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

VIDEO | 00:35

Diary of A First-Time Blood Donor

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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The more time I spend working at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, 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 made me anxious. 

I had never donated blood before. I hate needles, always have. I waited until I was 15 to get my ears pierced. To this day, I still get clammy before a regular blood draw. But it was time for me to get over it so I could help others. 

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. 

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

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. Summer months are especially slow donation periods because schools are closed and people are on vacation.

At MSK you can donate to a specific person, if you wish. More than half of all the blood donations at MSK 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 time.

Going Through With It

I admit that I was really nervous when I arrived at MSK’s blood donor room. 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 heard that eating well and staying hydrated would keep me from feeling lightheaded after donating, so I made sure to have a big breakfast that morning. 

When it was my turn, I met 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 quick needle prick on my ring finger to test my iron levels. You need to have a healthy amount of iron in your blood because donating reduces it.

The Process of Giving Blood

When I was brought to the donation room, my heart started pounding. I felt less afraid, though, when I saw group of men laughing with the phlebotomists. If they were laughing while donating blood, it couldn’t be so bad.

I sat in a comfy lounge chair that came with a TV. Since the blood donation process is short, I decided not to turn it on. Maybe I will when I give platelets one day, since that takes longer.

A warm, personable phlebotomist came over to my chair and sensed my nervousness. “You’re going to be fine, I promise,” she told me. 

Once she 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 the pinprick, which was much less painful than I envisioned. It was just like getting a normal blood test. Still, I had been so nervous that I forgot to exhale! For the next ten minutes, I sat there relaxing with my legs up, playing on my phone and feeling fine. 

The Recovery Process

When I had filled a pint-size bag, it was time to go. The phlebotomist 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 cookies and drank juice to keep my sugar levels up. 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 — definitely worth the two pinches. 

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.