I leave a pint of “Power Red” at the Wickenburg Community Center’s blood drive.
I started giving blood when I was 17. I was in college and there was a blood drive and I decided to do my part. I was pretty dopey about it, though. After school, I came home, had soup for dinner, and went out drinking with my friends. (No, the drinking age in New York wasn’t 17 back then.) I got unbelievably sick and learned a valuable lesson: no giving blood and drinking.
Now, of course, they tell you not to drink alcohol. Duh.
I gave blood pretty regularly for the next 10 years. It was always convenient: blood drives at school, blood drives at work. When I worked for the City of New York, if I gave blood at the office blood drive, I’d get a half day off. I was all over that.
By the time I was 25, I’d probably given about a gallon of the stuff, making me what they called (back then, anyway) a “galloneer.” Cool.
I give blood, in part, because when I was born my mother lost a lot of blood and needed transfusions. Someone else had given blood so she could live. I thought I should return the favor.
My mother, of course, was the same way about giving blood. She claimed it was like getting an oil change.
Nowadays, there seems to be more accuracy to that comparison than she’d believe. I’m talking about “power red.”
But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself here.
Wickenburg often has blood drives, but for one reason or another, it’s not always convenient for me to join in the fun. I usually just forget. “Oh yes,” my mind says when it reads the sign, “there’s a blood drive on Tuesday. I should go.” But on Tuesday, without the sign in front of my face, I simply forget about it.
Yesterday, however, was tougher to forget. The blood drive was in my face, so to speak. I first learned about it when I dropped my car off at Big O to get an oil change. (Ironic, no?) I saw them unloading the stuff from the blood drive truck at the Community Center. Later, while I was on the phone with a local silkscreening company, the person I was speaking to told me she was going to the blood drive later in the day. Then, when I had to go pick up my car from its oil change, I had to walk right past the Community Center. I walked in. Two elderly gentlemen at a table near the door were all ready to sign me up.
“I have to go pick up my car,” I told them. “It’s about a mile walk. I figure I’d walk better with all my blood in me than a pint short. Could I come back in a half hour?”
“Sure,” they said. “You’ll get right in.”
I walked to Big O to get my car. The walk would have been pleasant if it weren’t for the smell of the exhaust from the trucks zooming past me on East Wickenburg Way and the trash on the side of the road. The weather was nice — quite clear and sunny with a light wind — and I needed the exercise.
I stopped at KFC/Long John Silver on my way back to the Community Center. I know the guy who owns the place and he’s struggling hard to make it succeed. Sadly, his place is on the wrong side of the highway, opposite the Burger King, Pizza Hut/Taco Bell, Filibertos, Tastee-Freez, and McDonalds. He’s an island of fast food out there. He just added the Long John Silver and I wanted to check out the fish. I picked some up at the drive-up window and ate a piece on the way back to the Community Center. It wasn’t bad. It was fast food.
Back at the Community Center, I signed in. There was a column there that asked if I wanted to give Power Red. I asked the two gentlemen what that was. They told me that they pump blood out of you, separate the red blood cells from the plasma, and pump the plasma back into you. Sure, I thought. And I sat down, wondering briefly what it really was.
Three other people waited on the chairs set up for waiting. One was a woman of about 50 with a bright red sweater, a fancy multi-colored bow on the back of her head, and bud headphones. There was a man in front of me, who was the first to leave us. Then a young boy, about 12 years old, wearing suspenders — likely a Mennonite. We have a bunch of those folks living in town and you can pick them out from a crowd by the way they dress. He was waiting for his dad, who also wore suspenders, and was dropping off his pint on one of the lounges. As I waited, a man with a serious breathing problem took the chair behind me and began reading the paper, a woman in her sixties came in and promptly opened a book, and an elderly woman wearing a shiny gold jacket and a pink hat came in and began talking to herself.
Here’s a weird thing. One of the people who worked at the blood bank was a woman in her early thirties who was absolutely round. This is weird because yesterday’s entry dealt with obesity and I used the word round to describe really fat people. This woman was the roundest person I’ve ever seen. I imagined her knocked over on her side and rolling down a hill. But I think she could have rolled down a hill without being knocked over.
The whole time I sat there, I listened to the classic rock that was playing over the Community Center’s speakers, just loud enough to be noticeable.
