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The Gift of Life

I have only given blood once. It was during one of those drives at school when the Red Cross trailer pulled into the bus parking lot and welcomed students over the age of 18 to donate. Truth be told, most were lured by the promise of free cookies and juice. Missing math class was just a bonus. The faculty was encouraged to pop in during their planning periods to participate and after watching the heart-tugging video at the most recent faculty meeting, many of us volunteered. Myself included.

What I hadn’t anticipated was the backup as kids lined up for their turn in one of the three reclining chairs. Several teenagers giggled and whispered to each other, as they mentally calculated how much time they had been out of the classroom, figuring they had pulled one over on the unsuspecting administration. A couple of names were tossed around as the stories of friends who had passed out at the sight of the needle were repeated. The next day, the embellished versions would be told over slices of pizza in the cafeteria. Such is the stuff of high school legends.

I was graciously ushered to the front of the line by the Student Council member who carried a clipboard and tried to be as efficient as possible, all the while sporting a deer-in-the-headlights look. So much responsibility rested on her young shoulders, and things were quickly unraveling.

I slid into the chair and took a deep breath. The process was painless, but time-consuming, and the nurse had just removed the needle from my arm when the bell rang for the next period to begin. I grabbed my cookies and juice and climbed the three flights of stairs to my classroom. By the time I opened the door for my students, I was lightheaded and dizzy, with a queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. I don’t know how much learning took place for the rest of that afternoon, but I made a mental note to reserve such adventures for after-school hours. High school teachers need to be firing on all cylinders.

In subsequent years, the few times when I tried to donate, I was deemed unfit, either too anemic or too soon after a strong antibiotic regiment. And then, quite frankly, the idea fell off of my radar as I grew busy with the other responsibilities of life. That might be true for many of us.

But perception always changes with experience. Early in my treatment, I walked through the infusion center one morning and noticed the bright red and yellow bags hanging from random IV poles. I had quite the epiphany: for each blood product donated, there is a living, breathing recipient. And most recently, I was one of them. When this newest medication, meant to keep the cancer at bay, attacked my platelets, I found myself weak, fuzzy-brained, and covered in tiny bruises. My doctor’s chemo nurse, who called with the news, told me to cloak myself in bubble wrap and go to bed. I was to get a transfusion early the next morning.

There is something sacred about the process. Unlike chemotherapy, which is mixed by the resident pharmacist, this comes from the hospital blood bank, sent through a special tube and marked to be handled with care. There is a tag attached, and before the transfusion begins, the nurses cross reference the typing for both the donor and the patient. As they call out the information to each other, I whisper a prayer for the kind soul who has given me this precious gift, one which I can never repay. The bag is hung and attached to the tube which leads to my port. While I watch the liquid enter my veins, I am fascinated by the fact that platelets are bright yellow, like the sun or the yolk of an egg or a tart lemon. I suppose that God chose a happy color for something so crucial to life.

I have needed two of these transfusions in as many weeks, and I have thought a lot about how we are wonderfully made. It is nothing short of a miracle that a part of one person can save the life of another. God designed us to be interdependent, to understand that each of us can indeed be our brother’s keeper. That’s nothing short of remarkable. And, I suppose, something we often forget in a society that salutes individualism.

During this time of Thanksgiving, I am grateful for many things: friends and family, of course, the heroic medical folks. I treasure moments, which someday will simply be memoires. I still appreciate chocolate and a good red wine. But on this particular holiday, I am also indebted to the generous stranger whose kindness has allowed me to rebuild my weakened body and live to fight another day.

The Greeks have several words to define love: the most powerful being agape, which means love with action, particularly when it is concerned with the greater good of another. And to so many, myself included, that’s exactly what blood donation has been.

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