Doug Melvold


special to the Bellevue Herald-Leader

I don’t recall just when I donated my first unit of blood. Despite handling news releases for years announcing a local blood drive hosted by a service organization, church or high school group, I put off the mission myself for years on grounds that between work and family I was too busy and didn’t have time, and in the back of my mind, the squeamish aspect of it, fear of the dreaded needle poke and the idea of having blood drained from your body.

But the idea stayed in my mind. I figured it’s a simple way to literally give of yourself and it’s something I ought to do someday.

Finally someday came. I can’t tell you the year, other than it was in the late 1990s, but I know the month and date because it was my birthday, May 10. The Badger Bloodmobile from the American Red Cross in Wisconsin happened to be making one of its periodic stops that day at what was then the Maquoketa Community Center (now Touchdown Storage) for an afternoon blood drive.

Dolores Klein, whom many readers will recall as the tireless volunteer organizer for the Badger Bloodmobile for many years, would drop off a news release at the Sentinel-Press office — and while she was in the office, would pause at my desk to urge me to stop by on the appointed day. Finally, I thought, this is the day, this is a birthday present that I can give someone else.

Like many events in life we think of as less than pleasant, I found the anticipation was far worse than the reality. After the quick stick, the process was painless and I felt fine afterward, as I shared a home-baked cookie, beverage, and a warm feeling with other donors. That wasn’t so bad, I figured. I could do this again.

After one or two more donations to the Badger bloodmobile, I started donating to another blood collection organization, the Mississippi Valley Regional Blood Center, headquartered in Davenport, that also was starting to offer blood drives in the Maquoketa area. That organization had become the blood supplier to what is now the Jackson County Regional Health Center.

My first donation to that organization was in January 2000, and I gave again at a blood drive later that year. Somewhere along the way, possibly in talking with a staff member or picking up a flyer, I learned of another way to donate blood products, called apheresis.

It’s a different process and involves collecting platelets, which are the clotting component of blood. Platelets are needed by patients being treated for many forms of cancer in which the treatment often kills healthy blood cells as well as the bad. Platelets also are needed for patients undergoing open heart surgery and for bone marrow and organ transplants. Victims of traumatic injuries and burn victims also often need platelets.

Platelets are in high demand because it takes four to six units of whole blood to produce one transfusable unit of platelets. But when a person does apheresis by use of an automated machine, enough platelets are collected for at least one full unit. Often two and sometimes three units of platelets can be collected in one session. Red blood cells also can be collected for transfusion.

Platelets from a single donor are preferred “because they’re coming from one person rather than the four to six units from different people that have to be pooled together to make a transfusable dose of platelet,” explained Amanda Ring, lead apheresis recruiter for the blood center.

“The majority of patients who will be receiving those platelets will be cancer patients, who tend to have weakened immune systems. It’s better for them to be exposed to a single donor or receive single-donor platelets through the course of their treatment so they don’t have any bad reactions from the antibodies they will be exposed to. If you have six different people and you pool their blood together, it’s going to increase the chance of having a reaction when that patient is trying to build up antibodies.

“With automated donation processes, we’re better able to target you based on your blood type, blood volume and platelet count to the patient you’re suited for so we can maximize your donation potential,” Amanda told me. “On our end not a lot of people are familiar with platelet donation or the automated donation part of it. The biggest thing is letting people know it’s an option and a need.”

Apheresis takes a bit longer than giving a unit of whole blood. And because of the equipment needed, it’s done only at a blood collection center. I do my apheresis donations at the blood center’s headquarters in Davenport. It’s on Lakeview Parkway, in an office park off 53rd Street about a mile east of the Interstate 74-53rdStreet interchange. Additional collection centers in our area are in Dubuque and Cedar Rapids. Since retirement, I try to donate at least once a month.

In addition to driving time to and from the blood center, I set aside about 2 1/2 hours from the time I walk into the blood center to when I walk out versus about 45 minutes for a whole blood donation. First, of course, is the check-in process. It starts with stepping on the center’s too-accurate digital scale, perhaps the most painful part of the procedure. A phlebotomist does a mini-physical, taking blood pressure, temperature, heart rate, and hemoglobin from a drop of blood. Next comes a questionnaire with lifestyle and health history questions.

