The very first time I had blood drawn and remembered it was when I was about 10 years old. I was sitting in a waiting room in a hospital in Vietnam, in a thin gown, shivering from a multi-day episode of food poisoning. I remember pale yellow light saturating the building, and constant electrical buzzing, punctuated by the screams of children in other rooms. I remember the doctor murmuring something to my mother in Vietnamese which I didn’t understand, and then her telling me “look over there!” and I looked, because I was really gullible when I was 10 (some things never change).
I remember feeling unexpectedly intense, hot, sharp pain in my finger. It felt as though an animal had bitten it. A veritable gom jabbar that I was failing.
I could not recognize the feral howl that erupted from my own mouth.
Here is my confession, dear regular readers of “Bone and Blood”: I am awfully squeamish when it comes to medical violence. Needles greatly perturb me. Even the mere thought of surgery, cutting open people’s flesh and vessels, stapling and rearranging organs and such – the very idea gives me weak knees and clammy palms. I have left people’s houses because episodes of Nip/Tuck flashed up on the television. If a doctor told me I had to have exploratory surgery performed on me, I would nod and then walk right out of the office and into traffic. To avoid either the surgery itself, or avoid being conscious enough to realize that surgery was happening.
Now, regular readers of this column might find this stance a little unexpected for a person who regularly tours medical history museums, is obsessed with Elizabeth (Erzsebet) Bathory and has been known to take a knife to a throat on occasion. I can’t really explain it. Perhaps it’s self-motivated flooding therapy.
The needle spanned the length of my entire hand. I had tried to look away, but couldn’t help but see its approach. It cast a shadow!
“Just squeeze this little stress ball,” said the nurse. “Try and squeeze tight.”
I took this edict seriously. I squeezed so hard that my arm locked into a rigid Tin-Man position that was not possible to undo.
“Okay, maybe don’t squeeze that tight,” she said. “Can you just relax a little?”
The bruise purpled on my skin for a month afterward.
For a long time, my excuse for not giving blood was that I didn’t make the weight limit. A pint of blood weighs about the equivalent of a pound, Shylock’s asking price, which is a significant proportion of one’s body weight when one is the size of a cocktail shrimp. Plus, I used to get dizzy just from standing up too quickly, so I ruled myself out as a candidate without much guilt.
Then I gained weight and didn’t have a good excuse for a long stretch, so I would see that blood drives were going on and would just kind of pretend not to notice that they were happening.
After returning from traveling around India, I actually did want to donate blood. Well, sort of. But my travels rendered me ineligible to donate for a full year thereafter.
A year passed, and I gave it another month or so, and some more months followed. Best to err on the side of safety, right? What if I have secret hepatitis? Or some still more exotic blood disease?
Then, about a month ago, I read this tweet by Arthur Chu (famous for winning Jeopardy in a slightly jerk-bag manner, and for writing insightful columns about race and other things): “… some Asians die because Asians don’t give blood.” The article he linked talks about the deleterious (and highly avoidable) effects of this cultural taboo.
Okay, all right already. I looked up the Red Cross and signed myself up for the next nearest drive.
Blood is ascribed great importance in most Asian cultures, for better or for worse (mostly worse). This is one of the reasons often given for the stigma against adoption in places like Korea, where I taught English for a few years.
“Teacher, teacher! What’s your blood type?” my students would ask. They were not hospital patients in need of transfusions, nor were they vampires. In Korea, the different blood types are associated with distinct personality traits.
The idea of blood types linked to personality traits has somewhat sordid roots in the eugenics movement in Japan. Differences in blood types were used to classify and rank populations as being superior or inferior. My Korean students, who were otherwise anti-all things Japanese, did not seem to be aware of the origins of this seemingly innocuous personality quiz. They would be shocked, but probably not as shocked as they were when I told them that I did not actually know my blood type.
“But teacher, why?” they asked. Not knowing your own blood type was like not knowing your own first name, or how many fingers and toes you possess.
One girl made me promise that I would notify her as soon as I found out this information. She wanted confirmation of her certain conviction: “Teacher, you MUST be type O.”
“What made you want to come in today?” asked my nurse, who was very friendly, as she strapped me to the gurney where I would remain for the next forty-five minutes.
I mentioned I had read an article about how Asians have a low donation rate, and the very friendly nurse nodded. “Black people don’t donate much either,” she said. “Even me! I’ll stick people all day, but no way am I letting that needle get to me.”
This was very reassuring!
I then had a repeat of previous blood extractions – a sharp jab of the finger (this time I passed the gom jabbar with minimal whining), and again came out a needle that was too long for me to look at without fainting. I stared up at the wall, on which was projected the movie Seabiscuit, while the nurse chatted away about horses. She had tended to a jockey whose head had been trampled by his own horse. He lived. Suddenly, the needle didn’t seem so bad.
“Hold this thing and just squeeze it every five seconds,” she said, and I did. Fifteen minutes later, the blood still wasn’t moving fast enough, so she instructed me to rotate the foam grip instead of squeezing it. Then I had to rotate and squeeze simultaneously, while the nurses conferred, and another nurse came and adjusted the needle slightly.
“Woo, there it goes,” said the nurse, and I suddenly felt dizzy as a river of blood rushed out of my body and into the bag. Eventually, a pound of blood was extracted from my flesh, and the nurse set it on the gurney next to my leg. I was surprised at how warm it was.
The bruise from the first and second needle attempts stained my paper-thin skin. It’s still there.
Earlier today, I downloaded the Red Cross blood donor app. It lets you schedule appointments, keeps your donation history and tracks where your blood goes, letting you know where your blood contribution ended up going – in the arm of a child, in a tampon test factory, in a claw foot bathtub in the Kremlin.
A pint of blood, one Shylock, is apparently worth three lives.
The blood is separated into its constituent parts – red blood cells, plasma and platelets. It is then distributed according to need. I do not yet know, as of this writing, where my blood has gone or which three lives it has saved, if any. It is probably going under more testing to rule out secret hepatitis and other irregularities.
I did, however, get my blood type back. My student was right. O positive! (A most opportune blood type for living in Baltimore.)
Kim Le is a writer and shiftless gadabout who hails from the distant wheat fields of Kansas. Obsessions include sustainability, yurts and extreme DIY. Also, she makes sculptures out of food, mostly potatoes. She never updates her blog at http://badmetaphor.net.