A Bag of Blood

James O'Brien

They weren't exactly beating them off with sticks last Monday at the Memorial Blood Center on 23rd and Park. I got right in. I walked through the doors, signed the sign-in sheet, and within 10 minutes I was in the interview room with Genevieve, who pricked my finger, drew a blood sample, and asked me all sorts of questions about needles, tattoos, foreign countries, and if I'd recently had sex with a man or sex with anyone for money. No such luck, I cracked, but Genevieve stayed buttoned-down.

As I settled into one of the half-dozen patent-leather recliners that dominate the operations room, I still hadn't worked out why I was there. I'd never donated blood before. And beyond the vague feeling of wanting to experience the rush of having a pint of blood drawn from my vein and wanting to give something tangible in the season of giving, I didn't know what led me to the chair. Maybe the cumulative helplessness that comes from a year of watching from the sidelines as the dead and wounded and bloody parade by.

"This is pain," said Genie, as she punctured my right arm with a thick black needle. And even though it stung, all I could think was that this was not pain. Not Pat Tillman pain. Not unphotographed coffin pain, or dead-kid-in-Mom's-arms pain. Not pain like the white-hot variety I heard wailing from the cubicle next to me at the Hennepin County emergency room one morning a few years ago, or like the version that creased Genie's face when "I'll Be Home for Christmas" came over the operation room's radio.

She masked it with a faint smile, though, and in her broken English asked the other nurses to change the station or she was going to start crying. When I asked why the song got to her, she told me that she's been away from her family in the Philippines for a year and a half, and that she'll probably spend Christmas alone. I asked a couple more questions about her hometown and her family and she said she didn't want to talk about it and told me to start pumping my fist.

My blood was the color of a ripe plum. It gushed out of my arm into a clear plastic tube that ran into a plastic bag that rested on a pump on the floor. The pump rocked my blood like a small bobbling seesaw. Another nervous newbie sat in the chair across from me. We compared the shades of our crimson corpuscles, which, come to think of it, is about as intimate an exchange as two human beings can have. An older man, an obvious regular, sat next to me. A young nurse crouched at his side and they talked quietly about her name as he spilled his blood and wore the beatific expression of someone who has figured out the secret to life.

Unlike at most doctors' offices or hospitals, there was no clinical distance. The nurses outnumbered the donors five to one. Through a crack in a partition, I could see a few donors reclining with headphones and DVD players. They were in the middle of a two-hour give, the head nurse told me, and, lusting after my perfect blood like Lestat at Mardi Gras, she said that I was a prime candidate for just such a donation. She wore a smock with cartoons of children and dogs peppered with the word "Love."

After 10 minutes, Genie unhooked me and asked me what color bandage I wanted. I chose purple with a smiley face. She wrapped my arm and told me that my blood would go to a hospital in Minnesota or Wisconsin, and that she was sure my blood wouldn't stay on the shelf for very long. For some reason the center was much busier with donations at this time last year.

"Do you want to touch your blood?" Genie asked. Yes, I did. She placed the bag on the small table next to the recliner. I caressed it. It was warm. I patted it and fondled it lightly, then I bid adieu to my blood, and told it to go out and do its thing. I imagined it setting sail on a grand new adventure. I could almost feel it rocking steady in someone else's veins. I imagined that someone suddenly developing a craving for Boddington's Pub Ale and El Meson's garlic soup, a not-so guilty fondness for George Clooney and Johnny Depp, and an addiction to Carbon Leaf's "What About Everything?" and White Hassle's "Life Is Still Sweet."

The next morning, I still wasn't sure why I'd gone or what I'd done, but I was getting there. I opened the Star Tribune and saw a half-page ad for the Memorial Blood Centers. There it was, in black and white: You can donate blood once every eight weeks, six times a year. Only 5 percent of the population regularly donates blood. The centers need 2,400 blood donations each week to meet their demand. "We're All In This Together," said the boldface. "If You Don't Do Your Part, Who Will?"

What it didn't say is that afterward you feel sort of woozy. But also giddy: You can go in feeling like the most worthless pile of shit that ever walked the planet, but for one day, anyway, you know that you did something right. Something concrete. You went in, flirted with some nurses, gave till it didn't hurt, maybe saved a life, and told a homesick daughter to have a good Christmas. And on your way out, you got a free M&M cookie that tasted so good you vowed to go back for more.


Jim Walsh can be reached at 612.372.3775 or [email protected]

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