Once I’m good to go, I’m directed to one of seven or eight chairs set next to machines and tables. The chair is like today’s dental chairs, more like a comfy, soft chaise lounge. I’m tilted back. A phlebotomist hands me a foam ball to squeeze and draws an X on a vein in the inside part of my left elbow. After the area is cleaned, a needle is inserted. I’ll feel a slight burning sensation for two or three seconds — that’s it, and we’re under way. The rest is painless. The phlebotomist tapes the needle and plastic tubing in place, collects a couple blood samples for testing, and programs the machine.

Blood is drawn into a centrifuge in the machine. The centrifugal force separates the platelets, red blood cells and plasma. The platelets and some of the plasma are spun off and collected in a bag and the rest is returned to me. The machine alternately draws whole blood and returns blood, minus platelets, back to me. I usually do a double unit, which takes about 90 minutes.

While the machine is doing its thing, donors have some free time. Thanks to corporate charity, each chair is equipped with its own TV set. With one hand free, donors also will bring in a book or their Kindle to read, their tablet to watch a movie, listen to an audiobook, or surf the Internet or their smartphones to do whatever it is that people incessantly do on their smartphones.

Donors are treated pretty darn well. Blankets and neck pillows are available, and the staff will bring you a soft drink and a cookie or other snack. I usually sip from a cup of apple juice during the procedure and save the cookies for afterward.

When the machine beeps that we’re done, the phlebotomist removes the needle, collects all the plastic plumbing, wraps a gauze pad around my elbow, and bids me a good day and come back soon as I head for the snack area staffed by a volunteer who’ll hand me a V-8 and a peanut butter cookie or two to munch on before I head out.

Last month marked my 80th blood center trip to date. I guess that makes it around 20 gallons, although platelet units are slightly smaller than whole blood. The blood center no longer tallies donations in gallons but rather the number of times you’ve given.

Whole-blood donors can give every 56 days. But because your body replaces plasma and platelets quickly, apheresis donors can give every seven days — up to a maximum of 24 times in any 12-month period. At a donor appreciation brunch the blood center hosted several years ago, I sat next to a longtime platelet donor and retiree who lived just a few minutes’ walk from the blood center. Starting in January, he had a standing appointment to donate almost every Wednesday morning for 24 weeks, and by the end of July, he was done for the year and had to wait until the following January to begin again.

Apheresis donors are in constant demand because platelets have a shelf life of only five days. After the platelets are collected, they remain at the blood center for a day to a day and a half for testing. The blood center’s collection locations collect about 700 units of platelets a week. After testing, they’re sent to any of the 110 hospitals that the Mississippi Valley Regional Blood Center serves to be transfused to patients.

The blood center is the exclusive supplier of blood and blood products to the Jackson County Regional Health Center and all hospitals in our surrounding area, including all hospitals in the Quad Cities, Dubuque, Clinton and Cedar Rapids. University Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City has its own blood center, but the MVRBC also supplements that supply.

Donating blood is a great and easy way of giving back. If you’re at least 17 years old (16 with parental consent), are basically healthy, and haven’t taken aspirin in the last 48 hours, chances are you’re a good candidate.

For those at my stage of life, “Retirees who are healthy and active and like to contribute make great platelet donors,” Kirby Winn, the blood center’s public relations director, said. However, he noted, many retirees also head to a warmer climate for the winter. Because of that factor and with the upcoming busy holiday season, the need for donors increases at this time of year.

A few years ago a fellow Maquoketa Rotary Club member who was undergoing cancer treatment at the time came up to me after a Rotary meeting one day and said he understood that I donated platelets. When I confirmed that I did, he said he had been receiving regular platelet transfusions as part of his treatment and noted with a smile that “I may well have some of your platelets floating around inside me. Thank you.”

Hearing a comment like that is what makes that small exercise worthwhile. Being able to play a part in extending someone else’s life, I guess, is why I give.

Kirby shared with me a testimonial video in which a donor named Tony, who has given 146 times since 1989, said he was motivated in part after his father received blood products after having surgery twice to replace a heart valve.

“It’s the right thing to do … it’s a pay-it-forward kind of thing. And where else do you get to give back to your community while reclining in a chair and watching TV?”

And who knows, someday I, too, may need to be on the receiving end.

Interested in donating platelets?

To learn more, contact Amanda Ring at the Mississippi Valley Regional Blood Center at (800) 747-5401, Ext. 3954.