OK, so Charlie Sheen can yap on and on about his precious “Tiger Blood”, but truly, I have what I’ve dubbed “Unicorn Blood” – because my blood type is AB-, the most rare blood type out there. (Less than 1% of the population has it.) I want to talk about how this news has changed my life, but I also want to back up a second, because it feels kind of crazy (and ironic) that I’ve become the biggest proselytizer for blood donations, given my deep-seated childhood fear of needles!
Yep, I was terrified of needles. Probably had something to do with the fact I was always in and out of the ER for many winters in my youth, with alarming fevers from strep throat. And to say they were alarming is pretty severe, given that I was raised by a couple of people who would pretty much tell you to go “Walk it off!” if you had any pain below, say, “Severed Limb” status. I had to google what in hell kind of shot I must have gotten (penicillin), but whatever it was, I was already in Rotten Bad Place before we got there, and getting a shot was just short of being beheaded, in my book. (I got my tonsils out in 3rd grade, which curbed a lot of the spiking fevers after that.) Flash-forward to the time I was riding a horse in the dark, and made it go through too narrow of a gate, resulting in a six-inch gash on my inner knee (because the horse lunged forward, and my inner knee caught on an extending piece of metal. The horse knew it wasn’t going to work, but finally did what my heels and voice told it to do!). I remember barely feeling anything, because I went into shock, but was ROYALLY PISSED that I’d ripped my new pants. I rode the horse back around the house and started shrieking for my dad, who took one look and yelled at me to DISMOUNT while simultaneously lifting me off the horse. We went inside, he took a second look and almost passed out, and fortunately, the female half of the couple we’d been visiting was a nurse, who gave me a washcloth and we applied pressure while calls to the ER were made and much hullabalooing about took place. I distinctly remember trying to convince everyone it probably wouldn’t require stitches, RIGHT? we could just use some of those butterfly bandages. Because anything if it meant avoiding needles! (I ended up needing 36 stitches – 18 internally – and had narrowly missed a major artery.) (My mother made me show her while my dad stomped off to find the ER doc and when the nurse hustled in, she immediately made my mom sit down & put her head between her knees BEFORE even addressing me.)
So because life involves immunizations and shit, my dad worked with me on my fear, and told me before I had my tonsils out to just make a fist and dig my nails into the palm of my hand as hard as I could, and the pain I created myself would be more than the pain from any needle. To be honest, I still do this, not to the point of extreme like I used to, but have always found it to be a good distraction. And now, it makes me think of dad, which has a bittersweetness I will always take.
Last fall, as we all scrambled to get ourselves to “Silver Status” in a three-month span to lower our health care costs, one of the events was a blood drive here at the agency. I signed up! I could use the points, and I’d never given blood before. I even got competitive about it (disguise your shock, please), and was able to make my donation in about 7 minutes, beating our boss. And then I waited for my card, which never showed up – until I got an email, asking for another donation and that if I donated, I could get candy sent to me (or someone else). But in that email it had my blood type! Finally! I knew what it was! So I jumped on the Googles and researched it and discovered that AB- platelets are one of the highest in-demand donations, because they are given primarily to cancer patients. I needed to do this.
The first attempt was merely that – I don’t have trucker veins, you can’t drive a semi down them and even have a wide-load swing wildly. My veins are a little mushy and princessy and require a little extra effort if we’re gonna use the apheresis machine. So the first try failed, because my return wasn’t staying contained in my vein. UNDAUNTED. I made another appointment, for the main facility in midtown, because, well, MIDTOWN. It’s a slightly rougher-tumble part of town, and I figured at HQ, those people aren’t going to screw around. This time, my vein cooperated enough to make it to one unit. I burst into tears, because I’d been having a conversation with the tech helping me and adjusting my arm and the machine to get me to that one unit, and all I could think of was my father’s death from cancer, and how perhaps this small little unit could make a difference. Hopefully.
And then I made the next appointment. Each time has brought more learning, and thankfully, the people at the Community Blood Center are dedicated to getting it right. After all, platelets and plasma and blood do the very thing my daily job has never professed to do: save lives. We got even more learning from this donation, I got to the maximum of THREE units (and was euphoric!) and we know now even better settings for the machine for next time. Hearing from the staff about how excited they were to see me coming in, with such a high platelet count? That makes me PREEN for days. Yes, I have platelet vanity. Knowing you can give platelets every 6 days, I decided I would keep going, but at a slow lope, and aimed for every 3-4 weeks. Nope. Because they read the data and want you 100% healthy when you come in, so my turnaround time to generate red blood cells & more platelets is 8 weeks. (Yes, I called. I was convinced the computer was wrong. And while I was on hold waiting for a tech to come on the phone and explain what was going on, I saw that all of my units had gone to Children’s Mercy Hospital. I nearly lost it all over again.)
I have tried to explain this to several people, why this small piece of knowledge has blossomed into a sense of compulsion and duty, that I :must: give my blood/platelets, it’s not optional and that I hearken it to a religious experience. Because I was given this biology – I didn’t make it, I can’t eat certain foods to change it, I can’t “lose weight” and switch into a new blood type: it just IS. And what it is is rare. And vitally important for people going through what could very well be their worst time in their lives. Knowing that? How do I turn away? How do I say, well, I have this dislike of needles and all, and it’s kind of uncomfortable and it takes me 25 minutes to get there and about two hours total to go through the whole process, I mean, I have to do it on a Saturday, which is my weekend time? How do I say that and not be selfish? I can’t. I have something that requires a little effort, a little inconvenience, a little consternation and I can’t watch tv while I’m doing it because I have to stare with a furrowed brow and squeeze my hand really hard right before the return, because my blood pressure drops, and if it keeps messing up, we’ll have to end the donation. But someone else is waiting. Platelets only live for 5 days. Someone else, with chemo running through their veins is waiting. A child, with worried parents who are living their worst nightmare, waits for platelets to help restore their ability to clot blood.
So many people, just waiting. For unicorn platelets. Waiting.
For someone like me -and you- to say, “I need to do this.”