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How to Become a Blood Donor

Advice from one donor who has given over 100 gallons of blood!

Have you ever donated blood or considered it? Whether you’ve never batted an eye at a needle, or you’re determined to overcome your fears in order to help out your community, you’ve come to the right place. Being a blood donor is a simple way to volunteer and give back to your community.

We met with two experts to learn the ins and outs of blood donation. From preparing to give blood to how it’s used and where it goes, their first-hand perspectives will help you better understand exactly what to expect when donating — and just how important it is.

Getting Involved

You may ask yourself how someone might get a passion for donating blood — especially if the idea makes you feel a little squeamish — but sometimes it can be as simple as a small incentive to create a spark.

It started with the desire to earn a free watch. But twenty-some years and 101 gallons of donated blood later, Michael Cape, a Data Warehouse Engineer at Main Street America (part of the American Family Insurance group), got so much more.

Michael’s story began in 1998, where he learned from a friend that, if he donated 10 gallons of blood, he’d receive a free watch. Being an avid triathlete, this piqued his interest.

Michael said, “I was scratching my head thinking it would take a lifetime to donate that much blood. That’s when I was educated about the platelet and plasma donations.”

To understand how Michael was able to donate an astounding 101 gallons of blood in twenty-three years, it’s important to know the difference between whole blood donations versus platelet and plasma donations.

What is whole blood donation?

Many people are used to the idea of donating whole blood, where you donate about a pint of blood in ten minutes. After donating, blood banks and laboratories will take that pint of blood and break it down into its different components: red blood cells, platelets and plasma.

Michael said, “After you donate, they’ll combine those separated components with donations from other people until they get one unit, which is a pint. When you donate whole blood, you can think of it as a third of a donation because it will take a couple more people to make up a full pint of either red cells, platelets or plasma.”

What is platelet and plasma donation?

When donating platelets or plasma, your blood is also taken out of you, but instead of separating the components after, a machine separates them as you’re donating.

“I get hooked up to a machine and sit for about two hours,” Michael explained. “As the blood is drawn out of me, the machine separates the blood into the platelet and plasma components and pumps red blood cells back into me.”

He goes on to say that after a normal whole blood donation, you must wait eight weeks until you can donate again since red blood cells take longer to replenish. However, since plasma and platelets get replenished quicker, you can donate every two weeks.

Blood donor Michael celebrating his 82nd gallon donated at his local blood bank.

So, donating every two week for two years, Michael reached that ten-gallon mark and earned his coveted watch. He reflected, “The medical director at my blood asked what my plans were after I earned the watch. I told her I was going to stop.” Well, he didn’t stop.

He said, “I’ve gone almost every two weeks since 1998. There’s a 24-donation limit within a calendar year — I think I’ve hit that once or twice.”

Over the years, Michael has made over 500 donations, totaling over 100 gallons of blood. Incredible!

Where Does the Blood Donation Go?

Michael donates at a local blood alliance, One Blood, in his hometown of Jacksonville, Florida. He shared that he likes donating here because he knows his blood is being used locally.

The American Red Cross works with hospital and medical partners to distribute blood where it’s needed most. So, sometimes donations go to a hospital up the street and other times it may end up helping someone in need on the other side of the country. While the need for blood is constant, there may be downturns in collections — as is sometimes seen during the busy and wintry holiday season — or spikes in need, like from a surge in trauma or surgeries.

We chatted with Justin Kern, Regional Communications Director at the Red Cross for the state of Wisconsin, who helped us take a closer look at blood donations through the Red Cross organization.

“The Red Cross supplies 40% of the nation’s blood,” Justin said. “We first look to our local partners and our hospitals to help satisfy that need. If that need changes, we shift around the blood since we are a national organization.”

Curious to see where your donation goes? When you sign up for the Red Cross app, you not only can easily schedule appointments to donate, but also track where your donation went!

Justin said, “I’ve seen my donations go everywhere from Green Bay and Milwaukee to San Juan, Puerto Rico. It’s a universal need, but wherever your donation goes, it will be helping someone who needs it after experiencing anything from a car crash to a cancer treatment to a sickle cell pain crisis.”

Michael shared a story about a good friend of his who had leukemia, saying, “We used to speculate that he had some of my blood in him because he had to take a transfusion every time he got a treatment. We considered ourselves blood brothers.”

If you’re looking for somewhere to donate, check out — just type in your ZIP code and they’ll tell you about upcoming blood drives and where to find appointments near you. Or, like Michael, find out if you have a blood bank in your community that donates locally.

Justin emphasized, “There is a remarkable — and constant — need for blood. Whether it’s donating every two months or once a year, you are making a difference.”

The important thing to remember? No matter where you donate or where it goes, your donation makes an impact.

How Are Blood Donations Used?

So you donated — but how will that donation be used? In lots of different ways!

