Donating blood for the first time? Here are 5 things to know for National Blood Donor Month

January is National Blood Donor Month.

When I was in high school, I worked at a movie theater down the street from my house. I loved that job for all of the obvious reasons. It was my first real job and it barely felt like work. But it was more than tons of popcorn and opportunities to get my friends into movies for free — that job introduced me to the act of donating blood. The first time one of those blood donor mobiles rolled up in front of my theater, I quickly signed up. You have to be 16 years old to donate in the United States, and I had just recently turned that first age of true freedom. How many of us are aware that we have the chance to save a life at such a young age?

I wasn’t even nervous as I headed into the mobile (which was at an absolutely pleasant temperature). I was met by a very nice lady in a white coat who asked for my ID, then handed me a clipboard with information I needed to read through.

The reading materials were honestly fascinating. They cover everything from a list of medications that will prevent you from donating blood (sometimes temporarily, sometimes longterm) to general questions about how you are feeling. There was a lot to go over, and I had no idea about a lot of it.

For those of you who want to donate blood for the first time — and if you can do it safely, I highly recommend it — here are some of the things you’ll need to know.

You can’t donate blood if you are taking certain medications.

Lots of medication that you may take sporadically (including aspirin) thins your blood and makes it so that you can’t donate that day. The turnaround for the next time that you can safely donate varies depending on why you were denied. If you have low iron (more on that in a minute), you only have to wait for three days. But some other medications for diseases including cancer, clotting disorders, and diabetes could potentially deter you for a longer time or permanently. Obviously, you should never feel bad if you can’t safely donate, but if you’re really passionate about it, just check with a doctor first since some medications are fine.

Low iron is an issue for a lot of people, especially for women and people with periods.

The first time I tried to donate, I was denied because I had low iron. The second, third, and fourth times I tried to donate, I was still denied because of low iron. Honestly, I’ve been denied because of low iron more times than I’ve actually donated blood. But I’m stubborn and determined, so I took my low iron diagnosis to heart and worked hard to get it back up — both for my own health and for the ability to donate blood.

The donor center will tell you lots of stuff about how to keep your iron up for blood donation: Don’t donate if you’re on your period because your iron will almost certainly be too low. Are you a meat eater? Eat lots of leafy greens and red meat (or fish or poultry) about two or three days before you donate. If you are a vegetarian, like I was at the time, do the leafy green thing and research other high-in-iron, non-meat foods (like spinach) that you can eat. (There are plenty!).

The biggest game-changer for me was my iron supplement. After trying to donate so many times, I realized that my iron levels are always kind of low. Taking a supplement daily — not just right before I try to donate blood — has helped my body maintain consistently higher iron.

…I’m not a doctor, though. Lots of people have especially low iron and/or are anemic — that’s a different conversation. Vitamins don’t solve every problem, so be sure you do what’s right for your body.

Eat food and hydrate before you go!

I am a breakfast person and I usually give blood in the morning. In the past year or so, every time I’ve donated, I’ve feel sick — like, kind of hungover sick. I’d feel lightheaded and nauseous, and if I didn’t work at a desk job, I might have needed to go home. Make sure you eat real, hearty food before you give blood so you don’t feel this way. The American Red Cross also recommends that you “drink an extra 16 oz. of water or nonalcoholic [or non-caffeinated] fluids before the donation.”

Make sure to avoid eating foods high in fat before donating (like burgers, fries, and desserts) since that can make it hard for doctors to test your donated blood — and then it can’t be used for transfusions.

You are losing a lot of blood and you absolutely may not feel well afterward, so don’t panic. Take your time after you give. The nurses will hook you up with Goldfish and juice, too. Blood donor perks.

Blood donation policy is still homophobic.

When you read through the donor materials and check the boxes, you’ll see questions about your sexual history. First you might see questions asking if you have ever been pregnant (not a deterrent, FYI). Then you’ll come across a question like this:

“Are you a male and have had sex with another male even once since 1977?”

Currently, gay men are still not allowed to donate blood in the United States because men who have had sex with men are considered to be at a higher risk for HIV. After the horrific massacre targeting LGBTQ+ people at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, queer men couldn’t even donate urgently needed-blood to their own community. This policy is homophobic, unfair, completely outdated with all of the information we know about HIV transmission, and it needs to change.

And why doesn’t the questionnaire ask about safe sex? There is also a question that asks if you’ve had sex with a man who has had sex with other men — which is also inappropriate. As a straight woman, I can have sex with a bisexual man, be completely safe about it, and still be turned away.

There are plenty of other ways to contract HIV that have nothing to do with being a gay man or a man who has sex with men. Straight people can have HIV too, and the myth that they can’t is why people don’t get tested and protect themselves.

Hopefully there will be policy change soon. All genders and sexualities should be able to donate blood.

Donating blood saves lives.

It sounds corny, but it’s really true. When you give, you donate about a pint of blood — which can save three livesThree lives.

Every time there is a mass shooting or any kind of tragic national disaster, there is a call for blood donations — and that is why. If each person who could give blood did give blood, a lot of lives could be saved. If you can do it, you should do it.

Of course, there are so many more questions and facts for you to know before giving blood. Ask your doctor, research your local blood bank, and consider giving. Even donating just once or twice is great. Save lives and eat the free cookies after. That’s my motto.

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