I donated blood yesterday after work. Unlike Dwight from ‘The Office’, I don’t feel lopsided, but in the grand (28) year scheme of things, it’s pretty surprising.

When I was little, I hated the doctor because I hated needles. I would scream and cry and hyperventilate, basically losing all sense of composure and control, even for tiny finger pricks. This carried on until well after I’m willing to admit, though I did manage to bear needles enough to get my ears pierced around ten. I probably would have chickened out on that if I hadn’t been waiting so desperately for so long.

My high school held periodic blood drives, but luckily I wasn’t eligible to donate (that was many pounds ago, I assure you) and didn’t have to embarrass myself more than normal by having a panic attack in front of my classmates. I ran out of excuses my freshman year of college, when a post-September 11th spirit of civic duty swept the campus, and I agreed to donate with one of my roommates. I was so nervous that my heart rate was above the threshold, but the nurse told me to wait five minutes to calm down, and I managed to calm down to an eligible level. After donating, I passed out on the snack table, apparently, though I only remember waking up on a nearby cot feeling crummy. Of course I lived on the fourth floor of my dorm, but my similarly depleted roommate and I managed to crawl up the stairs and into bed. I didn’t give blood again for a long time, but apparently overcame my fear of needles sufficiently to establish a collection of piercings and tattoos (tattoo, really) in the intervening years.

I started giving blood again, though still infrequently, when I lived in Boston, often going with coworkers on our lunch breaks. When I moved back to Chicago, I went regularly with a friend to donate at a local hospital, and it sort of became our thing – every eight weeks or so, we’d donate blood in the early morning, then treat ourselves to something sweet from the Starbucks in the local Barnes & Noble, either grabbing chairs to chat in the cafe, or wandering the shelves to check out the book selection. This is one of the things I missed the most, when I moved to DC two years later – those sorts of little rituals and habits always made me homesick. I think everybody who can give blood should give blood, so make a date with a friend – it’s more fun, the time passes more quickly, and you don’t have to rely on a stranger to catch you if you pass out!

One problem I occasionally wrestle with is the exclusion of so may potential blood donors, a topic recently discussed among some of my Facebook friends. I realize that the Red Cross and other blood donation organizations are simply trying to protect the recipients of the blood, who are probably in an immune-compromised state already, and when it comes to medical matters it’s usually better to be safe than sorry. However, I also found a difference between policies at Red Cross (and LifeSource, according to my sister) blood drives and the hospital – in terms of travel and “body modification” exclusions, the deferral period was much shorter. For example, I was able to donate at the hospital after traveling to Central America, because the hospital was able to check my itinerary against CDC’s malaria maps. While the official Red Cross policy allows for blood donation after piercings and tattoos “as long as the instruments used were sterile or single-use equipment,” or you’re in a state that regulates tattooing, the application of these caveats appears to be uneven.  And apparently if you’re a gay man, you’re persona non grata. Again, I realize that the Red Cross and other organizations are doing important work in organizing and staffing blood drives. But even if you think you’re ineligible, you may try the local hospital – they may have the staff time and energy to examine your medical history more closely and explain the reasons for your exclusion.

I’m giving again with my friend at the end of December, when I’m back home in Chicago. I can’t wait.