I Donate Platelets and Plasma, and Here’s What That’s Like

About once a month, I donate blood, platelets, or plasma. As an encouragement for others to donate, I’ve written up a little about the process, along with some advice on donating.


Admittedly, I’ve not been doing this long, but it has been a priority since the beginning of the year. Though I’ve mentioned it a little in personal conversations, I haven’t brought it up on here or on social media because it always felt just a little bit icky to call attention to it. But I need to get over that, because it’s important with any kind of donation that people normalize talking about it. The more people who talk about this, the more normal it becomes, and the more people who will in turn show up to donate necessary, life-giving materials such as blood (or organs, for that matter, but that’s not something I have experience with).

I’m writing this post, not as an extensive back-pat, or to elicit such from others. I just want to talk about the process of donating platelets and plasma from my personal perspective. Maybe, if you’ve given blood, you’ve seen people hooked up to the weird machines (the apheresis machines) that are used in the donation process, and been a little freaked out. I was, too. And the first time I donated platelets, I was exceedingly nervous, because I didn’t know what to expect. So that’s why I just want to talk about what this process looks like from a donor’s perspective, so someone out there might go “Oh, that’s all it is?” and set up their own donation appointment.

The Purpose

Before I get started, I just want to talk briefly about the point of donation. It’s a commonplace that hospitals need blood for surgeries and transfusions–especially after national emergencies. However, the need for platelets and plasma often gets overlooked. In past donations, I’d always prioritized whole blood, because these elements are necessarily included, right? How about I just give them the “real deal,” and they can sort it out later.

Except you can donate partial components much more frequently: there’s only a seven-day waiting period after donating plasma, and a twenty-eight day period after platelets, as opposed to the fifty-six day period after giving whole blood. Another thing is there are some situations when only the partial is needed: donated platelets are important for cancer patients, people in surgical recovery, and people with transplants; donated plasma is helpful in trauma situations. It’s best for hospitals to have access to these specific materials for these situations, so they can leave the whole-blood reserves intact for those circumstances when nothing less than whole blood will do.

Furthermore, if your blood type isn’t particularly “in demand” for whole-blood donation, your efforts may be more needed elsewhere. That’s the case with me: as a B-positive donor, my blood can only go to about ten percent of the population. My platelets, however, are much more useful.

The Appointment

Setting One Up

The first thing, of course, is to find out where you can donate in your region, and what times are available. In southeast Texas, you can do this pretty easily at www.giveblood.org. I had thought this site had national reach, but it doesn’t. If you’re outside that area, take a look at this site to find a blood center near you. There’s also the Red Cross where you can find a donation center.

The main point is, if you’ve been shying away from donating because you thought you would have to be in the way at an overworked hospital, know that you can usually donate at a dedicated facility.

In my limited experience, it’s easier to set up an appointment for platelets and plasma than it is for whole blood. That’s because everybody gives whole blood, but blood centers are often left scrambling for the other things.

The main thing to keep in mind about partial donations is that they take time. This is because the blood has to be passed through an apheresis machine, which takes the blood from your body, filters out the desired material, and then pumps the remaining blood back into your body. And since platelets and plasma are such a small percentage of blood content, more blood has to pass through this machine in order for it to extract a donation amount.

Jeff sitting at an apheresis machine.
One of those dealios in the background. That’s an apheresis machine.

Usually, when I donate partial, I’m in the chair for between seventy and ninety minutes. I know that’s not a chunk of time everybody can navigate. I’m fortunate that my teaching schedule usually allows me one day a week, or at least a long morning in each week, when I can go and get this done. If your blood center is open on weekends, that opens up options some, but yes–it is time-consuming, and there’s no way to get around that.

Screening

The screening process is the same as it is for any other blood donation type: They ask the same questions and take the same numbers. If you haven’t donated in a while, you may not know that many donation centers don’t prick your finger anymore to check red cell levels. They can now read this electronically with a doodad that clips onto your finger with all the fuss of a treadmill’s heart monitor. This was great news for me, because without hyperbole, I always thought the finger prick was the worst part of the donation. Now that they’ve gotten rid of that, the worst part is when they rip the tape off my hairy arms.

The Needle

Let’s talk about the needle experience, which is slightly different than traditional donations. The more you donate (regardless of donation type), the less jumpy you get about the needle. However, when I first started donating back in college, I spent the entire pre-needle portion of the process visualizing a quarter-inch stereo jack going into my arm. By the time they brought out the actual needle, it was a real relief from what I’d made myself imagine.

A quarter-inch audio jack.
PUT IT IN MY VEEEEIIINS!

There are some ways the apheresis machine makes a difference. It’s important to know these experiences are likely, so if they occur to you when you donate, you don’t freak out.

  • Sometimes, especially late in the process, you might feel a slight rhythmic tugging at the needle. That’s normal.
  • The machine will cycle between draw phases and return phases. During return phases, your needle site might feel cool. This is an effect of the blood, which has cooled in the apheresis machine, returning back to the warmth of your body. It may feel a little weird, but it’s normal. I haven’t experienced this one super often.
  • Also, when the machine is in return phase, you may feel a little pressure at the needle site. This is also normal, but if it gets excessive, you can tell the staff.