Justin gave some examples, saying, “In short, if someone has an elective surgery, they’ll need blood. Our hospital partners always need a supply on hand for something like car accidents or major mass casualty incidents. There’s a high blood need for people going through cancer treatments. And donations are often used for some of the blood-based chronic illnesses, like sickle cell.”

Remember, blood can be separated into red cells, platelets and plasma, and each are used for various medical conditions or situations. For instance, patients receiving a blood transfusion for something like anemia or blood loss receive red blood cells to improve the amount of oxygen in the body. Someone suffering from an illness or going through chemotherapy may receive platelets to boost their health, while plasma transfusions are for patients with liver failure, severe infections or serious burns.

So when someone says a blood donation can help save someone’s life — they mean it! And you have the opportunity to give back to someone that can help, or even save, a life. How incredible is that?

Want to learn more about how blood donations are used? From cancer patients to trauma patients, here are some heartfelt stories from people who’ve received blood donations.

Are There Any Requirements for Giving Blood?

Like most types of volunteering, there are requirements for donating — all of which are to ensure the safety of the donors, as well as those who receive the blood.

Many of the requirements for donating blood depend on the type, i.e., giving whole blood versus platelets or plasma. Generally speaking, requirements include:

  • Age — Typically, you must be 17 years of age or older but this varies by state
  • Weight — Must weigh over 110 pounds
  • Be in good health and feeling well — If you don’t feel well, go ahead and cancel (you can always reschedule for when you’re better!)
  • Have not donated blood in the last 56 days — Remember this timeframe is much shorter if you’re donating platelets or plasma

There are instances you might be deferred from donating. For example, if you have low iron, have traveled outside the Unites States or are taking certain medications, a waiting period may be required both for your safety and for the safety of the donation recipients.

Michael shared that in the year 2000 he was deferred for one year, “They tested for something called ALT — which is a marker for hepatitis, but it’s also caused by things like physical exertion and Tylenol. I had been sick a couple days before and taken a bit of Tylenol, so my test came up as being unacceptable.”

A year later he was back at it and hasn’t stopped since. This is a good example of, even if you were deferred, you can still be eligible to donate in the future!

How to Prepare for Donating Blood

“Make sure you use the bathroom before sitting down!” Michael laughed. In his case, donating platelets and/or plasma takes around two hours. Thankfully, if you’re donating whole blood, you’ll only be sitting for about 10 – 20 minutes.

“I’ve been told that donating whole blood is good for the donor because it forces your body to create new blood cells. You get some newer fresher blood. But my challenge is for everyone to try platelet donations once, and if you do, make sure you’re prepared.”

Over time, Michael developed a process for donating, saying, “For platelets, drinking water beforehand isn’t as big of a deal because they pump anti-coagulant into me, which is about a liter of fluid. And when donating plasma, you get cold from the inside out. So I wear long pants and take a blanket with me. My feet get swollen because I’m sitting there and not moving, so I untie my shoes.”

Donating platelets and plasma takes significantly longer than the more common whole blood donation, so if you’re going this route, don’t be shy about getting comfortable.

Here are some more common ways to prepare for giving blood:

  • Eat iron-rich foods, like poultry, red meat or spinach (if your iron is too low you may be asked to reschedule)
  • Avoid fatty foods
  • Drink an extra 16 oz of water or other liquid before your appointment
  • Wear a short-sleeve shirt or have sleeves that are easy to roll up above your elbows
  • Bring something to help pass the time, like music or a book (especially for those two-hour donations!)

Book? Check. Blanket? Check. Fueled up with the right food and water? Check. Now let’s walk through your first appointment!

What can you expect once you get to your appointment?

If you’re donating whole blood with the Red Cross, you’ll sign in, show identification and read some required information. Then, you’ll either answer some questions online (which can be done beforehand through the app) or in a private interview, and you’ll receive a quick health check for your pulse, blood pressure and hemoglobin.

Your actual donation only takes about 8 – 10 minutes, where you can sit back and relax while they take a pint of blood. And once your donation is complete, you can enjoy some snacks and a drink while you wait for 10 – 15 minutes before heading out. The whole process typically takes about one hour.

Michael sitting back and relaxing while donating platelets for two hours.

Can you donate if you don’t know your blood type?

Absolutely! You don’t have to know your blood type before you donate — blood centers will always test donated blood before it’s sent to be used for patients. After you donate through the Red Cross, you’ll be able to see your blood type through their app or your account on their website.

What blood type is most needed?

Justin explained, “Type O negative blood is the most needed because it’s a universal donor. They can give this type to basically everyone and it’s often preferred by hospitals because they can use it most quickly in time of an emergency.”

During a transfusion, the body will reject any blood that is an incompatible type, so having a bulk supply of Type O that anyone can use is of utmost importance.

