, drop-ins cannot donate platelets. The American Red Cross has a Blood Donor app I use to schedule my donations, which I like to do every two weeks. I usually make my next appointment right after completing a donation. While whole blood donors have to wait 56 days between donations, platelet donors are eligible after just seven days, though a two-week interval is recommended. 

The day of the donation, I receive an email reminding me to use “Rapid Pass” before going to the platelet center. Answering all of the health history questions online before arriving does indeed make the intake process more rapid. I receive a QR code for the workers to scan and don’t have to go through all the questions at the center. When I arrive, I scan my online donor card and follow Yulia, Hannah, or Shelby into the room where I’ll be weighed, have my pulse and blood pressure checked, get a finger pricked to test my hemoglobin for anemia and answer any follow-up questions arising from my responses on the Rapid Pass. It’s quick, easy, and private. 

Before you plant yourself on the donation couch for nearly two hours, I highly recommend a stop by the restroom! After all, once you’re seated and the needles are in your arms, going anywhere is out of the question. I settle in, tune the television to Netflix (every donor has a personal TV and headphones), and wait. Shelby, Hannah, or Yulia will make sure the armrests are comfortable and finish setting up the apheresis machine with its countless tubes and bags. Then it’s time to start, and for simplicity’s sake, I will use Hannah as the phlebotomist for the rest of my little story.

Hannah asks if I’m allergic to the sterilizing chlorhexidine, then scrubs my left forearm. Once it dries, she inserts the first needle. This is the return needle, through which my red blood cells and plasma will be returned after the platelets are separated out in a centrifuge. I should mention that all three women are experts at needle insertion and it’s essentially pain-free every time. I can’t guarantee the same experience for you, of course, but in over 300 donations, I have had fewer than ten bad “sticks.” Not one of them was serious enough to stop me from returning.

With the return needle set in my left arm, Hannah moves to the right side and repeats the process. Inevitably, once I have a needle in each arm and cannot move, my nose will start to itch! Although I can ask someone to scratch it, I generally just do my best to ignore it until the urge disappears. You know, mind over matter and all that.

I now have needles in both forearms, but it doesn’t take long to forget about them. Even in the summer one of the women places a blanket and heating pad over my upper body to keep me warm as I donate. The solution used in the return needle can make a donor feel chilly and the extra warmth helps speed the donation along. 

For the next ninety minutes to two hours, I just relax and enjoy whatever movie I have chosen for the day. Squeezing a little rubber toy for five seconds and relaxing for three helps keep my blood flowing. Occasionally Hannah or Yulia or Shelby will drop by and ask how I’m doing and check the numbers on the machine. None of us wants to hear the annoying alarm that blares when the draw pressure is too low or the blood has clotted in the needle! In my book, a silent donation is a successful donation. 

Silent at least as far as the machine is concerned, that is. One of the best parts of donating is chatting with Shelby, Hannah and Yulia. If I need a laugh, any one of the three is good for several. All three will answer any questions you have about the donation process too. Even more than watching my favorite shows, talking to them makes every visit memorable!

I rarely have any problems once the needles are in my arms and the donation has started. Once or twice a problem like an unexpected clot or the needle edging up against the side of a vein has caused my donation to end early, but those are very rare. Those problems can cause a small bruise, though never anything painful or permanent in my case. Falling asleep during the donation would be wonderful, but I’d stop squeezing, the machine would shout at me, then Shelby, Hannah, and Yulia would shout at me! 

With two minutes remaining my donation is almost over. Whoever is not busy begins the end by removing the draw needle from my right arm. Once the bleeding has stopped, I get a bandage and outer wrap, then it’s on to the left arm. After lying relatively still for so long, I have to make sure I’m completely ready before I stand up! Hannah hands me a paper: “Here’s your homework!” This follow-up page contains important information, including what to do if an arm bruises or if I later realize my blood should not be used. 

Donating platelets is obviously not for everyone. Some people might not weigh enough, others may have health problems that disqualify them, and still others may simply not tolerate sitting so long. However, if you are able to donate, occasionally giving up two hours of your time can truly change the lives of many people, including yours. And just as awesome, you’ll meet three interesting–and entertaining–Red Cross phlebotomists!