Back in the day there were the 49ers, those tough old bastards who clawed gold from the earth, with their bare hands and crude explosives. Today, there are the 56ers, who donate blood with sanitary needles, comfy barca-loungers and pretty phlebotomists, every 56 days.
The facts, baldly stated, are these: there is a chronic shortage of blood for transfusions. Despite this, only about 1% of the country donates blood. When they do, it is at an average rate of once a year. The goal of the 56ers is to increase the blood supply by having those few who are willing to donate do so six times a year rather than once. We in the US are fortunate that we have an extensive volunteer blood supply system. In many parts of the world blood has to be drawn, usually from a family member or friend, when someone is in need of a transfusion. If none is available, well…that’s that. In other areas blood is a commodity, with donors paid by clinics and hospitals. Yet even with our wonderful American Red Cross (ARC) structure, we are chronically short of blood.
In researching blood one day I learned that scientists consider it ‘connective tissue.’ That feels appropriate and I see it that way now. In particular, when we donate blood to another person, we are powerfully connected: our blood now runs through their veins. Incredible!
I have donated blood over the years, catch-as-catch-can, since I was 15. I sold my blood once, in Athens, to pay for a few more nights at the hostel. I hit the ‘blood mobile’ at school a few times. in all I’ve racked up quite a few gallons over time, here and there. It felt important but it was always ‘when the blood mobile is here’ or ‘when I needed some cash.’ Once I happened to be in the Back Bay and I walked past the Red Cross facility on Columbus Ave. i had some time and I literally walked in to the front desk, rolled up my sleeve and said, ‘do me,’ to the astonished receptionist. She explained that blood is not simply drawn when convenient: that there are blood drives going on all the time in many locations and that a person has to find one and sign up. I thought, what the hell? Why cant they take my blood right here at the Red Cross center? I’ll never get to one of these drives – that takes actual planning! Indeed, I did not donate again for some time.
So there it was: I had the soul of a 56er, but not the ethic or the organization.
In recent years however, some friends and I have started to donate every eight weeks – every 56 days, to be exact, the required waiting period before one can donate again. It’s become part of who we are; what we do: every eighth Saturday is breakfast with the guys and roll up our sleeves. One of my friends calls this our “Rite To Bare Arms,” which feels very clear and true to me. This was the key: to make this a central part of life, and a fun one. I now have the soul of a 56er and the actual practice, the ritual, to match.
I don’t know what happens to the blood, or whose life has been saved with it. I only know that, with almost no effort on my part, I have been part of saving dozens, probably hundreds, of lives. In what other way could I, a middle-aged, sedentary citizen, even find a way to do this? I don’t know, or care. I only know that my blood is now running through the veins of many people who might otherwise be dead. I don’t know them by name, or by sight, and they don’t know me. But we are connected now by that most powerful of all connective tissues: our blood.
Dan Kempner, 2014.8.28