The first time I tried -- as a high school senior, many years ago -- I fainted after the finger stick to check my iron level.
I didn't even make it to the donor chair.
This was at a blood drive attended by many friends and classmates. I got teased about it and was embarrassed. For many years, I thought I wouldn't ever be able to give blood.
But one of my heroes, my Uncle Paul, was -- is -- a regular blood donor. He's quietly given nearly 28 gallons to his local blood bank.
It's a habit for him.
So, in 2000, nearly 25 years after my dismal high school experience, I noticed an MD Anderson blood drive being held at the University of Houston.
I decided to try again. And I succeeded.
Since then, giving blood has been a regular thing for me. I try to donate every quarter.
I donate blood because it's something I can do. It takes very little time, it helps people who really need it, and I always feel better after I've done it.
Most are eligible to give
Another reason I donate blood regularly is simply that I'm eligible.
You probably are, too.
Though screening questions cover foreign travel and medication use, few people have traveled to places -- or stayed long enough -- to make them ineligible to give. It's the same with medication use. Very few medications or even medical conditions rule you out as a donor.
In fact, says Andrea Johnson, a community representative in MD Anderson's Blood Donor Services, although 60% of the public is eligible to donate blood, only 5% do.
"So, 55% of the population can donate, but, for various reasons, doesn't," Johnson says. "We could eliminate shortages if we could get some of them to donate."
Meanwhile, the need for blood products (both whole blood and platelets) has steadily increased.
Johnson and I work at MD Anderson, the largest transfusion center in the country. Our patients require about 200 units of red blood cells and 600 units of platelets a day.
Cancer patients often require blood because their disease or its treatment may harm their blood cells. Without enough red blood cells, patients may feel weak. Without enough plasma proteins, a patient might bleed.
It comes down to this: sick and injured people need donated blood. There's no substitute for it.
A great way to spend an hour
Giving whole blood takes about an hour, but most of that time involves the screening before and monitoring after.
Once you're ushered into an exam room, you'll get a finger stick to check your iron level. You'll be asked if you're feeling well and will have your blood pressure and temperature taken.
Then you'll be asked a series of questions to determine whether you're eligible.
The actual donation takes about 10-15 minutes. The technicians are very skilled, so there's little discomfort.
If you've had a bad experience donating or trying to donate in the past, tell your technician. He or she can reassure you and talk you through it.
You'll probably be instructed to squeeze a foam ball every 3-5 seconds to keep the blood flowing.
As previously mentioned, I'm squeamish, so I never look at my arm, the needle or the collection bag.
Leaving the blood bank proud
After the donation, the technician will wrap your arm in a bandage, check that you're feeling well and offer you juice and snacks.
Before they let you go, they'll urge you to eat a big meal soon.
(When was the last time someone insisted that you treat yourself to a big meal?)
You'll be proud of yourself as you head out the door.
The Mays Clinic location is open Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Parking is validated on request. The Holly Hall location is open Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-7 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Parking is free.