Sandy's Aftermath: NerdCorps Assemble!

Good thoughts and vibes to all those out there recovering from Sandy's wrath. The Care and Feeding of Nerds was very fortunate and weathered the storm with minimal damage but countless others along the Eastern Seaboard were not so lucky. If you're looking for ways to help out, PayPal and iTunes have both set up donation sites while dozens of major retailers have teamed up with the American Red Cross. The guys over at NerdWallet have also put together an excellent compendium of links to donate program rewards, points, or airline miles you may have accumulated with your credit card. Donations of non-monetary items, such as clothing, furnishings, or home repair supplies can be dropped with Goodwill or United Way.

If you'd like to give of your time and partake in active service towards the relief effort AmeriCares, Habitat for Humanity, and food banks associated with Feeding America are accepting volunteers. The Humane Society and the ASPCA are also on the lookout for individuals willing to help with their efforts to recover and/or foster pets while their families return home or rebuild.

Blood is also a desperately needed commodity that can be given from any number of sites (click here to find a donation center near you). It's something that nearly everyone can do, but the notion of being interrogated and then poked with a needle tends to drive most folks away. Funny that. Blood donation is something I've done for years and, in actuality, it's neither an arduous nor a painful undertaking. So, in an attempt to tamp down some of the anxiety surrounding blood donation, here's a brief rundown of how the process goes. 

The Basics: In the US, you need to be at least 17 years of age (16 if you get written consent from a parent), in good health, and weigh at least 110 pounds (49kg) to donate blood. The entire process takes about an hour from start to finish, but only 8-15 minutes of that time is spent actually having blood withdrawn.

Phase 1: Pre-Donation Screening -  The majority of the screening process is a fairly sizeable questionnaire that may be administered electronically (just a survey on a computer) or interpersonally with a nurse or attendant asking you questions and recording your answers. Depending on your donation site, the questionnaire may end up being a hybrid of both and/or can be completed in advance over the internet if you make an appointment. The questions themselves range from basic biostatistics (age, height, weight, etc) and any pertinent allergies to fairly specific inquiries about your recent travels and extracurricular activities. 

Are they going to ask me about my...history shall we say?
Short answer: yes. They're going to ask you if you've had unprotected sex, if you have a habit of sharing needles, or if you have or have had a persistent viral infection or certain types of cancer. You know, common sensical questions to get an idea if your blood is safe to put into another human. More surprising questions that will come up are those pertaining to any recent vacations or significant time you may have spent abroad. This may seem kind of weird, but the practitioners are looking to see if you've been in contact with a specific set of infectious agents: namely Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (the human version of Mad Cow) or malaria. 

That's a lot of personal information. I'm not sure I'm comfy sharing all that.
Which is fair; it's a lot of information. However, your anonymity as a donor is under federal protection. Aside from basic administrative data, like your address or email, no information is maintained after the donation session. Your blood will be tagged with a long series of digits and will be traced back to you only if something comes up in post-donation screening (more on that in a minute).

So, long story short, it's a lot of information, but it's not going anywhere and it's only garnered to protect those individuals who may receive your blood.

Phase 2: the Mini-Physical: After completing the questionnaire, a nurse or medical assistant will take your blood pressure, your pulse, and your temperature. Immediately following will be the first of two encounters with a needle during the donation process. The nurse/med assistant will determine your hematocrit/hemoglobin levels by administering a pinprick to one of your fingers. It's very fast and can be on any finger you choose. In all honesty, this blink-of-an-eye puncture tends to be more painful than the actual donation. I recommend using your ring finger on your non-dominant hand, as this digit tends to get less use than your other fingers. It will take only a minute or so to obtain the necessary data and determine if you're not anemic. Once that's been established, you'll move on to the donation itself.

Phase 3: The Donation: So it's come down to this, your date with donation. As mentioned above, this part is going to seem very quick compared to the questionnaire and the mini-physical. The majority of people volunteering to donate will make an 'allogenic' (a.k.a. a homologous) donation of whole blood. You'll be asked to lie down on a padded chais or table and select a donation site, typically from one of the medial cubital veins on one of your arms (the ones you can easily see through your skin at the crook of your elbow). It's generally a good idea to choose your non-dominant arm for this, as you'll have to contend with some bandaging at the donation site for much of the remainder of the day. The extraction site will be prepped with sterilizing agents, usually iodine, and a tourniquet of rubber tubing may be affixed around the bicep of the arm doing the donating. After this is the actual insertion of the needle. It may seem absurdly large, but only because it's far bigger than what's typically used for a vaccine or the application of an IV. The actual insertion is a momentary pinch. It would probably be more painful if you tried to replicate the process by pinching yourself in the crook of your elbow. After that you just lie back and relax for a few minutes while gravity does all the work of donating for you. You may be given a soft foam ball to squeeze to provide added pressure and help keep the process moving.

Related aside: There are handful of different types of blood donation, of which allogenic is only one. Depending on your unique physique and the facilities available at the donation site, you may be asked if you'd like to make a different type of donation.  The most common variant is apheresis, which is a process of extracting blood, running it through a centrifuge to obtain certain blood components, then returning the remainder of the blood back to your body. Subtypes of apheresis are used to garner supplies of blood plasma, platelets, and pure red blood cells. The physical requirements for this sort of donation differ from those for allogenic donation, so check with the administrators at your donation site to see if you qualify if this interests you. Bonus: apheresis uses smaller needles than standard whole blood donation.

Phase 4: The Recovery:  Immediately after donation, you'll be asked to lie flat and relax for a few minutes, then gradually move into a sitting position before being allowed to stand. Fainting spells resulting from shifts in blood pressure are the most common side effect of donating and these almost always occur immediately after the donation is finished. Not to worry though, as you'll be in the capable hands of a technician the entire time. Once it's clear that you are able to stand and move under your own power, you'll be guided over to a recovery area to partake in some light refreshments. You'll be encouraged to have a snack, usually something starchy or sugary, and at least 8 ounces of water. Take your time, relax, and enjoy your snack. Once you've finished nomming, you'll be cleared to go about your merry way. That's it! You've donated blood!

So...what happens now? I just go home?
Yep, you just go about your day. You'll want to avoid heavy lifting or rigorous physical activity for the next 5-8 hours and drink extra water but, other than that, it'll just be a normal day. The donation site may be a little tender or exhibit some minor bruising for about a day, but you probably won't even notice.

What happens to my blood?
It'll be treated with anticoagulants and subjected to post-donation screening to ensure that no infectious agents are present. Technicians tend to look for infections that are asymptomatic for some of their tenure in your body, like Lyme disease or Syphilis. You'll be notified immediately if anything should pop up during this screening. Otherwise, your blood will make its way into a network of hospitals and clinics to be used by patients in need.

This still sounds unpleasant. Does donating really accomplish all that much?
At worst the donation process is enduring some minor discomfort for a short while. On the flip side, your one donation can help save the lives of up to three people. That's a crazy ratio right there. Blood is something that's needed on a constant basis and, until we come up with excellent synthetic versions, there are no substitutes for actual human blood. You get to be a hero, potentially for three different people. Not many other types of donation have such a direct impact.

Even the smallest effort can create powerful ripples and will be appreciated. We stand in solidarity with those impacted by Sandy. You guys are tough and will be back on your feet in no time, but we'll happily help you get there.

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