Donating Blood during the Pandemic

Last month, I convinced a former nursing school classmate to join me in giving blood. She had never donated before, so I was so excited for her, but I was also happy someone was willing to join me! Is it sad that the only time I feel I can be “social” during the pandemic is when I’m doing things like going to school or donating blood? If you’re like my friend and have never given blood or wonder what blood donations are like during a pandemic, this post is for you!

Donors receive gift cards and discounts.

Aside from supporting someone else’s life, donors got perks such as gift certificates and discounts to restaurants or retailers like Amazon. Depending on the blood drive, donors can be entered into prize drawings or receive items like water bottles. Donors typically get water, juice, and snacks after their donation, too. Recently, the American Red Cross announced they would test blood donations for COVID antibodies – this free antibody test is a significant new perk in donating blood!

Blood donors get free COVID-19 antibody testing.

My friend and I were both eager to get the COVID antibody test for free. We knew of healthcare workers and personally worked with a nurse who showed no COVID symptoms but tested positive for antibodies. “Antibody testing may indicate if the donor’s immune system has produced antibodies to this coronavirus, regardless of whether an individual experienced COVID-19 symptoms. A positive antibody test result does not confirm infection or immunity” (redcross.org). Regardless, we wondered if we would have positive antibody results and secretly hoped we were one of those asymptomatic people with possibly protective COVID antibodies.

Make a donation appointment early – appointments fill up quickly.

Before the pandemic, many blood drives accepted walk-in donors without appointments. Now, anyone donating must make an appointment ahead of time. Many drives fill up for several weeks or even a month in advance.

There are many blood drives – make an appointment for a location/date/time convenient for you.

We found a blood drive and made a donation appointment at a beachside hotel in Marina Del Rey, here in Southern California. I decided to pick this hotel in particular, because I liked their restaurant and knew they had a scenic outdoor dining patio. I figured I could brunch with my classmate as a mini celebration to her inaugural blood donation but also to us graduating from nursing school. We had not celebrated our graduation together in-person due to the pandemic. We had spent enough time together at clinicals and lunch breaks in hospitals during the pandemic, however, that we thought an outdoor post-graduation brunch would pose minimal risk.

The blood drive was at a hotel right on the marina. It was in a ballroom with windows overlooking the beach, in an area separate from their dining patio.

Save time and use RapidPass for pre-donation reading and screening.

To save time completing questionnaires and screening questions before the actual donation, donors can answer health history questions and complete the pre-donation reading using their computer or mobile phone the day of the donation via the RapidPass application. Travel, medications, and certain kinds of activities may make people ineligible to donate blood. Doing the pre-donation reading via RapidPass may help a person discover whether they should donate blood before showing up to a blood drive.

I used RapidPass (https://www.redcrossblood.org/donate-blood/manage-my-donations/rapidpass.html) to minimize the amount of time I had to sit and wait in a room filled with strangers. While appointments ensure spacing between donors and minimal crowding, I still felt uncomfortable at the prospect of spending an hour in an indoor, enclosed room with random people. (I don’t know why, but I never had this concern during clinicals at hospitals. Maybe it’s because I had to be at my clinicals, but blood donations are entirely voluntary). Upon arrival, I showed the registration volunteers my photo ID and RapidPass confirmation barcode. After that, it was a quick process for the temperature and hemoglobin screening before my actual blood donation.

Wear a mask. If you are sick, visit a doctor or stay home.

The American Red Cross requires blood donors to wear a face cover or mask and keep their mask on upon their arrival and during their appointment. They also screen donors to ensure they are not running a fever or exhibit other symptoms. My temperature was taken twice by two different people before I gave blood. The registration volunteers asked me to use hand sanitizer, and everyone wore masks and displayed proper hand hygiene. I appreciated all the precautions during my appointment.

Although donors get free COVID antibody screening, if people are sick or have COVID symptoms, they should get screened for COVID and diagnosed elsewhere. “The Red Cross is not testing donors to diagnose illness, referred to as a diagnostic test” (redcross.org). If I had an active infection, I wouldn’t want to risk exposing blood drive volunteers, staff, and other donors to my illness, even if I thought it was only a cold. I would hope others would do the same and quarantine themselves according to CDC recommendations if they were sick.

Hemoglobin levels will be tested and must be normal.

Before every donation, the American Red Cross gathers a drop of blood by pricking a potential donor’s finger and tests that sample for hemoglobin levels. The process is very similar to the point of care glucose testing I did during clinicals. I tried giving blood in August but could not since my hemoglobin levels were too low, which was likely caused by low iron.

