I am a frequent blood platelet donor.
I often donate every month, sometimes even more frequently. Unlike whole blood donations which can only be made every 56 days, platelet donations can be made as often as once a week.
What are Platelets?
Platelets (aka thrombocytes) are the part of your blood that form blood clots to stop bleeding. Biologically, they are fascinating: although they are cells, they contain no nucleus and are found only in mammals.
Why are Platelets Important?
Platelets are especially needed by people fighting cancer or leukemia, those undergoing major surgeries, and those who have suffered traumatic injuries (e.g. car accidents, etc.).
There is a great demand for platelets, and they can only be used for 5 days after they have been donated (contrast this to other blood components which can be preserved for weeks or even up to a year).
Here is more information on platelets from the Red Cross.
By the way, the Red Cross donation center in Portland is, I have heard, tied for the largest donation center in the country with 17 donor beds – the other is in Minnesota. Moreover, I have heard the Portland center collects more units of blood products than any other place in the country. Our donations are sent all over the western U.S., and to disaster areas all over the country when needed.
Whenever there is a disaster (hurricane, fires, etc.), the need for donations goes up because a) the disaster-struck area may see a spike in need, plus b) the area hit often sees a reduction in donations from the local area. So consider donating, especially when you hear about bad news in other parts of the country.
Why Do I Donate?
a. Facing My Fear
I first started donating whole blood decades ago. Part of it was to do good for others, but a major part was to face my fear of needles. I never fainted or anything, but getting shots and blood drawn always made me anxious. Afterwards, I always thought, “that wasn’t so bad.” So I began donating blood.
After one donation, the Red Cross contacted me after a whole blood donation and said, “you know, you have a high basal platelet count. Have you ever considered apheresis?”
“Apher-what?” I asked.
Apheresis, they explained, is where they take your blood, separate it, keep a portion (e.g. platelets), and return the rest back to you (the machines that do it are really amazing!).
My oldest brother has been donating whole blood for decades and has earned many Red Cross gallon pins. I believe he recently has been doing power red donations, which are concentrated red blood cell donations. You can only do those every 112 days, up to 3 times a year.
Since I have a relatively high level of platelets in my blood (it varies from person to person), I could donate a triple amount of platelets. Most people can donate a double.
That, coupled with the fact that I can donate very frequently, I have quickly added up my donations to where I’m eligible (as of this writing) for my 31 gallons pin.
c. Because I Can
Eligibility requirements for platelet donations are a bit more stringent than for other donations. Common disqualifications are recent travel and some prescription medications. Here are the Red Cross eligibility requirements.
d. I Feel Great Afterwards
After any donation, you are cautioned to take it easy – don’t do any strenuous work or lifting, etc.
After whole blood donation, you may feel run down. That is because you have lost some of your red blood cells, which deliver oxygen to and remove carbon dioxide waste from your body. With reduced red blood cell quantity, the efficiency of this process is reduced.
However, with platelet donation, all your red blood cells are returned to you. I therefore don’t feel run down after a platelet donation.
Platelet donations take a long time. For a typical triple donation, I am often connected to the apheresis machine for two hours. Add the prep time before and the snack time afterwards, and the whole affair often takes three hours.
During donation, both arms must remain still (I nickname it the “crucifixion”). During that time I cannot text or surf the web. They have TVs so you may watch news, sports, movies, and Netflix. I often bring my headset and listen to podcasts to pass the time.
During that time, though, I often contemplate how lucky I am to be healthy. I know so many lovely friends and family members who have battled cancer – some who have succumbed. I think of the children at the two area children’s hospitals. One unit of platelets can potentially save three lives.
Platelets cannot be synthetically manufactured, nor can they be preserved beyond just 5 days. I have plenty, so why not share them?
Hopefully, I can keep donating for years. And if the day comes when I am in need, others will be there to help me out.
Does it hurt?
It depends. Certainly the insertion of the needles tends to sting a little bit. But usually that stinging sensation dissipates within 5-10 seconds.
The needles they use are much smaller than the large ones you often see for whole blood, so that helps.
Keeping your arms immobile for that long can get uncomfortable. Sometimes my elbows or wrists start to ache. Don’t move them yourself, but speak up and a nurse will be happy to adjust your arm for you.
Cushions for your wrist, lumbar, neck, etc. can help – ask if you are in any way uncomfortable.
I know I can get cold during the donation process, so I ask for extra blankets and heating pads. They have them too.
Just don’t be shy. Let people know how you are feeling and they will do everything they can to make you comfortable.
Is it safe to donate now during the pandemic?
I’ve been very careful about staying home, always wearing a mask when out, washing my hands, and keeping physical distance. I assumed the Red Cross would take great precautions and having donated twice since the pandemic started, I feel safe.
They have greatly reduced the number of things you must touch during the donation process. For example, someone signs you in for you, there is hand sanitizer available whenever you need to use a touch screen, and of course everyone is masked all the time.
You still need to touch door knobs and handles, and fixtures if you use the bathroom.
But all in all, I feel they are taking proper precautions and will be donating again in a couple days.
Are you still scared of needles?
Over the years, I’ve gradually desensitized myself to the point that I can watch the whole process: preparing, inserting, and removing.
I still flinch a little when I see needles inserted on TV or in movies, but for myself, I know what to expect and am comfortable with it.
Any other tips?
Yes! Here are some additional suggestions:
1. Hydrate! Drink lots of water the day of and the day before your donation. Juice is okay, too, but limit your coffee and tea intake as both may dehydrate you.
2. Use the bathroom before you donate. Just before you are placed on the donating bed, you are encouraged to use the bathroom. Go, even if you don’t feel the need. Two hours on the bed can get very uncomfortable if you need to answer nature’s call. If you have to go during your donation, they must disconnect everything and abort your donation.
3. Avoid fatty foods the day before and day of donation. I once had fish and chips for lunch, just an hour or two before my donation. The impact was immediate: the amount of fat in my blood prevented the sensors of the apheresis machine from operating properly, and we had to abort the donation. Some websites recommend eating a hamburger to boost your blood iron levels. I disagree with this advice.
4. Tell others about your donation. I continue to hear from friends and acquaintances who benefited or who had family members who benefited from these life-saving donations. Some have joined me in donating too!
Curious, interested, nervous? I have invited and accompanied many friends to donate platelets. If you are in the Portland area, I’d be happy to join you.
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I recommend, also, that everyone register with https://bethematch.org/
for bone marrow transplants. For a really amazing and moving story about a bone marrow transplant that did more than help a woman with her Leukemia, read this article:
Man Decides to Give Bone Marrow to Soothe His Depression – Not Only Did Her Cancer go into Remission But MS Too
I have reached 299 lifetime donated units! My next donation, on July 15, 2022, will put me over 300. Want to join me?