So you've decided to give blood? Congratulations: you're officially an awesome person! I've been a blood donor for a while, so I'm hoping I can let you in on what you'll encounter when you go to donate.
Shepparton Blood Bank
Stating the obvious: when you go to the blood bank, go to the reception desk. Ideally you'll have called ahead to make an appointment. At your first appointment you'll probably be asked to fill in registration papers (I did this a long time ago, so my memory is a bit blurry). The other forms are ones you'll be asked to complete every time you go to donate. The questions relate to your ability to donate blood without endangering yourself or others (for example, whether you may have contracted a blood-borne disease but are not yet showing symptoms?). Sometimes the questions relate to what use your blood can be put to. If you've recently been vaccinated, your blood may contain antibodies which can be used to make more vaccine.
Once you've completed the form, hand it back in at reception. After a while a nurse or a nursing assistant will collect it and ask for you to come into an interview room where he or she will go over your answers. What you say to them is confidential, so if there's something you think may be a problem, just speak up. If you're especially problematic, the nurse may call the blood bank's medical officer for advice (I have a pretty low heart rate, so this happens to me quite a bit).
Image from here
The nurse or assistant will take your blood pressure and check your pulse (i.e. heart rate). They'll also check your haemoglobin by taking a blood sample by pinprick. This last is a good enough reason to go to donate. A few years ago I was managing a breakup with some fairly rigourous dieting and fierce exercise. My haemoglobin test confirmed I wasn't getting enough iron so I was able to rectify this.
Assuming all is well, you'll be taken through to the donation area and shown to a reclining chair (much the same as a dentist's chair) beside which will be a machine which holds the bag that your blood goes into. There's a much more complex machine if you're donating plasma or platelets, but we can talk about this another time. The nurse who interviewed you may hand you over to another nurse or assistant, who will ask you which arm you'd prefer to donate from (I recommend your non-dominant arm). They'll put a blood pressure cuff on your arm, and the nurse will smear an antiseptic paste in the crook of your elbow.
Now comes the hard bit. I'm told the needle used to take blood is the largest gauge needle commonly used in medicine. The nurse will probe your elbow a little looking for a suitable vein to draw blood from. How much the needle stings going in is fairly dependant on the nurse's technique. One or two are brutal (this is rare). Most are competent and quick. The best I ever had was a male nurse at the Southbank blood bank, who could get the needle in almost painlessly. I can guarantee though that no matter how good your pain tolerance, you will flinch! I can guarantee, however, that the pain only lasts a minute or so.
How long it takes to donate depends in nothing so much as how much water you're had to drink beforehand. The more water, the better your blood will flow and the quicker you'll be.
When the blood has been collected, one of the nurses or assistants will come back to you. They'll hand you a small pad of gauze and ask you to press down on the puncture in your artery while they remove the needle. As with every puncture, you'll need to exert firm direct pressure with the gauze until the bleeding stops or at least slows. When this has happened the nurse will put a fresh pad over the puncture and then bind it in place with a bandage. You should leave this in place for a few hours so the bleeding can stop once and for all.
Your next stop will be the refreshment area. Don't skip this step for two reasons. First: if you're in Australia, the Red Cross has started giving away the best chocolate chip cookies in the universe for blood donors. Do not miss them. Second: if you do have a reaction to giving blood, this gives the staff a chance to attend to you. I had an object lesson in this earlier this year when I donated with a few good mates from the SES. When we were in the reception area, one of them became as white as a ghost and had trouble sitting up. The nurse came over immediately and checked that she wasn't in medical danger, and we arranged for her partner to come down and take her home. I was struck by watching a nurse go into 'emergency' mode: focussed, direct, and doing what she needed to do. She reminded me of exactly how a good crewmember looks during a road rescue. There's a job to do; I'm going to do what I was trained to do. That's something I respect.
Yes. Yes it is.