I breakfasted last month with one of the more elite clubs I belong to.
The bacon-and-eggs spread served at Arlington’s Holiday Inn on Fairfax Drive came courtesy of the American Red Cross. It was just one of the rewards reserved for a special roster of regular donors of blood platelets, a clique with whom I’m proud to be listed.
Sometime more than a decade ago I got recruited for this monthly or bimonthly act of giving to strangers and began agreeing to appointments weekdays or weekends as time permitted. First at the Red Cross’s downtown E Street headquarters and later at its Virginia facility at Merrifield, I began showing up for the three-hour commitment to immobility and minor arm pain.
More involving than conventional blood donations, platelet apheresis requires medical technicians to plant you in a special lounge chair, find a pair of promising veins and jab needles in both your arms. Then they hook you up with sterile tubing leading to timed beeping centrifugal separator machines that sort the platelets from your blood. Sound seductive?
The grateful staff pampers you—once you’ve passed the interview asking sensitive questions about past diseases, risks in your sex life and whether you faithfully avoided aspirin or Plavix in the past 48 hours. Once you’re strapped in, you pass the time (no bathroom breaks) relaxing under a blanket and donning headphones to watch DVDs of a selection of films you may have missed at the multiplex.
If the cycling of your blood makes you numb in the face, they give you Tums. After a little over two hours (the final 10 minutes are toughest), you’re liberated. And unlike donors of conventional blood, who must rest a spell and consume liquids, you’re free to leave by promising to avoid alcohol and heavy lifting the rest of the day.
July’s Red Cross breakfast assembled 100-odd fellow club members, a gentle army of casually dressed professionals, retirees, unemployed or self-employed, of many ages. We are curious to meet or view photos of the telephone recruiters who leave us those dire voicemails dramatizing urgent shortages of platelets at area hospitals. (They’ll schedule you every 14 days if you’re willing.)
Dr. Dyand Borge, the Red Cross’s regional medical director, gives a slide show reviewing the apheresis process. He explains the incubators and agitators that weigh the yellow platelet bags and the storage shelves that rock to preserve the organic matter. Platelets have only a five-day lifespan, with two days needed for labs to check against bacteria and H.I.V.
He stresses how vital platelets are to cancer and leukemia patients, bone marrow recipients and those undergoing heart surgery. “These second chances at life wouldn’t be possible without your selfless donation,” he says. We hear the well-documented tale of Brian Boyle, an 18-year-old in 2004 who was hit by a truck and lost 60 percent of his blood. He technically died eight times on the operating table, but went on to recover, become a marathoner and Red Cross ambassador.
We’re greeted by blood donation staffers from around the Beltway. They remind donors to go online to check our collected points, which translate into gift cards for chain stores, airlines and hotels. They raffle off gift baskets and flower centerpieces from 15 tables.
But the real reward for calling 1-800-272-2123? Membership in this rarefied breakfast club.
Charlie Clark may be e-mailed at [email protected]