It's In You To Give: Donating Blood

The Canadian Blood Services has one of the best mottos I've ever seen: it's in you to give. So true! Only 4% of eligible donors in Canada donate blood - that's shocking considering how easy and painless it is!

As somewhat nerdy teenagers, myself and some friends were excited about becoming legal adults, not so we could get legally drunk in bars, but so that we could vote and (at age 17) donate blood. My first blood donation was with some high school friends: we took the bus/LRT to the Blood Donation Centre after school. My second blood donation opportunity came when the mobile Blood Clinic came to our high school - I remember a bunch of the tough football guys passing out. I moved to regularly donating plasma during my undergraduate degree at the university (a hop, skip and a jump from the Blood Donation Centre). I didn't pass the iron level test once, so then quit near the end of my undergrad. I moved to England, and even donated once there. I moved back to Canada and forgot all about this.

Then, this January, as part of a quasi New Year's resolution mindfulness bit, I committed to donating regularly again. I donated platelets a couple months ago, and recently gave my first (hopefully of many) plasma donations.

So now that I've donated all 3 types, I thought I'd post about the experiences and compare some of the processes in case anyone was curious about what it's like.

Becoming a Donor
But why? Why would you be interested in donating? Well...your blood will save lives! Heart surgery, Leukemia, anemic, major surgery, and cancer patients will get your blood, as will car crash victims. Blood donation can actually reduce the risk of heart attack/stroke and is helpful for those with high iron levels (ie. men). Also, apparently you "burn" 650 calories during a whole blood donation. And you get cookies and sometimes soup after, so why not!

Blood types are super interesting, so check out The Facts About Whole Blood. Don't know your blood type? Donate blood for the first time, or attend a What's Your Type event.

Not convinced yet? Time to check out these recipient stories!

Interested in donating? Basically, you must be healthy and at least 17 years old. Check the eligibility criteria and read on!

B-ing Negative
Why don't I donate whole blood like the majority of people? I have a somewhat rare blood type, the second rarest in Canada: B- (somewhat fitting of my personality, no?). A total of 1.5 % of all Canadians are B-, with the most rare blood type being AB- at 0.5% of Canadians, see here for a chart. O- is the universal donor, meaning everyone can receive O- whole blood. So, it's important that if you're O- that you donate blood if you can, because O- is always in demand. My blood type is not so in demand: I can donate to B's and AB's but since those people make up a small percentage of the population, and they can all receive O- blood anyways, I was told a long time ago that my blood would go further if I donated plasma or platelets, both of which are more...involved, than donating blood, and thus, not for everyone.

Chart from Hema-Quebec 

Different to whole blood, AB is the universal plasma donor. As a blood type B, my plasma can go to others with a B blood type (not that many people in Canada), as well as those with an O blood type, which is the majority of the population.

A+, B+ and AB blood types are ideal for donating platelets, though anyone can donate platelets and those donations can technically go to anyone.

Whole Blood
Ok, you want to donate blood, and you've checked the eligibility requirements, now what? First step is to make an appointment, either online via, or attend a mobile clinic. Take a look at this info sheet.

On the day of your appointment, make sure you eat and drink a lot of water (this makes donating faster). Try to include iron rich foods in your diet prior to donating (and always!), and get a good night's sleep. As long as you're healthy, you're good to go. Don't be nervous! Everyone is super nice at the Clinic and it's not as painful as you might think. cookies as a reward!

When you arrive at the Blood Donation Centre, you sign in (free parking in Edmonton, so register your license plate!) and get your file. Then you initially see a staff member who confirms your identity (so bring your driver's license!) and pokes your finger to test your iron level. I'm always worried about my iron levels, so I try to eat iron heavy food for a few days before donating (yay hamburgers!) and always schedule my donation around my period - you shouldn't donate right before, during, or right after you get your period because your iron levels will be extra low. I was turned away twice and it's no big deal. You just get your iron up and try again after the appropriate amount of time (they'll tell you when you're eligible again). I started taking a mineral supplement called Blood Builder, which was recommended by a local health food store as the supplement recommended in the US for blood donors. True or not, works or not, it tastes gross but isn't as hard as regular iron supplements.

Anyway, once you pass your iron test, you are given a sheet full of personal questions to answer. You do that in a privacy cubicle, then wait to talk to another staff member. They take you to a privacy office, ask you more screening questions about your medical and sexual history, weigh you, take your temperature (via the under the tongue method), sometimes measure your height, take your blood pressure and baring nothing wonky, you are then taken to the donation area.

They set you up on a nice comfy reclining chair. The nurse or other staff member will choose your arm that has the best veins, or you can pick your arm. They use a disinfectant and swab your inner elbow. Then they insert a rather large needle. I'm not kidding, the needle is big and somewhat scary looking. I turn away, and count the ABCs in my head. It's a tiny bit painful as the needle is inserted, but that's it. It's over in a couple seconds. Heck, sometimes the teeny tiny iron test prick is more painful! They usually cover the needle with gauze so you don't have to stare at it in your arm. The needle is attached to tubes. They take some blood for testing, via a series of vials all labelled correctly with your information. Then you're hooked up to the machine, which has a donation bag on it. Now it's time to sit back and relax! You squeeze a stress ball thingy every five seconds, but that's it.

