The joy of bleeding

For a while, it seemed like this new year would be different from all the others. Day by day it approached, and I didn't get the call that comes every few months, and every holiday season, to those of us blessed with the blood that everyone likes to drink. Then, sure enough, it came: Once again, blood supplies were dangerously low. We especially want your blood, Mr. Type-O Universal Donor. Please, come in.

You've likely seen the dire reports: Hospitals postpone elective surgeries and even talk of screening out nonelective ones for lack of blood. Donations fell throughout the 1990s, and experts predict demand will conclusively outstrip supply in 2000. You've probably also heard various explanations: An aging, growing population and new medical marvels demand ever more blood. Organ transplants, cancer treatments, and death-defying saves of newborns who would lately have been doomed are especially thirsty businesses; a liver transplant alone can take 100 units of juice, Bruce.

Meanwhile, the community-spirited generation that learned to give during World War II is passing. We who follow are too self-absorbed to spare a few drops. Only 52 percent of Boomers and 39 percent of Gen-Xers told a Harris poll they'd ever given blood, and few persist at it. More and more actually store their own blood (it only lasts six months) to be sure they'll be set if they crash the Suburban—the biomedical equivalent of gated communities and dangerous, road-gobbling SUVs. And some folks supposedly still believe, nonsensically, they could get HIV by donating. Or at least they give that excuse.

A little less selfish here

The picture's somewhat prettier here than in other regions. Six percent of those eligible to donate in King County actually do, versus just 5 percent nationwide—but the Puget Sound Blood Center's Keith Warnack says that share used to be 8 percent. He adds that (contrary to the bad rap on Boomers and the Patriarchy), "Most who donate now are 35- to 50-year-old men." Teenagers are also big donors, thanks to school blood drives, "but as soon as they get out of school, they tend not to."

The local bank is especially strained by the demand for platelets for cancer treatment at the Fred Hutch center. (The corpuscles separated from the platelets are given to other patients or shipped to other blood-short regions.) And blood banks everywhere are squeezed by tough federal rules on who can donate adopted in the wake of AIDS and tainted blood scandals. Fourteen percent of those who try to donate locally are turned away. Some blood collectors (though not the Puget Sound center) argue that some rules, such as barring all gay men from donating, are (literal) overkill. Blood banks will feel the squeeze again this month, and another uproar will doubtless rise, when they must start screening out donors who spent six months or more in Britain during the Mad Cow years. Already, says Warnack, "People who've been to Britain [for shorter periods] won't donate, even though they are eligible."

Some blood banks also lament the intrusive, federally mandated questionnaire that even regular donors must answer, out loud, before every donation: Have you ever taken money or drugs for sex? Have you had sex with another man, even once, since 1977? And so on. The upside, says Warnack, is that in recent years only one or two out of about 200,000 donations to the Puget Sound center has tested HIV-positive. Would you really want to trust the lab alone to screen out infectious blood?

A donor's confession

I won't wade into these debates, except to note that the fact that the pesky questionnaire is the worst thing about giving blood suggests giving really isn't so awful as some imagine. And there comes a time when it's flattering to have anyone ask about your sex life.

But I can offer three good selfish reasons for giving. One is the usual argument for paying your taxes, crossing at the light, and general good citizenship: Give 'cause you want others to; add your mite toward making this the kind of world you'd want to live in, where a bag of blood will be waiting when you need it. Another is the usual selfish argument—which giving blood fulfills in the most pure and (ahem) undiluted fashion. It makes you feel good. When all other justifications for your existence fail, when your best wit cannot be understood and your best intentions go awry, when you feel like a blank spot on the map, a blight upon the universe, a pimple on God's butt, there's no surer cure for the blues than giving blood. Yes, other things may restore your existential standing—painting a masterpiece, climbing some virgin Antarctic peak, curing AIDS, winning the New Hampshire primary—but these are all difficult, uncertain, or morally dubious. To give blood, you roll up your sleeve, wince slightly, zone out for a few minutes, have some juice and cookies, and help save a life. What else packs so much ethical bang for the buck?

And finally, there's an exotic, even kinky reason, one that I didn't consciously perceive until I'd done it dozens of times: Giving blood fulfills some deep, atavistic yearnings that are wrapped up with sex but not just about sex. Let's face it: As a species, or at least the testosterone-afflicted half of it, we're obsessed with bodily fluids and exchanges thereof. From earliest age we celebrate boogers, earwax, and the rest. As kids in a less hygienically anxious era we would nick ourselves with our jackknives and swear blood-brotherhood. When one kid really wanted to beat up another, he'd pin him and spit in his mouth. Overgrown kids like Wilt Chamberlain feel the need to sleep with (or pretend to have slept with) 30,000 women. And sex-starved people forever swoon over vampires, who suck blood and, maybe, share a little of their own to bring you over to the immortal dark side.

I found Ann Rice's soft-core blood porn unreadable, but I have an inkling of the impulse it speaks to. There's a glimmer of immortality in the idea of my corpuscles walking around in dozens of people—people who needed them to keep walking. Had a transfusion? Maybe you've got some of 'em. Hello, blood sister. Hello, blood brother!

External Links

Puget Sound Blood Center

America's Blood Centers

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