I was processed by three people. The first, a young guy from Phoenix, really needs to get a different job. He obviously hates what he’s doing. He refused to chat. All business. A young guy working at a place that sucks blood out of you shouldn’t be like that. He should be friendly and responsive to the people he’s processing. He took my blood pressure (148/90), pulse (78), and temperature (97.3) and checked a drop of blood for iron. Everything was A-OK. He sent me back to my chair to wait.
The second person was also young, but the opposite in personality to the first person. He and I joked together as he asked me about a hundred questions that covered health, medication, and sexual activity (for AIDS screening). He was also from New Jersey — the Greenwood Lake area — and he said that my accent reminded him of home, which he missed sometimes. We made jokes about the lady in the gold jacket and I told him that he’d have to ask her whether she’d ever accepted drugs or money for sex. (Yes, that was one of the questions.) Things got a little iffy when I couldn’t remember a prescription muscle relaxer I’d been prescribed 2 weeks ago for a tension headache, but I solved that by calling the Safeway pharmacy, where I’d gotten the prescription filled, and was given the name of the drug.
He asked me if I wanted to give “power red.” I asked him to explain what that was and he repeated what the men at the desk had told me. He told me that it was better for the blood bank to get power red because it got 2 pints of red blood cells from each patient, making it easier to give transfusions. It took 20 minutes longer and I’d have to wait a few weeks longer before I could give blood again. He said I had to be 5’4″ or taller and weigh more than 150 pounds. I met the criteria. He took another blood sample from me in a narrow tube and stuck it into a centrifuge. He brought it back to me 60 seconds later and said, “This is good. You’re 42 percent red blood cells. We only need 40%.” He showed me the tube which showed half red and half yellowish. The red was the red blood cells and the yellowish was the plasma. Cool.
At the end of the screening, when he walked me over to where the blood sucking was done, he told me I’d been the most enjoyable person he’d worked with all day and thanked me.
The next person was very businesslike, probably because he spent his day sucking blood out of people. I’d been seated next to a machine that he set up with three blood bags. I asked questions and he filled me in. One bag would collect my blood. Then the machine would send the blood into a centrifuge that separated it into red blood cells and plasma. The red blood cells would go into the middle bag and the plasma would go into the bag closest to me. The machine had two cycles. One sucked blood, the other pumped plasma and saline back into me. When the process was complete, the machine would beep.
He poked me, started the machine, and gave me a ball to squeeze. I was told to squeeze when the blood pressure cuff was tight — that’s when the blood would be coming out — and stop squeezing when the cuff was loose — that’s when the plasma would be going back in. Then he left me to stick someone else.
One of the old guys from the door came over, grinning from ear-to-ear. “You’re giving power red,” he said happily.
“I thought you were kidding when you told me what it was,” I told him.
“You thought I was kidding?”
“Yeah. It sounded pretty weird.”
He told me that when the plasma went back in, it would be cool because the blood cools down while it’s being processed. Then he wandered off to chat with someone else.
He was right. When the cuff got loose, the tube running from my arm turned pink, then cloudy beige, then yellow. The plasma went in. It was noticeably cooler than the blood going out. But the weird part was seeing the tube turn red again, quite abruptly, when the cuff tightened. Cool.
I was in the middle of the third cycle when I started feeling light-headed. I told myself that I wasn’t really feeling light-headed, but the room was getting a bit darker and I was feeling a bit nauseous. The machine made a noise, which brought the poking guy over.
“I’m done?” I asked.
“No. Flow’s low. How do you feel?”
He reached down to the foot of my metal-frame lounge and picked up my legs. I was reclining now. “Breathe deeply in through your nose and out through your mouth. It’ll pass.”
It did. About three minutes later, I felt fine again.
I was done a short while later. As the poking guy came over to disconnect me, the machine started pumping the red blood cells out of the middle bag and into two smaller bags down below, out of sight. The plasma bag and fresh blood bag were just about empty.
I opted to remain on the lounge for a short while. I’d seen people fall over after giving blood and I didn’t want to be one of them. If you pass out, they keep you there. I didn’t want to spend the night at the Community Center.
I had some orange juice and pumpkin cake with two elderly ladies who were providing refreshments. They’d seen the way I waited on the lounge and told me I had to wait the full fifteen minutes before I could leave. We chatted about Wal-Mart. (They brought it up, not me.) One woman said the last thing she ever wanted to see in Wickenburg was a Wal-Mart. The other woman, who was her sister visiting from Illinois, told me about how it had destroyed her town.
As I left, the old guy who’d spoken to me said, “See you again in August?”
“You bet,” I told him. That would be just about the right time for my next oil change.