By Norris Burkes April 3, 2022
If you’re fighting cancer right now or some other chronic disease, I owe you an apology for breaking the promise I made you in 2009.
That was the year I served as the chaplain in the Air Force Field Hospital in Balad, Iraq. Every two weeks there, I took the morning to donate blood platelets.
“What are platelets?” you ask.
According to the Red Cross website, “Platelets are the tiny cells in your blood that form clots to stop bleeding.”
If you can imagine how valuable platelets are to a combat hospital, you’ll understand my biweekly commitment to donate them. For nearly three hours, I would sit in the donor chair, adjacent to the ER, and watch the bloodied boots of our anguished heroes roll toward radiology for x-rays and MRIs.
The sight inspired me to promise, “Lord, if I ever get out of here…”
Well, maybe not quite that dramatic. It was more like, “When I get home, I promise I’ll continue giving platelets.”
But in my homecoming, I failed to keep my promise and I’m very sorry.
I overlooked how essential platelets are to millions of Americans hoping to survive cancer, chronic diseases and traumatic injuries.
In fact, platelets are so important that every 15 seconds someone needs them. And platelets are so fragile that they must be used within a week’s time. That means new donors are constantly needed.
Sadly, it took me another ten years before I returned to my local blood bank to renew my battlefield contract. That was last year.
These days, my kept promise begins with online scheduling of a 2.5-hour appointment twice a month with my local blood bank.
On the morning of my appointment, I fill out a quick online questionnaire. A nurse takes my vitals and gives me a fingerstick to measure my hemoglobin, the most painful moment in the process for many.
Soon, I’m relaxing in a recliner, where my nurse comforts me with heating pads and pillows. Honestly, I think she’d give me a cuddly stuffed bear if I asked for one.
I point to the tiny scar on my left arm caused from my Iraq donations, and she inserts a needle, almost painlessly, in the same spot.
She draws a relatively small amount of blood and sends it into a machine called a blood cell separator. The blood is rapidly spun, which forces the platelets to separate from the other blood components. These cells then flow into a sterile, single-use plastic bag.
This process removes only platelets. Everything else is recycled back to me–the plasma, red cells and white cells. This method is repeated many times until my single donation of platelets provides several transfusable platelet units.
When the procedure is over, I rest in the break area, sipping a favorite beverage and eating popcorn while chatting with the nicest people you’d want to meet–the other donors.
Why am I sharing this story in a spirituality column?
Because Easter is coming and in my Baptist church, we’ll probably sing, “Power in the Blood.” The hymn recalls how Jesus spilled his blood and sacrificed his life on our behalf. For me, there’s a connection between giving blood and demonstrating sacrifice, love and concern for God’s people.
If you can’t see yourself sacrificing that much time, please consider 90 minutes to donate plasma. If you’ve survived COVID, your plasma may be used to help COVID patients recover with something called convalescent plasma therapy.
And if you’re so busy you barely have time to read this column, consider the 30-minute procedure to give whole blood.
Finally, the most rewarding moment is when I receive a text a few days later telling me that my donation has just been used to save a life.
But personally, I’m just materialistic enough to enjoy the other rewards given by most blood centers, such as gift cards, and T-shirts. I spent my Apple gift cards on an Apple watch. And that watch tells me that it’s probably time you should donate blood too.