Donating Blood Helps Others, But It Helps Me, Too

I don’t have life-saving skills, and I don’t own a sewing machine, but I can get myself to Red Cross.

Donating blood is a simple ritual that can take you out of your routine, and also benefit others. | Photo courtesy of Getty.

Welcome to Ritual, Be Well Philly’s column of essays about the low-tech, inefficient things we do that pleasurably slow us down. From taking the long way home to hand-washing dishes, these simple habits allow us to be more present — even if only for a few minutes. 

I’ve always been disappointed by how little I regularly volunteer. That was true pre-coronavirus, and it’s definitely still true now. I say (to no one other than myself, really) that it’s because, working in journalism, you never quite know what a week will look like. When a story will break, a deadline requiring an all-nighter will pop up, or a must-attend event will occur. Both the beauty and the pain of my chosen career path is that no two days look the same, so it’s hard to predictably donate my time when I don’t always know how I’ll have to use my time. But that’s just an excuse.

Blood donation helps me feel better about that excuse. Prior to working in Philly, when I lived in D.C., I booked appointments at the Red Cross blood donation center downtown whenever I was particularly fed up with myself for working too much. It was a regular act of rebellion; something that forced me away from my desk that wasn’t self-indulgent and that my boss wouldn’t argue with. Something that would intentionally take me away from my excuse for not giving back and force me to, well, give.

When you live and die by your iCal, there’s a perverse sort of pleasure that arises when you completely surrender to someone else’s schedule. The good people at any blood donation center don’t care if you have an interview at 2:30 p.m. or a production meeting later that afternoon. They will get to you when they get to you. (If you don’t fill out a RapidPass, they’ll get to you even later.)

You will tell them your name and birthdate on no less than seven separate occasions; they will take your temperature at least twice — likely more now, given the pandemic. You will answer some version of the same health and travel history questions at least three times. The whole thing is an exercise in patience, stillness, and repetition — three things I am pretty terrible at but are pretty necessary when it comes to contributing to the greater good. So I succumb to the ritual, relieved each time to let go of a little selfishness along the way.

The same holds true when they finally direct me to a bed and stick the needle in my arm. (If I look away, I barely feel the pinch.) The attendant asks me to squeeze a ball every five seconds, so that’s what I concentrate on. I don’t scroll Instagram, I don’t check my email. I just … count. And scan the room.

My job as a lifestyle editor has me constantly chasing shiny and new, but Red Cross has been around since 1881. There’s nothing shiny or new about what we’re all here to do, and the diversity of the ages, races, and languages spoken by my fellow brethren of the tourniquet is a necessary reminder to not only get out of the bubble that is my office, but also the bubble that is the small slice of the city I inhabit.

Once they’ve collected my pint — the donation itself only takes about 10 minutes, it’s the paperwork that keeps you there — I head to the snack area, where donors can help themselves to cookies and a fridge of cold drinks. This is the only time I ever drink regular Coca-Cola, and I look forward to that icy red can more than I do most fancy meals out. Then I’m on my way out into the world, back to my regular life.

Like many others in this pandemic, I am feeling pretty powerless to help right now. I am not an essential worker, I don’t have any life-saving skills, and I don’t own a sewing machine. But I am healthy, my blood type is O positive (the most commonly needed type), and, as a straight female in a monogamous relationship with a straight male, I fit within the recently improved but still outdated FDA requirements of who can donate. The coronavirus crisis may be overshadowing other crises right now, but it hasn’t stopped them. Cancer patients, car accident survivors, and many others still need what I can so easily give.

So I’m picking the habit back up. (Provided you haven’t been exposed to COVID-19 and are not exhibiting symptoms, you won’t be violating any stay-at-home directives if you do the same.) Last Monday was my first appointment in two years. Things were a little different, yes — beds were spaced further apart, we were all wearing masks — but the room was still as full as it could be, and the hour was still a practice in putting others before myself. And while there were no Cokes in the break room (Red Cross has apparently gone health-conscious in my absence), I’ll be damned if that wasn’t the best-tasting apple juice I’ve ever had.

Interested in learning more about donating blood? Click here to schedule an appointment at a blood donation center near you.

Let’s get social! Join Be Well Philly at: