I had given blood five times the year that I stopped giving altogether. Six times was the max you were allowed to give in a year. That’s about once every two months. I was proud of my record, and of my body’s ability to recover.
But something unpleasant happened the last time I visited the blood bank. It didn’t end with the easy get-up-and-go feel-good that previous draws of blood had inspired. The experience was so impacting that I gave up donating blood. I was scared. I didn’t want the experience to repeat itself.
On this last visit to the blood bank, the whole process of check-in and blood draw took the usual 20 or 25 minutes. Not that long. They checked my blood pressure and pulse rate. As always, I was proud of my numbers. The pin prick for the hemoglobin test was quick and showed me to be a glowing candidate for giving.
There were a few people ahead of me, but several phlebotomists were working. When I was called, I was glad to see the same phlebotomist I’d had previously. She spoke in a deep smooth voice that rounded out all the hard sounds. She was pleasantly personal in her demeanor and calming. Her gaze fell gently on her work while she maneuvered my arm without embarrassment. And her technique with the needle must have been excellent. Nothing hurt.
My phlebotomist got all the lines and clamps and bags hooked up. She dropped a white paper towel over my arm so that all of “that” was discreetly out of my view. She stayed by my side during the draw. We talked a little. Just enough to pass the time. I could see that she had begun preparation of a couple of sample vials that would be used for testing the blood. We were almost done. I felt several mild tugs as the blood giving paraphernalia was being rearranged – all par for the course.
Then, I thought I heard little sounds, faint tapping sounds, inside my arm. I hadn’t been watching the goings on, but suddenly I was paying attention. I felt the phlebotomist do something along the tube, and suddenly again, there was a little rhythmic sensation at the point where the needle was still in my vein. It was a tiny soft tapping on the inside of my vein. It didn’t hurt, but it was a little spooky. I told her, “Whatever you did down there, I felt it inside my arm.” “That’s a bit of suction your body is doing,” she explained. The valve in my vein was trying to do its normal work even though the flow was being disrupted.
I was okay with that explanation. It made sense. But my body and mind began to lose touch with each other. I spoke to the phlebotomist, “I feel a little faint.” I thought I should let her know. I rolled my head away from her toward the wall in a reflex of modesty. My senses were dissolving by the millisecond. The ceiling was very far away, and all points were merging.
“I think I’m going to faint,” my voice reached out for her. What a strange thing to say, submitting to a kind of death – perhaps death itself.
I doubt people say, “I’m going to faint” very often, even when they are going to. First off, nobody wants to faint, so to declare it is going to happen goes against instinct. It’s giving in. It’s possible, sometimes, to stay present by demanding it of oneself. All the ER and trauma scenes in movies show someone saying, “Stay with me! Stay with me!” as if there is a choice. Sometimes, I suppose there is. Indeed, to say “I’m going to faint,” implies the absence of a determination to “stay with it.” But fainting has its way with a person. It disables the will, then the senses.
While the senses are blacking out, the mind may still be fully awake. In the fading out, for a glimmer of time, the distinction between yourself and your ability to perceive and engage is obvious. You may not be able to move your body, or even feel it, but you are there being aware of the inability. For a moment, awareness is all you have. Then, that is gone too.
Of course, you don’t experience or remember the part of fainting when awareness is absent, that is, the period of “being out.” The mind is out of commission at that point. There is no support for it from the brain. You are temporarily not a conscious being.
Once, years ago, long before my donation years, I came close to blacking out. I’d fallen full force, smashing the bony back of my hand on the edge of a door jam. The pain was intense. It seemed that part of me jumped out of my body. In a kind of third person way, my knees buckled, and my torso rolled onto the floor. I could see and hear, but my body had collapsed and lay still. I never totally lost consciousness, but I didn’t feel normal. My mind had separated from all my sensory perceptions. Even the pain in my hand was not a problem. I had no ability to communicate or respond to questions my family was asking of me. I was in a different frame – separated from everything. The paralysis lasted only a few seconds. Then, I came to my senses. My injured hand was screaming. Able, again, to direct my body, I rolled to a kneeling posture on the floor to assess the damage.
That was my only fainting experience other than the many times when, upon getting out of a hot bath, I would see stars and feel like a big frothy wave was softly cresting between my ears. That’s common. You simply get your head low. I look hard at something in my view and anchor my awareness to it. I “stay with it.”
Being out in the sun for too long, hiking or doing yard work, can do a number on me, too. Too much sun or heat, as even the medical professionals say, is distressing. When I get too hot, I feel heat radiating from me like a light bulb emits light. I feel my skin flush. Everything I touch is shockingly cold. I notice my irritability, but I can’t moderate it. My brain is overheated, so it just doesn’t work well. A lifesaving intolerance kicks in. I want to whimper. I feel vulnerable. But I am driven by a mad self-determination to get my body cool. Shoes and hat come off. I put my drinking water all over me, especially my face and scalp. I have to. I have to do something to cool myself immediately. Being overheated commands the strength of my will to engage and survive. It demands action of me.
On the day at the blood bank, none of that happened. On this day, fainting was out of my control. Just a little tick, tick, tick feeling inside my vein, and within 20 seconds, the world would be unavailable to me. Trying to see the wall with eyes that could no longer see, I said to the phlebotomist, “Bye, bye.” I was gone.
I did not dream. I was out, cold. It was the coming back into consciousness that was terrifying.
My return to awareness was sudden and partial. I was pulled sharply into consciousness. I seemed to be falling. Nothing else. I felt to be in a black void that was caving in beneath me. My senses were not “on.” There was no input of sound or sensation. Worse, my brain wasn’t “on” either. There was no conceptual orientation. No words. No meaning. No up or down. I felt my aliveness, but there was nothing to grasp onto cognitively. Nothing to “stay with.”
I would not say that I was aware of myself. Rather, I had simply regained rudimentary awareness, isolated in terrible, total disconnection. There was emptiness. Nothing more. There was no talking myself through it. There was a desperation to latch onto something, but there was only nothing. My mind was fighting to be somewhere, to find a point of reference.
In that lost-ness, I was there, but without a world. The “me” that was experiencing being lost was the same me that experiences being overheated, the same me that felt itself to have popped out of my body when I fell on my hand. It’s the me that watches my living. But in my lost state, there was no “sense” of me. I just was – as if just born, nothing coming into emptiness.
I can say this: that little self could not have existed for very long in that lost condition, convulsively grasping. It grasped for something, for anything, to lock onto, to stay with.
Suddenly, there was something. Severe cold. Intense, painful cold. The sensation was precise. It had meaning. It was the only meaning in that moment. Its intensity had a solidity that my searching mind leapt to. This raw shock was the tether that led me back into the world. I found my eyes. Lifting my lids was slow work. The light was harshly bright. Another demanding link to the world. At last, my eyes fully opened. And there she was, my phlebotomist, caring for me.
My right arm moved automatically, awkwardly, to find the coldness. I could not feel my movement, and there was almost no energy available for the labor of the movement. But I found the cold cloth on my neck. I thought to remove it and I did.
A voice was talking to me. It was hers. “Welcome back.” I remembered having said “bye, bye” to her. The phlebotomist’s gentle voice was wonderful. She’d been there the whole time I was gone, she told me. She had put the wet cloth on my neck. “We couldn’t get you to wake up! You were gone for close to 15 minutes!” She sheltered my eyes from the lights. I could only speak slowly. “I’ve been here,” I told her, “but I couldn’t find my way.”
After a few minutes, I was led to the area where juice and snacks are available for donors to help them hydrate. I accepted some apple juice and a few crackers. The staff was watching my behavior, and I was, too. I stayed about 20 minutes. I practiced walking to the juice dispenser to build up my confidence. A mild feeling of disconnectedness lingered. My mind was working better than my brain. I must have just seemed quiet, but in fact I could not speak my thoughts. I didn’t even have many thoughts, except to be watching myself regain normalcy.
On the drive home I stopped at a supermarket parking lot to give it some time. I walked about a bit and bought a bottle of water. When I was sure, I got myself on the road home. I sipped the water. I drove carefully, leaving space ahead of me. I chose a route that had little traffic. Then, once home, I went to bed and slept for three hours straight. Everything was normal after that.
Normal, except that I haven’t given blood in the 15 years since.
It’s about time, I think. Time to no longer be afraid. Time to give, again. Time that I find my way back to the blood bank.
On August 9th, 2018, at 6:15 pm, I successfully gave 480 ml of whole blood. The body is able to replace the plasma after a donation within about 24 hours. It will take about four to six weeks to completely replace the red cells.
Once again, I’m a normal, proud, blood donor.