How to Save a Life in Just One Hour

When you give blood, it’s more than blood you’re giving.

  • March 3, 2021
A pop-up blood donation site at the Paramount Theatre in Seattle last year.
Credit…Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

I squinched my eyes shut so that I wouldn’t have to watch.

“Are you OK?” asked the phlebotomist, not unkindly.

“Just squeamish,” I said, squinching still.

“Yeah,” she said, smoothly sliding in the needle. “Sometimes it can feel a little scary, doing a good thing.”

I was lying on the gurney, bleeding into a bag. We were in the community recreation center, the same place where, in Novembers past, I gathered with the fellow citizens of my small Maine town to vote. I thought about the two rituals — voting and donating blood — and considered how much they had in common.

That said, with voting you usually know who it is you’re voting for. When I give blood, I’m almost always doing it for a stranger, someone whose fate remains a mystery to me.

Except once.

I’d met her back in high school, maybe 11th grade. Somebody had said some cruel thing to me at a party, and I’d rushed outside, melodramatically. I sat there in the dark, listening to the sound of laughter from inside the house.

It was so dark I hadn’t noticed that there was someone else sitting on the lawn.

We started talking. Her nickname was Sissy, she said. It was a name that I had sometimes been called, too, although for different reasons. I wasn’t out as trans then, of course. I remember telling her, “I just wish I was like everybody else.”

“Me too,” said Sissy. She told me she was tired all the time. The doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong with her.

That was in fall. By spring I was lying on my back in Bryn Mawr Hospital, alongside a whole group of people, including, incredibly, some of my tormentors from that party. A half dozen of us were arranged in a circle, our feet almost touching. We were bleeding into tubes for Sissy, who had since developed aplastic anemia, a condition in which the body stops creating blood cells.

What she needed was a bone-marrow transplant, but in the absence of a good match, in those days, doctors routinely treated aplastic anemia through apheresis, a process in which they take donor blood and spin it in a centrifuge to harvest your blood cells. Afterward, your own blood ran back into your arm through another tube. While the doctors were harvesting the blood cells, they kept the line open with an anti-coagulating solution. You could feel it as it moved through your body. The solution felt cold as it reached your heart.

As I lay there feeling the cold move through me, one of my fellow donors decided this would be a good moment to once again make a few more observations about my character. Everybody laughed.

I lay there bleeding into my little bag as tears ran down my face.

“Does it hurt?” asked a nurse, noticing that I was in distress. “Are you in pain?”

I told her I was fine.

A month or two later I saw Sissy’s obituary in the paper. Like me, she was a teenager, not much more than a child. My mother asked me if she’d been a friend. “No,” I said. “I barely knew her.”

Last week — a few days after participating in a blood drive here in Maine — I reached out to Sissy’s younger brother, Jim, and asked him what he remembered about the effort to save his sister 45 years ago. He still misses her, terribly, of course. But he also recalls the way people came together to help, and what it taught him about community, about society and what was possible.

“Remember at the end of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’” he emailed me, “when George Bailey returns home after his transformative experience with his guardian angel to discover how many folks genuinely cared about him? It was like that.” Jim told me that the gratitude he feels for the community that came together for his sister remains, even though her life ultimately could not be saved.

I’m grateful, too, for what the attempt to save a girl I barely knew taught me about the complexities of good will. Sometimes I derive an almost diabolical sense of joy when I think about the way my own blood may have saved the lives of individuals who hate people like me. I imagine those who have done the most to make my life harder, being filled up with Jenny Boylan blood. As my mother used to say, “Love is the wise man’s revenge.”

It’s not hard to do a deep dive into the racism and homophobia and transphobia that are part of the history of blood donation in this country. The Red Cross stopped segregating blood by race only in 1950. And to this day, men who have sex with men are prohibited from donating blood for three months after their last encounter — this in spite of the fact that every donated unit of blood is tested for the presence of H.I.V., hepatitis, syphilis and every other blood-borne disease.

This policy continues even though, thanks to Covid-19, we now face a nationwide blood shortage. The pandemic has not only made people more cautious about venturing out to give blood; it’s also forced the cancellation of many blood drives, as schools and community centers have been shuttered.

In December, the New York Blood Center hoped to encourage donors by giving them the chance to win Jets tickets or a year’s supply of Krispy Kreme.

But the benefits of giving blood are bigger than frosted doughnuts.

My phlebotomist was right. Sometimes it is a little scary, doing a good thing. Is there anything else you can do in a single hour that can actually save another person’s life? And it’s not only the recipient of the blood whose life might be saved. At the end of the process, I’m often filled with a sensation that, in its own homely way, resembles the gift of grace.

Sure, I’ve lost a pint. But I’ve gained a thing rarer than blood.

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