I have a six-gallon pin, the six gallons meaning blood. That's how much I donated over some 20 years. I started giving when I was a graduate student at the University of Vermont - my building was right next door to the American Red Cross, a constant reminder. It made me feel good and virtuous, even vaguely patriotic, to endure the prick of a needle, to watch my blood stream into a little plastic bag. At the time I had no money to be philanthropic, no time to volunteer for a charity. But I could do this. I could give some of my healthy AB-positive blood every eight weeks and know that somebody, somewhere, needed it.
After I left school, there were stretches of time when I didn't donate, distracted by life and work. There were occasions when I tried and couldn't: My blood pressure was too low, my iron insufficient, or I'd gotten a tattoo. But my donor consciousness persisted, like a gentle nag to clean the house or remember friends' birthdays. Even during a nine-month sojourn in Paris, I bared my veins at a mobile unit of la Croix-Rouge - where, by the way, they took far less blood than their American counterparts and gave an impressive lunch afterward, including a small glass of red wine! (That practice isn't advisable stateside, where you give up a whole pint; I speak from experience.)
I couldn't have known at the time that this would halt my bloodletting habit indefinitely. No, not the wine. Living in France. September 2001 is infamous worldwide for 9/11. But certain blood donors also know it as the month when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration - which oversees the Red Cross - initiated a so-called "travel deferral" due to a different kind of terror: mad cow disease, a.k.a. bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). The "brain-wasting" disease, first detected in the U.K. in 1986, resulted in the slaughter of tens of thousands of cattle throughout the '90s. More to the point, cases of the human BSE variant, Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, cropped up as well, caused by consuming affected beef products.
The panic that ensued was worthy of the bubonic plague. Still, the incidence of vCJD was minuscule - only one case in the United States, and this linked to a single cow imported from Canada. Despite the exceedingly small chance of getting the disease, the American Red Cross issued a ban on blood donations from anyone who had spent three cumulative months or more in Europe between 1980 and 1996.
Personally, I was outraged. I was a vegetarian! No beef had passed my lips in years! No matter. Though only seven cases of vCJD have been found in France, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, the fact remains that the French are known to eat such delicacies as "amourette," which contains high-risk brain and spinal cord, and "andouillette," made from cow intestines. I did eat beaucoup croissants, though. Could something have slipped into the butter?
Fast-forward to December 2006: The "indefinite" hold on my blood donation is over. Just before Christmas, I received a letter from the American Red Cross informing me that it had "changed its blood donation deferral requirements with regard to potential travel exposure to variant CJD." The period a donor could have spent in continental Europe was now extended to five cumulative years - though it remains three months for the U.K. I'd lived in Paris less than a year. My name had "been removed from the confidential list of ineligible donors," the letter said, and I could give again - assuming, of course, that I could meet all the other criteria.
After the holidays, I phoned the Red Cross Blood Services, still in the same building on North Prospect Street, and made an appointment. I talked with spokeswoman Carol Dembeck, who confirmed that the small number of cases of vCJD - about 150 in Europe over more than a decade - "didn't seem to pose as big a risk" as the FDA had originally thought. Dembeck explained, "You have to walk a fine line between the risk of passing something along and having an adequate supply of blood," given the American Red Cross' constant need - often urgent, according to signs along the street outside. "The travel deferment has been the hardest, because so many people travel," she said.
Dembeck also noted that deferral criteria "change all the time." For example, there used to be an upper age limit for donating; these days you can give well into your dotage, as long as you're healthy. Once you couldn't give if you'd had any kind of cancer; now, five years of remission and you're good to go. Several deferrals will surely remain permanent, however: if you've had sex with anyone who might have been exposed to hepatitis or HIV/AIDS; if (men) you've had sex with another man, period, since 1977; if you're pregnant. (There are more, too - see http://www.newenglandblood.org for a complete list of eligibility requirements.) The Red Cross' vigilance about HIV/AIDS alone is reflected in a remarkable variety of pre-donation questions beginning "Have you ever had sexual relations with . . ."
The sheer length of the questionnaire was one change I observed last week, when I went to the Red Cross for my first donation in six years. The current version refers to a couple of diseases I've never heard of - even countries I'd be hard-pressed to find on a map. Other changes: Some of the furniture in the center has been rearranged, and I didn't remember a television in the waiting area. Also, while I was away, computer technology came to the donation process. After painlessly slipping the needle into my arm, nurse Angela Holtz explained the function of the "Palm Computing Platform" - a gizmo that fed information about me to the "collection unit."
Some things still matched the mingled memories of my earlier donor years. The antiseptic smell of alcohol swabs in the air. My teensy anxiety about the finger prick for the iron test. (Oddly, I've never been nervous about the needle.) The efficient nurses; the friendly volunteers pushing juice and snacks. And, yes, I felt good and virtuous and vaguely patriotic as I left the building. And relieved that my brain is almost certainly not turning to mush.
Seven gallons, here I come.