Because the American Red Cross no longer accepts walk-in appointments, anytime a potential donor is turned away from giving blood that same day, the Red Cross cannot quickly fill that newly-vacant appointment. The pandemic has severely impacted the usual avenues of blood drives at schools, offices, or churches since these groups have not been meeting in-person or on-campus. To ensure I could donate and not waste a donor spot, I decided to take some iron supplements a week before my September donation appointment. Luckily, it raised my iron levels high enough that I was able to donate blood. I only needed one finger prick to show my hemoglobin was within normal limits! There have been times when I required a second sample to qualify as having normal hemoglobin levels. Or, like in August, the second sample confirmed that I was below normal limits. (For additional information about iron levels and blood donations, check out: https://www.redcrossblood.org/donate-blood/blood-donation-process/before-during-after/iron-blood-donation/iron-informationforallblooddonors.html)

Masked and lying down while donating blood.

After all the screening questions and tests were complete in a makeshift cubicle area, the staff person led me to the room’s blood donation section. While you donate blood, you lie on a cushioned table that is as comfortable as the doctors’ offices’ exam tables. I was fascinated by the venipuncture and blood donation process and asked the person who collected my blood if she had any tips. Unlike some of my personal experiences during nursing school, she was confident in poking me and didn’t struggle to find a vein. Poking people all day for the past ten years made her skilled at venipuncture – I hope to be just as confident and proficient someday! (Tip: go for a vein you can feel, not one you can only see)

Full transparency: the collection needle is big.

I will not lie – seeing the needle they used to collect my blood was a little intimidating. I had never been afraid of giving blood before, but it had been a while. I had never seen or used a needle that huge (16-17 gauge) on a person or mannequin in all of my nursing school! The needle they used reminded me of a draw needle (used to draw up medication from a vial, typically more massive than any injection needle I ever used on any patient). Because a pint of blood is needed instead of merely test tube quantities, the collection needle needs to be big enough to allow for decent blood flow. Otherwise, the donation process would take much longer.

Once the needle is in, it typically takes no more than 10-15 minutes to donate blood. Some old co-workers I know would try to race each other and see who could fill up the bag and donate the fastest. I think their donation took only 3-5 minutes on one occasion. However, I was in no rush and was honestly just happy to be out of my house and around people.

What my arm looked like later that evening, after removing the bandage. I got a minor bruise at the puncture site. This small bruise didn’t hurt and disappeared after a couple of days.

After the actual donation, prepare to rest for 10-15 minutes before leaving

After my donation was complete and they bandaged me up, they invited me to sit and relax in the snack area . There is usually a table of juice and snacks like granola bars, trail mix, or crackers and cookies at every blood drive. Donors are encouraged to sit and rest and snack on something after their donation, before they leave. This also allows the staff to observe donors for any reactions to the donation.

I had a friend who wanted to skip sitting and resting after her donation and ended up fainting as she walked out the door. If you feel light-headed after donating blood, sit down and let someone know! Blood loss and dehydration can cause people to experience orthostatic hypotension or dizziness upon standing or changing positions.

It’s essential to hydrate just as much after a donation as much as it is before donating blood. The hotel restaurant was having a happy hour in their outdoor patio that afternoon. As tempting as it was (I haven’t been to a happy hour since before the pandemic), alcohol is not recommended after donating blood. I stayed hydrated!

Snack selection and view after my blood donation.
In addition to my snacks, I got to appreciate a clear sunny day, palm trees, and a beach view for my blood donation

You may need to modify activities after your donation.

Like alcohol, strenuous exercise is not recommended the same day after donating blood. If you think you need a high-intensity workout the day of your donation, do it before giving blood. Years ago, when I had daily running routines and ran marathons, I would schedule my workouts before donating blood or use a donation day as a rest day. Give your body at least the evening to recover from donating before resuming working out heavily. [Un?-] fortunately, regularly working out hard-core is not something I’ve been doing recently, so I didn’t have to reschedule anything.

While you can probably resume your workout schedule the next day after a donation, your body still needs time to recover from the entire process. For some donors, iron supplementation is recommended after donating (https://www.redcrossblood.org/donate-blood/blood-donation-process/before-during-after/iron-blood-donation/iron-informationforfrequentdonors.html). Regardless of who you are, to allow enough time for proper recovery, whole blood donors must wait 56 days between donations.

Make a plan to donate again!

I’m not eligible to donate whole blood again until next month; I plan to donate once 56 days have passed since my last donation. My friend wants to do it again, too. Donating blood helps replenish an impacted blood supply. It is an easy, smooth process, I get to ask highly experienced professionals about venipuncture tips to support my nursing practice, and I get to invite friends to join me! Plus, my friend and I like the idea of regularly getting a free COVID-19 antibody test!

I encourage you to donate!

To find a blood drive near you and sign up for a donation appointment, please visit: https://www.redcrossblood.org/give.html/find-drive

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