Giving Blood to Help People With Cancer: Tips from a First-Time Donor

VIDEO | 00:35
Watch MSK employee Meredith Begley go through the process of donating blood. Don't worry — there are no needles in this video!
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I work for Memorial Sloan Kettering, which means I’m surrounded by genius at every turn. And the more time I spend at MSK, the more I learn that everyone here has a role in helping people with cancer. In fact, I knew of a very easy way that I could make an immediate difference — it just scared me a bit.

I had never donated blood before. I hate needles, always have. I waited until I was 15 years old to get my ears pierced. To this day, I still ask for “the baby needle” whenever I have to get blood taken. But when I started working at MSK, I decided it was time to stick it to my needle phobia and do some good.

Why I Decided to Donate Blood

MSK has its own blood donor room, which means that every drop that’s donated here goes directly to patients. That is a worthwhile cause to get behind — and it’s one that constantly requires the public’s help.

“Only about 20% of the blood products our patients receive come from donations,” says Joe Licata, the manager of MSK’s blood donation program. “The rest we buy from blood centers like the Red Cross.”

The need at MSK is especially great because people with cancer use more blood than others who are ill — chemotherapy, radiation, and other cancer treatments deplete patients’ blood supply. In order for them to move on to the next part of their treatment, their bodies need a healthy amount of blood, which oftentimes comes from donors.

There are certain times of year we always struggle. … The holidays are always an issue because people are busy and donation just tends to drop off.
Joe Licata manager of MSK's blood donation program

I may not know how to mix chemotherapy or perform brain surgery, but I knew I could help by giving blood. And when I found out from the Red Cross that only 3% of the population donates blood, I knew I had a job to do, and fast.

“There are certain times of year we always struggle,” Mr. Licata said. “Summer is always slow for us — people are away on vacation, schools close, everybody’s running around. And the holidays are always an issue because people are busy and donation just tends to drop off.”

A cool thing about donating at MSK is that you can donate to a specific person, if you wish. At MSK, more than half of all the blood donations we do are direct-to-patient.

You can also choose between donating whole blood or platelets, which patients need to help their blood to clot. I chose whole blood for my first go-round.

Going Through with It

I was really nervous when I arrived at MSK’s blood donor room, but the tranquility of the space and the friendliness of the staff immediately put me at ease. I filled out some forms that asked me about my health and travel history and then took a seat in the waiting room. I had eaten a big breakfast, like Mr. Licata had instructed me to, and had also helped myself to a glass of cranberry juice from the adjacent lounge. Eating well and staying hydrated would safeguard me from feeling lightheaded afterwards, Mr. Licata said.

When it was my turn, I had a mini-physical with an MSK phlebotomist, someone who is trained to draw blood from a patient. She took my temperature and blood pressure and confirmed the information that was on my forms. She also tested my hemoglobin levels, which was a blink-and-you-miss-it pinch on my ring finger to test my iron.

The Main Event

When I was brought to the donation room, my heart started pounding. I felt less afraid, though, upon seeing a group of men laughing with their phlebotomists. Hey, if these guys are laughing their way through this, it can’t be so bad, I thought.

I sat in a comfy lounge chair that was equipped with a personal TV — cool! — but since the blood donation process is short, I decided not to turn it on. If I had given platelets, which takes about an hour, I may have caught up on some of the day’s news.

A warm, personable phlebotomist named Judy came over to my chair and sensed my nervousness. “You’re going to be fine, I promise,” she told me. Her voice was soothing and I felt safe in her care.

Once Judy examined my veins and picked one to draw from, she sanitized my arm and let it dry for 30 seconds. Then, she tied a tourniquet around my arm and gave me a squishy ball to squeeze to get my blood pumping. The anticipation really started kicking in! Finally, she told me to look away and take a deep breath. Before I knew it, I felt a small pinprick — seriously, nothing beyond a normal blood test — and we were in business. I was so nervous that I forgot to exhale! Judy had to remind me.

For the next ten minutes, I sat there with my legs up (which was quite relaxing), playing on my phone and feeling totally fine. Judy regularly came to check on me to make sure I was feeling OK. I was expecting to feel dizzy or nauseous in the chair, but I didn’t at all. That’s usually how it goes, Mr. Licata said.

“Ninety-nine percent of the time, you feel perfectly fine,” he said.

The Recovery Process

When I had filled a pint-size bag, it was time to go. Judy took out the needle and I rested in the chair for a few minutes. I wanted to ease back into walking, in case I stood up and felt dizzy. But when I got up, I felt completely normal.

She led me to the pantry area, where I ate a bunch of cookies (I gave myself permission — hey, I had just given blood!) and drank more juice. After a few minutes, I got up and went back to my day. The whole process, from start to finish, took about an hour. As I walked out, I told the team that I would be back — and meant it.

The next day, I felt a little sluggish — which made sense considering that I was down a pint of blood — but it was nothing that stopped me from going about my day. And I was so happy to have donated. I was making a tangible difference in a patient’s life, and that was a really wonderful feeling (and totally worth the two pinches). If I could do it, really, anyone can — I honestly mean that.

This holiday season, I’ll be asking my family members and friends to donate blood with me. I’m eligible to do so again in 56 days, but who’s counting?

5 Tips for a First-Time Blood Donor

  1. Eat well the night before and the morning of your donation. It will help you avoid becoming lightheaded during and afterward.
  2. Ask the phlebotomist to squeeze tight when she does the finger prick. You’ll barely feel it.

  3. Look the other way and take a deep breath before the insertion. It really does help! Just don’t forget to exhale once the donation starts…
  4. Get up in stages. When you’re all done, try sitting upright and see how that feels. If you feel fine, stand up slowly. If you feel lightheaded, there’s no rush — rest until you’re ready to go.

  5. Take it easy the next day. Relaxing and drinking plenty of fluids will get you back on track.