I can save lives even though I’ll never perform heart surgery or discover a cure for cancer.
Four years ago I discovered my perfect volunteer job: plasma donor. My blood group was suitable, I’m not too skinny and I like being waited on with cups of tea while I have nothing more important to do for three quarters of an hour than putting my feet up and reading. As community service goes, donating plasma is no hardship, if you don’t mind being jabbed and weighed regularly.
I still have my donor card from my first blood donation when I was 19. It tells me my blood is A2B Rh negative, kell negative, vel positive, (rr), Fy(a+) and other corporeal curiosities. Back then I donated when the mobile unit came to the Otago University Union – the endless free cups of tea, crackers and biscuits afterwards being a major drawcard. I stopped donating after a few donations when I became pregnant.
Now I donate plasma because demand for plasma is escalating as new treatments are developed. Plasma contains useful bioactive proteins that can be extracted and processed, and plasma products are used in many conditions including cancer, liver and kidney failure, burns, heart surgery, and immune deficiency. Plasma is called liquid gold, although some women’s plasma has a distinct greenish hue because of their hormonal state and medications.
When I donate, about 1600 ml of blood is taken off into a machine where it is spun in a centrifuge to separate the plasma from red cells. 655 ml of plasma is collected and the red cells are returned into my vein. Because no red cells are collected, plasma donors can donate as often as fortnightly, which I do if I can.
In reality though, I only donate about fifteen times each year because of “deferrals”. Sometimes it feels that I spend more time deferred from being able to donate than I spend able to donate because of a cold, cold sores, tummy bug, dental treatment, waiting for a medical test or results, being on antibiotics or others of their extensive list of reasons for deferral. My longest deferral was over nine months during and after I had radiotherapy for a bitty BCC (a low grade skin cancer) on my fair Nordic nose.
I used to get frustrated at having to be deferred, especially when I felt well, but I’ve come to appreciate the break as a chance for my veins to recover. I’ve noticed it is easier for the nurse to find the vein and for the donation to go smoothly after the veins have had a break of at least a few weeks from being poked.
It is curious to imagine I may pass someone in the street or at Auckland airport who’s alive and well partly because they’ve had a tiny bit of me in them, so if I’m feeling grumpy or down before donating, I try and get myself into a more cheerful mood so my donation is given with grace.
I was lucky the Dunedin donor centre was just a block from my office. Graeme Thomas travelled by ferry and train across Auckland fortnightly to donate plasma before retiring as a donor after 550 donations over 45 years. His plasma was rich in anti-D antibodies and helped save New Zealanders’ lives as his donations were used to make anti-D injections for women like me who are Rh negative. I had six anti-D injections to prevent complications in later pregnancies, one after each birth of an Rh+ child and each miscarriage, when we didn’t know the blood group of the baby and the anti-D was given in case the baby had been Rh+.
Not everyone can donate blood or plasma. My husband can’t because his blood count is always borderline normal and a friend can’t because of the risk of the human form of mad cow disease as she lived in the England in the 1980s. In three short years when I’m 66 I’ll be too old to donate plasma, but I hope to donate blood until I turn 76, the upper age limit.
One day I overheard a young donor tell another, “You should put that you are a donor on your CV. I do. I put ‘Regular blood donor. Five donations’, on mine.” Good on him. Now I’m in my sixties I probably don’t need a CV any more, but for the record I’ve made 81 blood or plasma donations so far. For the 25th, 50th and 75th donations I received a certificate and an umbrella, backpack and a travel bag, along with the customary cuppa and crackers and chance to put my feet up and read. Such is the hard work of saving lives.
Tui Bevin has worked as a registered nurse, breastfeeding counselor and health researcher. She has a BSc in psychology and an MPH. She lives in Dunedin and retired in 2016 to spend more time with her two grandchildren who live close by, and to write memoir and poetry.