How Donating Blood Nearly Killed Me
Are There Dangers of Donating Blood?
Let me begin by saying that giving blood—and helping others in general—is both noble and honorable. I would recommend you donate blood and support your local blood center, if your doctor says you are able to do so.
I have found that you can't trust a blood center to consider your health when they are concerned with collecting as many pints of blood as possible. Make sure that you consult a doctor; this is crucial. Had I done so, I may have been able to avoid a life-threatening situation.
Firstly, who do you rely on at a blood drive to keep your interests in mind? Paid employees of the blood centers are called phlebotomists, or "bloodletters," and they can help determine your eligibility. This is important to know because there is no doctor or nurse at the drive—no one with expert medical credentials. You may expect a kind volunteer who helped organize the blood drive might look out for you. While volunteers may help show you to your seat in a waiting area, or cross your name off the sign-up list, they do not have the training to determine if you're healthy enough to donate.
Before Donating Blood: Consult Your Doctor
As a frequent donor over the decades, I have met some highly qualified, professional, well-trained phlebotomists. I have also met some who I wouldn't trust as far as I could throw them. It's an easy job to get into, with a national average starting salary near $30k, and training available for as low as a few hundred dollars (subsidized) that can be as short as six weekend classes. Training was once primarily provided by hospitals, but is now available at a huge number of vocational/occupational/trade schools. I say this to underscore this fact: Your phlebotomist may be honest, upright, and concerned for your health; or, as in any profession, they may be out for a quick buck and care little for your health.
How Donating Blood Nearly Killed Me
My local blood center comes to my office park every eight weeks for a blood drive. If I wasn't extremely sick or out of town, I would give at every opportunity. Eight weeks is the minimum time between donations for whole blood and they take a pint each time you donate. This means I've been donating almost a gallon of my blood each year. Naturally, the blood center loved me. Once in a while, a phlebotomist would tell me, "your iron looks a little low," or, "you'd better eat some red meat tonight." Only once (a few years ago) was I turned away for having too little iron in my blood. Keep in mind, I'm a healthy 40-year-old male with no history of anemia or other blood problems. I don't run any marathons, but I do walk five miles a day, seven days a week.
During this particular blood drive, the phlebotomists were instead engaged in a heated discussion over whom among them was the laziest employee, citing many recent examples of each other's poor work at the blood drive that day.
After donating, I returned to my desk, feeling a little dizzier than usual. The next day, on Friday, I felt better. I did some yard work over the weekend however and noticed losing my wind while doing heavy lifting. I had a relaxing Sunday, then returned to the office on Monday. This is when things started to get strange. I had a pretty decent migraine when I woke up, and it got worse as the morning wore on. I thought this was odd because I'd experienced migraines before and never got dizzy during one. I decided to go to one more meeting and see if I felt better.
By the time the meeting was over, I was even dizzier. I decided to leave for home while I could still drive. By the time I reached my car in the parking garage, I started to wonder if I could safely make my thirty minute commute. I decided to call my wife and keep her on the phone with me while I drove. This was the second wisest choice I could have made.
I never made it home.
I was just over halfway, driving 60MPH in the fast lane, when I lost the ability to talk. I had thoughts in my head, but I didn't have any words I could put them into. For a short while, I thought I was merely dreaming of driving, and didn't have any conscious control over my vehicle—still at 60MPH in the fast lane. This could have easily ended my life.
When I realized what was happening, I laid on the horn and started moving across three lanes of traffic to the shoulder. I was extremely tired—half-conscious at best. My wife heard me honking over the phone, and I remember her telling our kids to get in the car. I couldn't give her a meaningful response.
My wife called 911, and an ambulance soon found me. I was admitted to the nearest hospital through their ER. I spent the better part of a week there, as they pricked and probed every part of me, treating me with their stroke protocol. After tens of thousands of dollars of tests (CT scans, MRIs, MRAs, X-rays, invasive scopes, blood tests, biopsies, etc.) a consultation of four specialists unanimously agreed I was merely anemic, and had given blood far too often over the years. I was told by these doctors, I could never give blood again.
"I just don't understand it . . . don't they test you for iron?" they asked. "There's no way you could have been in a healthy iron range four days ago, and lost only a pint of blood!" My iron stores were completely wiped out, and my current iron count was so low they nearly had to give me an emergency blood transfusion. They gave me four bags of intravenous iron before releasing me.
The internal medicine doctor told me the "prick test" my blood center uses to test iron content is inaccurate, but still would have shown I was dangerously low before I donated. Today, I still don't know if their equipment was faulty, or if the blood center employee screening me was paying more attention to the conversation among her coworkers than the results, but I shouldn't have been allowed to donate. They were so busy saving a life (to borrow their drive slogan) they almost snuffed me out.
Learn From My Experience, Especially If You Suffer from Migraines
Low blood and low iron content can cause migraines. Migraines have plagued me for years, and my doctors tell me I should have far fewer when my iron levels get up to normal.
Migraines can in turn cause the stroke symptoms I experienced, such as tingling numbness, losing consciousness, and expressive aphasia (losing the ability to talk). In extremely rare cases, migraines can cause actual strokes.
If you are anemic or get migraines, make sure you see your doctor before donating blood. Don't trust the blood center to save your life; they almost took mine away.