Through the years since I was in college, forty years ago, I donated blood several times a year. I never rose to the frequency allowed by the minimum wait time between donations of whole blood (8 weeks), but generally I gave about four times each year. I always tried to plan my donations around peak blood need times, like holidays, and summer. I happen to have a less common blood type (A-negative), so I received regular requests between donations to give again. It was never a big deal, and I often wondered why more people didn’t do it. It didn’t take a lot of time, and it was so valuable to the recipients who needed all or part of the donated blood. I had problems periodically with being lightheaded or actually blacking out after donations, but that only happened if I had skimped on breakfast or had insufficient fluids, and I had control over that.
Ah, but then the years progress and our bodies age.
About ten years ago I began to notice that for a few days after a blood donation I experienced dizziness and could not climb stairs without severe air hunger. I was pre-menopausal, and as it turned out, slightly anemic. I simply factored that into my planning for donations. Although I was exercising regularly, going a few days without a workout wasn’t a tragedy.
Over the past ten years, that “few days” increased to a week or more. My aging body simply wasn’t replacing red blood cells as quickly as it had in my youth. In the meantime, I’d started a much more active workout schedule, including training for half and full marathons. Depending on the timing, losing a week or two of training made a big difference. Not only did I lose conditioning, I also lost momentum. I’m not a fanatical athlete, and if I go a while without workouts, inertia sets in. Giving blood began to seem like more of a personal sacrifice.
My very active lifestyle kept my blood pressure and cholesterol numbers better than I ever dreamed, considering my family history. And bonus was I could keep my weight in a healthy range without paying a lot of attention to how much I was eating or whether I had a glass of wine every night. I believe we all have personal responsibility for our health, for managing our controllable risk factors with diet and exercise. But I also know it’s very hard to do that. That’s why so many people succumb to the temptation to take pills to keep their numbers where they should be and to control diabetes if they are overweight and that becomes an issue. But I’d rather not take pills, or would rather take the lowest dose possible (because lifestyle doesn’t always do the whole job if your genes are working against you). And so I try to eat fairly healthy, and count on my activity level to do the rest.
So back to donating blood. I gradually decreased the frequency of my donations to twice a year, feeling very guilty (and sometimes giving in) when the Red Cross would call and tell me they were desperate for my blood type. I’m very torn – do I do what I need to do to keep my own body healthy, or do I risk falling out of my exercise routine by giving blood and taking two weeks off to recover? The former seems personally responsible, the latter seems less selfish.
It’s not like I never take time off from running and working out. I had three months this year when my activities were somewhat curtailed by injuries. The mind was willing but the body wasn’t cooperating. Perhaps I should have given blood then. But I kept thinking: maybe by next week I’ll be able to run again, and could still do that half marathon in September.
So now I’m back to running, injury free for the moment, and it feels so good I don’t want to break stride. I have my sights set on giving blood around the holidays, when it’s especially needed, and when I’d be likely to slack off on my runs anyway. But is once a year enough? Should I be more generous with my blood and less selfish about my running and give blood more frequently? I’d give ALMOST anything not to feel guilty about not contributing to the blood supply. I’m just not sure which obligation is more important – keeping myself healthy or helping someone else back to health. It should be a no-brainer, and maybe just by writing this I’m convincing myself to give at least twice a year. It’s more than what most people do, and better than not giving at all.
Still, I do believe it’s time for the younger generations to step up to the plate. I’m sixty-one years old. Who knows how much longer I’ll be able to give even without the activity issue? Now that I’ve thought this through, I’ve reached a decision: I’ll continue to offer up my blood a couple of times per year, as long as I’m healthy, planning donations right after scheduled running events, when it doesn’t matter so much if I have a gap in training (and when, truth be told, I usually take a little break anyway).
But young people everywhere need to do their share. A unit of blood from a healthy young person is not even missed. I know that from experience. And it does so much for the folks who need it. It’s an easy way to do something very important for others. Give the gift of life. Give blood.