Yes, I’ve ended all these bullet points with “this is normal.” In fact, I nearly titled this portion “Things Which Are Totally Normal,” but I figured that would only set off alarm bells.

Here’s something else, but it’s not needle related: you may experience strange sensations in your teeth. The first time I donated, I took a bite of my cookie at one point, and had a unpleasant sensation in my back teeth. It wasn’t entirely painful, but it felt like the dental equivalent of when a limb goes to sleep and slowly starts to wake up. The site personnel had warned me about the stuff I might feel in my arm, but they didn’t tell me about this, so I thought I was having some adverse reaction.

This is a perfectly natural and ordinary reaction to the process, though. Again, it’s an effect of the cooled blood entering your system. I’m able to stave this off by keeping my jaw moving throughout the process–nibbling on some chips or cookies throughout.

Afterward

The same after-care recommendations for most blood donations apply here to: no heavy lifting. Don’t drink alcohol for twenty-four hours. No strenuous activity. They also say “make sure your next meal is a hearty one,” and this one I really want to give attention to. After I donate, I get really hungry for a cheeseburger. So that’s part of my routine.

Advice

So that’s a run-down of the process. Here’s some things from my routine that you may wish to consider:

  • Have a decent breakfast beforehand.
  • This is an endurance game. You will be sitting in that chair for about an hour and a half, and pretty still the whole time so as not to disturb the needle. Bring something to entertain yourself. I find I can’t read a book because I usually need two hands for that. I have better experiences with a Kindle or iPad. My blood center has decent WiFi, so the last couple times I’ve brought my iPad and watched Mystery Science Theater 3000. An episode of that is pretty much the perfect length for donation. Once or twice, I’ve actually attended department meetings or other faculty events while in the chair. Sometimes I’ve just listened to podcasts or audiobooks.
  • Regardless of how I’ve prepared, though, I get a really fidgety and uncomfortable in the last fifteen minutes. It’s happened enough times that I know it’s coming. Not everybody has this reaction, so my point here isn’t “hey, this is a thing that will happen to you,” but rather, “pay attention to your reactions so you know what your normal experience is.”
  • The rubber ball they give you when you donate plays a much bigger factor here. I can more-or-less neglect it in a brief whole-blood donation, but the apheresis machine requires you to keep a balanced pressure in your veins, so whatever to do to distract yourself, you still have to pay just enough attention the machine to know when you’re in draw phase (when you need to squeeze the ball) and return phase (when you need to relax). I’ll usually keep one earbud out–the ear closest to the machine–so I can hear the difference in the sounds. Still, I glance over at the screen from time to time to see the progress bar and how my pressure’s doing.
  • Drink plenty of water both before and during. The one real negative experience I had donating was because I didn’t drink any water that morning. I’d had my coffee, and that was it. Toward the end of the donation, I started feeling nauseated and couldn’t keep my blood pressure high enough during draw phase. When I took off my mask, my lips were turning blue. It was kind of scary, but completely avoidable.
  • Pee. I mean it. Pee first thing when you get to the blood center. Then, when they’ve done your screening and you’re about to get into the chair, pee again. You’re going to sit still for an hour and a half, drinking water the whole time (see above).
  • Don’t be shy about the snacks. Blood centers will usually make a variety of sweet and savory snacks available. The first time, I took a single cookie, becuase I didn’t want to seem greedy. Nope! I usually can’t get through a donation without at least two sweet snacks and two bags of chips. Like I said above, I like to keep having something to chew on to stave off the weird jaw sensation, in addition to the keeping up your energy throughout the lengthy donation process. You may feel like you’re inconviencing people when you take a big stack of snack bags, but you’ll be a bigger inconvenience if you pass out. As I’ve pointed out previously, this is a completely different experience than a whole-blood donation. There (at least for me) the cookie was a nice little treat at the end–a courtesy, almost. Here, it’s load-bearing.
  • Also, when you get to your chair, go ahead and open whatever snack bags and bottles of water you have. You’ll feel like a grade-A couch potato with all these open food-bags in your lap, but you may not be able to use your needle-arm during the donation, so that’s okay. The donation staff are just glad you’re there doing what you’re doing. They’re not going to get on your case for having crumbs down your front. And believe me, I’ve given them plenty of opportunities.
  • Take a selfie when you get started. This isn’t just about social media sharing, it’s about giving yourself a basis of comparison when you check in with your color. I’ll slip my mask off every few minutes just to look at myself in my phone and make sure my lips are a normal color. This isn’t to be alarmist, though. The hydration thing I mentioned earlier was a one-off occurrence for me. But when I start feeling odd sensations in my jaw or arm, checking my color is a quick, informal way to make sure that what I’m feeling is a normal part of the process and not something serious.
  • Stay in communication with the site personnel. They’re there to help you and make sure everything’s going smoothly. Let them know what you’re experiencing. You’re the expert in how your body feels, and they’re the experts in the donation process, so you have to be in communication.

And that’s about all I have to say on this at the time. I’ll likely re-post this when I donate, to keep it visible, and will update it with new information as needed. I hope this post answers some of your questions and concerns about the donation process, and maybe even encourages you to set up your own appointment. Let me know if it had an effect, or if there’s anything from your experience that I missed!

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