Since I was old enough and heavy enough to do so, I've been donating blood somewhat regularly for a couple decades now. In all, I think I've donated close to five gallons of blood, one pint at a time, although there's no one place where I can get my history, as I've donated all over the country and it seems none of the collection groups are on the same tracking system.
In addition to donating whole blood (something you can only do once every eight weeks), I've also donated platelets by apheresis which is this nifty process by which they drain blood from your arm, send it through a machine that uses a centrifuge to extract the platelets from your blood before pumping the blood back into your body. Since we humans generate so many platelets so quickly, one can do apheresis a lot more often than giving Whole Blood (once a week if not more often).
The apheresis process is stunningly cool from a geeky technology standpoint... you're basically hooked up to a machine that's acting like part of your circulatory system for a short time. You can watch as the blood is drawn out of you and as it's returned back to you (with some anti-coagulants mixed in). The side effect of the anti-coagulants is that you get really cold during the process (at the Stanford Blood Center, you recline on a heating pad and are covered up with toasty blankets throughout to counter this sensation), but it only makes sense you'd get cold given your blood's coursing through a machine, right?
Nowadays, the draw and return are done through the same needle, in one arm. Back when I first did apheresis in the early 1990s, you had to sit for an hour plus with a needle in each arm: one side is where the blood was drawn and the other side was where blood was returned. It was a rather bizarre experience back then because the return side of your body got amazingly cold while the rest of you got only a slight chill.
So, this past Friday morning, I showed up at the Stanford Blood Center at 7:30a to undergo apheresis, in response to an emergency call for platelets they'd sent out earlier in the week.
I was pleased to learn that they paperwork one has to fill out before each and every donation has finally been updated, so the long list of questions you're asked once behind closed curtain is a lot shorter than it used to be. Still, it takes a good half hour to check in and get your vitals taken and all that jazz.
By 8am, I was reclining in the apheresis lounger feeling my back get nice and toasty thanks to the heating pad. I was one of six donors that morning, all male, and with the exception of one other guy my age, I was youngest by a couple decades. Given how long it takes to do apheresis (an hour versus the 10 minutes to drop a pint of whole blood), it's most popular with retirees who've got plenty of time on their hands. Taling with the nurse, I found that they're starting to get more young people to do platelet donations, but mostly early in the mornings (like when I was donating).
Now, given how long it takes to donate platelets, it's no wonder the Blood Center has numerous ways to help you pass the time: a huge DVD library, lots of cable channels and free wi-fi. I didn't bring my laptop with me (this time), and instead brought a book that I need to read for work. Next time, though, I'll be bringing in the laptop so I can spend the hour catching up on RSS feeds.
This time around, I only donated 4 x 10^11 platelets, and it still took me an hour. Compared to the older gentleman to my left, I was a real lightweight. He donated 12 x 10^11 platelets in 75 minutes, putting me to shame.
But, as the nurse reminded me, it's not a race. I learned this the hard way when the apheresis machine got a little too quick on the draw, and I could feel the needle shimmy in my vein and my lips momentarily got numb. The process is automated, though, so an alarm signal went off when the machine sensed the draw was too fast, and the nurse immediately came over to slow the machine down a bit.
I especially enjoyed being able to watch on the monitor my own progress and see the machine calculate how many platelets it'd extracted and therefore how much longer I'd be in the chair watching it share my blood with me. Once the allotted number of platelets were extracted, the machine beeped approvingly, and at 9:04am, the most painful part of the donation process occurred: they ripped off the tape holding the piping in place on my arm. If you've seen me, you know that this means they ripped off quite a bit of hair from my forearms, too boot. Thus, the pain.
But by 9:20am I was hopping in my car to go to work, knowing I'd given platelets for someone who really needs them more than I do.
So, while I like the fact I can donate platelets more often than I can whole blood, I find it ironic that the apheresis process takes so much time. The incentives are all backwards on this. Shouldn't the thing that takes the least amount of time (donating whole blood) be the thing you can do most often?
So I'll have to figure out where the value proposition is for me. I get the same payoff in feeling I've done a good thing whether it's whole blood or apheresis. do I give whole blood six times a year at a cost of six hours to me? Or do I give apheresis the same six times a year at a cost of 12 hours to me on the assumption I'll actually find even more time to donate via apheresis more often?
Not quite sure what I'll donate next (mid-October, once I'm done with climbing Mt Whitney and my business travel overseas). Maybe I should decide on apheresis now while I'm still sufficiently geeked out at the thought of sharing my circulatory system with a machine. Better check my calendar.