Tuesday, January 5, 2010

By My Own Circulatory System--Betrayed!!

Anyone who knows even a little bit about me—which is about 90% of the readers of this blog at this point, I’m guessing—knows that I’ve got a lot of weird interests. The one that I’m going to focus on in this post is my strange fascination with donating blood.

I honestly have no idea where this interest came from. My parents don’t donate blood, or at least haven’t lately; I don’t have any relatives or friends with anemia or blood diseases; I was never a particularly big fan of vampire movies. I think I saw an episode of Bill Nye the Science Guy where he mentioned donating blood once, but that’s about it.

Yet there I was, in my first year of college, with a tube in my arm during a Red Cross blood drive held at the Hillel house on campus. I had trouble understanding the accent of the admitting nurse, and I very nearly blacked out after losing that pint of me, but the experience was not unendurable. Plus the juice and cookies afterward weren’t bad.

What really sealed the deal, though, was Scav Hunt. Now, the University of Chicago Scavenger Hunt is a big enough topic that I’ll have to write it up eventually, but for now let’s just say that I had an incentive to give a pint of blood for a good cause. It was from these donations that I learned two things: one, that the university hospital has an excellent blood donation center, and two, that I’ve got O-negative blood.

Quick science lesson, for those of you in the audience who don’t know much about blood: there are four blood types in humans: O, A, B, and AB. Basically, the surface of every one of your red blood cells may have an A antigen (A-type blood), a B antigen (B-type), both types of antigens (AB-type), or neither (O-type). Whatever antigens your cells don’t have, you have antibodies to defend against—so people with A-type blood have B antibodies, people with O have both A and B antibodies, and people with AB don’t have any antibodies. This determines who can safely accept blood from whom. Basically, if you’ve got antibodies, you don’t want that type of blood in you.

(Interesting tangent: there’s a folk belief in a number of Asian cultures that your blood type determines your personality. There’s no scientific basis for this, of course; from what I can tell, it’s given the same level of credence as, say, horoscopes are in the West. I know Japan and Korea both have this system, though the types don’t mean the same thing to both of them. In official descriptions of characters in Japanese video games and anime, it’s common to list their blood types in addition to other vital information like height, weight, birthday, and so forth. There was a recent South Korean TV drama called My Boyfriend is Type B that plays off the negative stereotype of B-type blood. And the Korean teacher of a friend of mine had B-type blood, but her parents lied to her all her life, not wanting her to be discouraged at having the ‘wrong’ type of blood; she only learned the truth when she got a pregnancy check-up in the US, and refused to believe it at first.)

Since I’ve got O-negative blood (the ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ thing is just whether you’ve got another, unrelated type of antigen), I can give blood to literally anybody else in the world. This is especially helpful in the case of trauma victims in the ER and infants, neither of whom hospitals have time to determine blood types for. Since my blood is super-useful to babies and car crash victims, every time I give I’m doing a lot of good, which totally ups my karma score. Plus I have an excuse to eat at Smashburger afterwards—hey, a guy’s got to replenish his iron, right?

For the past few years, I’ve been donating as often as I can, which is every eight weeks in the US. Recently I’ve been donating using an apheresis procedure, which collects twice the amount of red cells—which is the most useful part of my blood—but means I can only donate every 16 weeks. It’s a pretty cool procedure: first the machine takes out some whole blood, then it separates out the red blood cells from the other stuff, then pumps the other stuff back in, along with a saline solution. Overall it means I don’t lose any fluid volume, but I lose the equivalent of two units of red blood, which means that for the next few weeks, I get out of breath just going up the stairs.

But yesterday—ah, yesterday! Something went wrong with the needle: either it was in the wrong place, or it was too close to the nerve, or something else. Whatever it was, it made the process of getting the blood out very slow, and the process of returning the other stuff painful. Which is not a good thing. After a few minutes, the nurses had no choice but to stop the process and let me off early. I didn’t give nearly enough for a full donation, but I gave enough that I’ll have to wait to give again until the lab calls me back and says I’m full of bloodly goodness.

So all the pain and waiting of donating blood, without the warm glow of altruism and the self-esteem boost. It hurts, people. It hurts on the inside.

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