He also said there is a high need of blood products in the middle of summer, where they see dips in appointments. “A lot of our normal blood collection sites, like high schools and colleges, are closed. Holidays between Thanksgiving and New Years also have a dip in appointments — people are in the flow of regular life.”

While there’s never a bad time to donate, consider going during these times when there are less people donating. It could be a great way to escape the summer heat and do a good deed at the same time!

Justin also shares that there was an incredible turnout during the COVID-19 pandemic because it was something people could do to help. And when it comes to the vaccines, it doesn’t influence whether you can donate or not.

“COVID is not transmitted via blood,” he explained, “so whether you’re vaccinated or not you can still donate. If you are vaccinated, we just ask that you know the name of your vaccine manufacturer — they’ll ask that in your health history section.”

Why Is Donating Blood Important?

“Why not?” Michael said. “It’s part of my life now. And I feel like everybody should do some sort of civic duty and this is mine.”

There are many ways to contribute your time to the greater good of society. Some may spend a few hours on a weekend helping at a homeless shelter or food bank, others may give back by mentoring youth or coaching a sport. When it comes down to it, giving blood is a way of giving back to society in a meaningful way. And it’s really simple to do!

Did you know, according to the Red Cross, a single car accident victim can require as many as 100 units of blood? And blood and platelets cannot be manufactured — they can only come from volunteer donors. Justin said:

“Every two seconds someone in America needs blood. You can help save up to three people with every single donation. It’s amazing to hear the stories of people who have been through something like a car accident, who’ve been through chemotherapy — people who have lived the impact of needing blood, especially in an emergency setting. It makes the people who give blood — especially those who give on such a regular basis — it really makes them heroes in my mind.”

How to overcome the fear of donating blood

There are some situations that might prevent you from donating.

For one, the fear of needles is very common and can be difficult to overcome. In fact, Michael, who is no stranger to needles, admitted that in his twenty years of donating he never watches as they put the needle in.

He reflected on what a phlebotomist told him years ago, “The pain of donating is probably not as much as the pain of what somebody who is getting it is going through. It’s painful to be stuck with a needle, but it’s pretty minor and very short. For two to three seconds of mild pain, it’s a small price to pay when you think about who is on the other end of that bag. They are probably facing something a lot more dire.”

When asked what a misconception about blood donating is, Justin concurred with Michael, saying, “I think people are just scared of the needle part of it and the unfamiliarity around that side of it. We do this every day for thousands of people and our phlebotomists are pros and very gentle. That part of it is a lot quicker than you’d imagine. There’s plenty of music and conversation and other distractions. It’s such a short part of it. If you’ve never donated blood, just come out and make that first-time donation. See if it’s right for you. More often than not, it’ll bust that myth.”

For folks who have never donated, both Justin and Michael suggested getting out there and doing some research. Not a huge percentage of the population donate — maybe it’s not something a lot of people think about or perhaps some people don’t feel comfortable — but a lot of it is just fear of the unknown.

Collage of volunteer blood donors donating through the Red Cross.

The Red Cross offers a helpful Blood Donation Process FAQ resource that can answer some of your questions if you’re hesitant about donating. Check it out to help learn the truth about donating, ease some of your concerns and hopefully get out there and donate!

Are there ways to help other than donating blood?

Of course! Whether it’s a needle phobia or another reason keeping you from donating, there are other ways you can give your time and help with blood donations. Justin said, “Ninety percent of the Red Cross workforce is made up of volunteers. If you can’t donate or if it’s not right for you, you can help set up a blood drive or volunteer to still help make an impact.”

The Red Cross work is driven by volunteers — of course through blood donors — but also the support of the American public. Monetary donations are also vital to the work that the Red Cross does. “On average 90 cents of every dollar spent is invested on providing care and comfort for people in need,” Justin explained. “Almost all of our money comes from the generosity of large organizations such as American Family or from the public. The help we’re able to bring people, whether it’s a disaster zone, the need for blood or supporting military families, companies like American Family or just the general public are the ones that enable us to do this humanitarian work in Wisconsin and around the country.”

Want to get involved apart from donating blood? Check out volunteer opportunities with the Red Cross here.

Ready to Make a Difference?

Donating 101 gallons of blood is quite a feat, and we consider Michael a true hero for his altruism. We asked him what his end goal is and he gave us an exact number: 128 gallons — which is 1,024 pints. Why that exact amount?

“Since I’m part of the IT department, 1,024 is the number of kilobytes in a megabyte. So my goal is to get one megabyte of blood.” Now that’s commitment!

You don’t have to set your sights on such an ambitious goal like Michael. Whether it’s giving your time to give blood every once in a while, help organize a blood drive or even volunteering in a completely different way, you can truly make a difference.

Head to our social impact resources for more inspiring ways to dream big and make a real, positive difference in your community and beyond.

This article is for informational purposes only and includes information widely available through different sources.

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