Assuming you're hydrated, donating the actual blood doesn't take long at all, maybe 15 minutes? Race your friends! In total, they take about 450ml, or 1 pint of whole blood from you. The needle comes out, and gauze/cotton is applied to the tiny hole in your arm, and they've started using this colourful pressure tape to keep it on. If you're feeling unwell, you can stay in the donation area, but if you're feeling fine, you can go to the "cafe" section, where you will get a drink (juice, or I think they might have pop?), cookies and soup from the friendly volunteers. You should hang out here for about 15 minutes. Rehydrate/nourish, chat to lovely people, and you're done! Reschedule at the reception desk on your way out. It usually take less than an hour from the time you enter the Clinic to the time you leave.

Here's some advice for after you donate. Don't do anything extremely physical after donating, and you should call the Blood Centre if you feel ill afterwards. The nurses have told me I'm not allowed to bike to/from the centre as biking home after donation is not a good idea. I usually feel pretty good after donating, except after the first donation I felt a bit faint after walking up a couple flights of stairs (I was a teenager and over did it a bit), and then I felt a bit weak after donating platelets (see below). Otherwise I feel fine and can't usually tell I even donated. It's a pretty easy process.

Removing the tape from your arm hair later is more painful that the big needle by the way. Or maybe it's just me.

You can donate whole blood every 56 days. Why so long? It takes awhile for your red blood cells to replenish.

Got 8 minutes? Watch this:

Donating plasma is a similar process to donating whole blood, with a few exceptions. You are taken to a different (adjacent) donation area with different machines. Using a process called apheresis, they take out your blood (in the same way as whole blood above), but separate out the plasma. Then, your red blood cells are returned to you. So, this process takes a bit longer than donating blood. For whole blood, you're in the chair maybe 15 minutes, but for plasma it's more like 30-40 minutes in the chair, and about an hour and a half in the Clinic total.

You can donate plasma every 6 days, and actually, your plasma is replenished within hours of donating. I prefer to donate plasma. I feel that it's a bit more useful than my whole blood (see above), and I'm willing to spend a bit longer at the Blood Donation Clinic with all the friendly people. I usually read a book or magazine or play on my phone or yap to people so time goes by quickly. I've never felt unwell afterwards. I'm committed to donating plasma monthly at the moment.

Except last month I got rejected for low iron. So embarrassing - I hate wasting everyone's time. I can't go back for 56 days now. In the meantime, I'm going to work on changing some dietary habits so I don't have this happen again!

This is pretty much what donating blood/plasma/platelets looks like. Easy peasy.

Donating platelets is the most involved process of them all. One platelet donation can help up to 3 people though. It's the same initial process, and then you're taken to another adjacent donation area with different machines. There are only 2 platelets beds.

Once settled in, they cover you with a blanket, give you a heated pack to hold in your hand, and put heated bags around your neck and maybe your arm, near the donation site. The heat helps your blood move towards the machine. Needle goes in, hoses get hooked to the machine (a bigger one this time) and you're ready. The machine draws your blood for a certain amount of time, separates the platelets (which go into the donor bag with a bit of plasma to keep it viscous) and then returns the rest of your red blood cells and plasma back to you. This cycle happens a few times, and takes longer than plasma. The length/amount of your donation is based on your weight/hemoglobin etc counts. For me, I was in the chair for 70mins (and in the clinic about 2 hours).

The weird part is they inject you with something, anticoagulant I think, which makes your lips go numb. And they weren't kidding when they said consume a lot of calcium before - when the numbness happens, they feed you calcium chews and Tums to get your calcium levels up. And I felt a bit weak after and couldn't sleep on my arm that night. All in all, this makes for a slightly...intense donation. The first time I was really quite nervous about the process - it was my first donation in many years, so I went for the most complex one. Go big or go home, right? Now that I know what it entails, I think I'd be calmer and less freaked out about my tingly lips. Next time I would eat better and sleep more the night before, consume more calcium that day, and not be as scared of the process.

I would donate platelets again, if requested. Sometimes, due to your platelet make up, you might be a good specific match for someone and they may request you donate. If requested I would definitely donate, but I think I'll stick with plasma for my regular donations.

They prefer larger, male, donors for platelets, because they can take more volume from them - some men can actually donate a double quantity during the same appointment!

You can donate platelets every 14 days. It only take a couple days for your platelets to replenish.

See this plasma/platelets info sheet for more information.

Every once in a while (yearly I think), they'll do a more advanced physical - nothing like the physical at your doctor's office, but you'll get asked a few more questions and your height/weight taken. Nothing invasive, but it takes an extra 10 mins or so.

Where does all your blood/plasma/platelets go? Check it out - very interesting!

I really enjoy donating - the people, nurse, staff, volunteers, other donors, are sooo nice and friendly. It's a lovely way to spend a couple hours. I'd recommend everyone who is eligible donate whole blood at least once. It's helpful to know your blood type, and who knows, maybe like me you'll enjoy the process and will return regularly for future donations!