Ten Strangers

Speech #9 - February 28, 2008

My wife and I sat across the booth from my parents as we gathered on New Year's Eve at our traditional Chinese dinner meal. While we reminisced and bemoaned tragic events from the year past, we looked forward to better fortune in the year to come. Little did we know that that new year, so full of hope and promise, would initially lead us down a most unexpected path.

Just three days later, despite appearances of good health, my father was admitted to the hospital, suffering from a mild heart attack. His doctors determined that at least two bypasses would be necessary, and on January 6, he entered the operating room for the surgery. Although he had had a similar operation 25 years earlier, the stakes had changed: he was now nearly 80 years old, and genuine concern was voiced by family members as to his survival.

My mother had the prayers and support of local family members, many of whom held vigil in the hospital waiting area while we awaited either the surgeon or the chaplain, depending on how the surgery went. Much to our collective relief, it was the surgeon telling us his five bypasses were successful and tears of joy were shed all around.

We anxiously awaited the opportunity to see my father in the ICU recovery room, knowing full well that he would not be responsive, and that if my experience of 25 years earlier was any indication, we'd better be prepared for a shocking image. Finally, my mother, my wife, our two sons and our daughter-in-law and I were allowed into the unit. There he lay, wrapped in hospital linens like a human burrito, having the pallor of a corpse. He was attached to a breathing machine and so many intravenous devices that it was difficult to determine what they were pumping into and out of him.

But one line did catch my eye, and gave me a special hope. Attached to that tubing was a bag of A-Positive blood, marked as being from a "Volunteer Donor." Seeing that, I knew things were going to be OK. Though the donor couldn't know it, his or her blood just might be saving my father's life. By the time my father's stay in ICU was complete, he had been given 6 units of whole blood, two units of platelets and two units of plasma. Most likely from ten strangers who felt that saving lives was a top priority.

I first started donating blood in the early 1970s, primarily because of the inspiration from my father and grandfather, who were also blood donors. Perhaps my first donation was merely a show of bravado, proving that I could take the needle, but soon it was a regular practice. My first donations were made at the old blood bank on J street, next to the big water tower. As their operation grew, they moved to the new facilities on Stockton Boulevard. It was there that I earned my first award, for donating twenty-four times, or three gallons. While waiting to donate I would notice the plaques and donor volumes for those donating ten or more gallons. I would sometimes calculate how long it would take for me to achieve that ten gallon milestone, knowing that I could only donate five or six times a year. From three gallons to ten gallons would probably take more than ten years!

With the Blood Bank only two miles from the office, it seemed like it would be pretty convenient to get there and donate. But I don't drive to work, so mass transit was my main option, and that added as much as an hour to make the right connections. Suddenly, it wasn't as convenient. But the lure of free donuts was strong, so I still managed to make a donation at least four times a year.

The blood bank assures us that donating is safe, and that the blood supply is safe. I've seen both sides. Aside from the initial needle stick, donating blood is generally painless. But sometimes there are side effects. I once made the mistake of not eating well before a donation. As I lay in the donation chair, the attendant noticed that I was getting pale and sweating a bit. I felt a bit weak, and they brought me something to eat and something to drink. After a bit, I recovered, but it did put me off of donating for a few months. When I worked up the nerve to do it again, I made sure that I had eaten, and have not had a similar incident since, and even if I did now, it would not deter me.

But the safe blood supply is a far more important issue than my own personal comfort. When I spied that "volunteer donor" label on my father's transfusion, I knew that the blood had undergone much testing and was safe for him to receive. During the donation process, donors are asked to complete a questionnaire and some general health testing which might identify reasons for deferral. A simple cold is enough to defer you for a few days, a more serious illness could cause deferral for several months, or even result in permanent deferral.

Over the years, I've been deferred two or three times due to minor illnesses, and though I knew it was in the best interest of a safe blood supply, I still felt frustration at not being able to donate. Once it was for a full year. I could see that 10 gallon mark slipping further into the future. But finally, just after the turn of the millennium, I made my goal, 80 donations, 10 gallons. BloodSource honored me, and several hundred others, with a celebratory luncheon and a special award. But the award was minor compared to the stories we all heard that day of lives changed through donors' efforts. People affected by tragic accidents, cancer and other diseases who received donated blood from strangers, maybe even some of the same strangers that helped my dad. Maybe even me. There was no way I could stop now. This was important.

Then the unthinkable happened. After a donation I received a letter from BloodSource indicating that my blood had tested positive for Hepatitis B. A positive test, even a false positive, was enough to warrant permanent deferral. Needless to say, I was devastated, especially since I knew it to be impossible that I was infected, or had even been exposed. I went to my doctor and got tested. It was negative. I went back to BloodSource with the results. They retested me. Negative. Apparently, it was an error in their original testing and I was removed from the deferral list and I was able to resume donating.

With DWR now sponsoring a blood drive every eight weeks, the lack of convenience disappears altogether. I only have to descend six flights of stairs to the auditorium. For an hour of my time, six times a year, I'm making a difference. Two years ago, I reached yet another milestone: 100 donations. Last month I made my 110th donation. I expect to hit the 15 gallon mark next year.

I donate because I can... because I should... because it's the right thing for me to do. I encourage those that don't to do so. I encourage those that used to donate to resume. I encourage those that can't, for whatever reason, to volunteer at a blood center, or to organize a mobile blood drive at a school, church or place of business. Together, we do save lives.

Return to Roger's Page