On Giving Blood

by

09/14/2001

111 Amsterdam Avenue New York, New York 10025

Neighborhood: Upper West Side

On the day it happened we walked briskly to the hospital almost before our emotions had time to respond. Our eyes stung from the sun and our heads pounded from the hangovers which prompted us to remark that the blood we were about to donate might still have a good deal of alcohol in it. We were numb and we were hungry though food seemed beside the point while passing the Cathedral of St. John the Divine whose bells had begun a monotonous dirge.

It was about 10:45am and there were gurneys lined up on the sidewalk in front of the hospital, and police mingling with EMT’s and nurses punctuated by the ubiquitous falafel truck that represented the only semblance of business as usual. Inside there were already about two hundred others waiting in line. They were mostly students. Some looked like smartly dressed groups of girls, some were reading textbooks, there were a few couples holding hands, and there was even an informal class meeting that had migrated over from campus. A scruffy graduate student type lectured on the Iliad to his students in line. “And so basically when Achilles is saying, ‘Fear not, but speak as it is borne in upon you.'”

The scene was disorganized and more than a little bit anxious but surprisingly quiet. A group of us were shuffled out into the hall to wait against one wall while another group was waiting up ahead. After about an hour we were given our first registration forms, which we considered eagerly.

Have I used intravenous drugs? Have I had sex for drugs or money? Have I had sex with anyone who has had sex for drugs or money? Have I travelled in Africa?

We forged ahead, sitting and standing as the line inched along. We were headed for the vital signs line and I couldn’t shake that acidic feeling in my throat and my pulse was racing and I couldn’t tell whether it was a true sickness or simply the extenuating circumstances.

“Maybe you shouldn’t do this,” my friend suggested. “No,” I said, “I’ll wait for them to take my blood pressure and then decide.”

In retrospect it amazes me that I even got that far given the disorganization and frazzled volunteers who struggled to usher an amorphous throng of about 400 people through 1 of 3 examining room doors. At about 2 P.M. I was finally allowed to enter a vital signs room, and inside was a young medical student with curly dark hair and the clearest blue eyes. “Thank you for coming,” he said.

I hopped up onto the crinkly paper covered table and he took my pulse on my left wrist which turned out to be rather high (96) and then my blood pressure on my right arm which turned out to be about normal. (110/75) and then instructed me to go back outside and wait to have my finger pricked to be typed and to test clotting.

I emerged from the room and by that point it was clear to me that the tone had changed. We had started as an amazingly helpful outpouring, and we had unfortunately mutated into something overwhelming and ultimately counterproductive to the staff. A harried nurse came out and told us that there was really just too many people here and that at this point she urged us to leave our names and come back later and that only Type O’s (the universal donor) would be able to donate today.

My friend was Type O but I wasn’t and I was envious of her. How much I wished I was a Type O! We all wished we were Type O’s. The woman next to me said defiantly, “I’m an A but I’m staying anyway.” We all wanted to be stuck with a needle and we wanted to feel faint. We wanted to give something from our bodies and have it taken downtown because what the hell else were we good for at this point standing here more than 100 blocks uptown cozy and safe. We wanted something uncomfortable to happen to us because it felt like we deserved it.

There was a palpable frustration of all of us wanting to move, wanting to be pricked or pressurized or moved somewhere, wanting to do what we came here to do—wanting to do something. I continued to wait, hoping on the off chance I would be able to get in to be pricked since I had already done my vitals. And then after sitting in the same place for and hour not moving, sucking on a frozen cup of hospital orange juice, I decided to give up.

I went and found my friend and we silently moved together across the street to the building where they were taking the actual donations. That building was much quieter, consisting of only about 30 or so people who had already made it through the pre-screening, though by the end of the afternoon that number increased 10 fold since students started arriving who had been pre-screened by the university health services on campus. There there was an actual waiting room for us to sit in where everyone was glued to the TV. There was a table of food set up for us and many people ate and sat. It was a funny feeling—all of us united in that familiar hospital waiting room purgatory, where instead of anxiously hoping for news about a loved one making it through surgery, we knew we were involved in a much different thing with little to no promise of imminent resolution.

After about another two hours at 4pm my friend was called down the hall. There we waited in line outside the donation room and watched 3 others sit in the donation chairs letting the blood drain out of them an focussing on their mini- TV’s which were attached to the chairs. There was a table full of food and another table full of hundreds of forms of people waiting to donate. And there were two nurses with glazed looks in their eyes who took about 30 seconds to answer each question, like they were the newscasters on TV who had to wait for the sound to come through their ear-pieces.

It was unclear as to who would go next and the nurses didn’t seem to be able to decide. I was sitting in the hall in a wheelchair and watching people beginning to shift in the line. “It’s just so disorganized,” one woman said to her friend. “They were completely unprepared for this,” said another.

Just then a young man of about 30 dressed in shorts and a T-shirt came bounding down the hall and began shouting angrily at whoever was listening, “I need to give blood today! Will someone get me in to give blood now.” “I need to give blood now!” he said, raising his voice, “no one here knows what they’re talking about and everyone is telling me different things. I am saying that I need to give blood now and no one can give me a straight answer,” at this point with quite a bit of accusation in his tone.

“Hey,” said the volunteer, defensively, “we’re all doing the best we can, you can just relax and I will take your name.”

The argument escalated and I continued to watch from about 10 ft. away and the people around began to whisper and the feeling was not unlike the feeling just before a fight breaks out in a bar. I began to imagine what it would be like if something like that did happen—it suddenly seemed not so unlikely. What if all this futility—what if all this collective grief and guilt—what if all this inaction resulted in some kind of ‘mutiny-at-the blood bank’? I imagined hoards of snarling men tying up the nurses with gauze as the rest of us jammed syringes into our own arms as we amassed vials and vials of our own blood until finally we felt we had made a difference.

When my friend finally reached the front of the line and was about to be prepped with iodine, a nurse came over and told her that she was in fact ineligible due to the six months she had spent in England in 1999. “But I’m a vegetarian,” she cried, in vain.

“I’m sorry,” said the nurse.

We walked out slowly not speaking to one another. It was about 5pm and we emerged outside into the light again and that feeling where it’s like I’m about to vomit tears that had happened about 29 times earlier during the day happened again but I swallowed it just in time.

“I’m sorry,” I told her.

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