Giving Blood

by Julie Curtis

I gave blood today. I followed the signs and found the tall black lounge chairs and plastic cords and blood bags. I came because I read in the paper that there is a summer shortage of blood. My blood’s good and strong; I’m the universal donor, they tell me. I sit next to a computer to tell a man my name, my birthday, and my past history of giving blood.

“When was the last time you gave blood?” he asks.

I fumble in my bag and tell him I used to have a card where I recorded the times I gave blood. “I gave blood about a year ago,” I say. I don’t add that I also gave blood two months ago to my newly divorced aunt, and two months before to my best friend when her boyfriend deserted her. I give blood—lots of it. I’m the universal donor.

“Social Security Number?” he asks.

“Five—two—seven . . .,” I tell him slowly, so he gets all the numbers the first time.

“You’ll need to fill out the other side of this card and sign here,” he says as he pushes a card toward me. For some reason he looks irritated. It is computer printed with my name and middle initial, my birthdate and home address, as well as my phone number and blood type.

I fill out the card that asks if I’ve had sexual relations lately, if I’ve taken drugs or money for sex or given money for sex or drugs—no, no, no, no. Have I taken medication (what they want to know is if I’ve taken drugs) or vaccinations or immunizations for vacations? All the words start to sound the same. Again the question, “Have you given blood in the last eight weeks?”

Yes, I think to myself, I gave blood to someone who didn’t even know it, to someone who didn’t want it or think he needed it. I hear he loves somone else these days, although he comes around every once in a while and we talk and laugh. Then, just two days ago my friend Leslie tells me she saw him last weekend with someone she knows.

“Lucky her,” I say and mean it. He’s a wonderful man, if you don’t mind that he never calls and rarely speaks. You have to break skin to get inside. As Leslie talks I feel the blood draining out of my face, my neck, my shoulders. My body tingles and Leslie looks at me, concerned, but I just say no, it’s all right. I needed to know sometime.

“You’re taking it well,” she says. “Want to go swimming tonight, or maybe take in a movie later?”

I say, “Thanks, maybe, I’ll call after dinner.” If I’m not too tired I may feel up to it.

But now I mark no, I haven’t given blood lately, not in the last eight weeks. I take my paper to the man at the table who takes my pulse and winks as he says, “Move closer, I won’t bite,” then laughs when he can’t unwrap the disposable thermometer. Next is the sharp, painful jab to my thumb, which is the worst part about giving blood, and I breathe more easily when it is over. I stare at the red drop on my finger that grows and threatens to slide onto the table before the man captures it in a little glass slide. He asks where I’ve vacationed in the last three years. The countries I name are all clean. He asks if I’m pregnant, if I’ve taken aspirin lately, if I have any white spots on my mouth or open sores. I say no, no, no.

The iron content in my blood is strong today, even though once I couldn’t give blood because it was too low. The wounded thumb had been for nothing and I am relieved, and a little proud, that I can give blood. I receive a “Blood donors make better lovers” badge on my blouse, a “Congratulations,” and a slight push toward an empty chair and a man in dark blue scrubs with a badge that says “Hi, My Name Is Steve.” The next better lover takes my place and holds out a frightened thumb.

“Let’s see those veins,” Steve says as he wraps the velcro bands around my upper arms and feels my veins with a practiced hand. He gives me a smooth wooden bar to squeeze and asks me which arm I prefer to donate from.

“They’ve had trouble with my veins before because they are small,” I say to warn him. “Both arms are about the same.”

Steve calls his supervisor and together they examine my arms and stroke my veins.

“Looks like the right’s a bit better,” they agree, and look to me for my approval. I just tell them to make sure they don’t miss. “What have we ever done to make you not trust us?” they chuckle as the supervisor leaves and Steve spreads disinfectant over my vulnerable arm.

“This is to make your arms yellow,” he laughs again, then informs me solemnly, “Your veins are about the same size as the needle.” This is not reassuring news.

I look away and feel a sting. I feel the tube that lies across my arm, filling with my O+ blood. The tube is warm and I realize it is my warmth, my heat. The inside of my body is this temperature, and this living blood carries life to my muscles and joints, my mind and lungs, my heart. This is my blood, I think proudly like a mother. I bleed willingly and I will not think of the stinging in my arm.

I watch the blood flow and when Steve kneads my blood inside the bag, I cannot help but think of the other man who did not want my blood. I don’t know why I loved him. Maybe his laugh, his questions, his hands, or simply that it was time.

When Leslie told me two days ago, I felt the blood drain from my face and neck and lie heavy in my fingers; I knew that the past wasn’t yet past. In spite of the months, there was still warm life flowing out of me and into another.

I took chances then. I didn’t know what would last or what would not. Now it’s for me to go on being able to give blood and love and life when the moment comes. This is what pushes life forward, within my veins and without. I knew this with Leslie’s cheery apology for the unwelcome news. It’s funny how I’m still giving blood after so much time.

I am alone until I feel a hand press the bag on my arm and hear the words, “You’re full.” I watch Steve this time as he removes the needle with another sharp, brief pain. He quickly presses gauze to my gaping vein and tells me to hold my arm straight up in the air.

“Are you dizzy?” he asks.

I say no, giving blood never bothers me. I suppose that’s a lie, although it’s what he probably wants to hear.

He lowers my arm and puts bandage tape over my gauze then hands me my blood, in the bag, and a card with two stickers on it. “Confidential,” it reads. “Some people give blood under pressure, even though there may be reasons they should not. If there is any reason you should not give blood, place the ‘Do Not Use My Blood’ sticker in the box at the bottom. Otherwise, place the ‘Use My Blood’ sticker in the box at the bottom.”

Yes, I tell them, use my blood. Then I give the bag to Steve, who smiles and says, “Let’s get you cleaned up a little bit.”

He wipes away the yellow and orange stain, revealing my skin with its tiny red hole over my vein, then he presses my gauze over the needle mark. Although he smiles reassuringly, I cannot overcome the feeling that if I remove the gauze too soon my vein will open again and spout a little fountain of warm blood that I will not be able to stop. I have this fear every time I give blood, but I give blood anyway because someone needs it more than I need to shelter myself from my fear.

I look away and breathe deeply. “Cookie time,” Steve says with a smile and then releases me to leave.

I nod and swing my legs down from the chair and rise, slowly, feeling my blood gather and reorganize itself within my veins. There is enough.

Julie Curtis, a double major in English and Russian, is currently a missionary in Hungary.