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Want to make a difference? Donate.

April 17, 2007|by MARY K. KAVANAGH

One of my mother's favorite stories about me involves a nurse and a needle. Just like any other kid, I was afraid of needles. Except I used to take it to the point that I would become Justin Gatlin and try to sprint out the door. Or I would approach the matter with a stealth demeanor and imitate James Bond as I tried to shimmy under the exam table. Eventually the time would come that a Band-Aid or a lollipop would intrigue me and I would submit, but still bawl my eyes out.

I'm not so reluctant to approach a needle anymore, at least when it comes to donating blood. In fact, I love donating blood, and I am always trying to convince other teenagers to donate blood.

Although the process might seem intimidating, it really isn't. Some people complain about how much it hurts, but I've never felt that much pain. Paper cuts inflict more pain than the entire donation process. When I get a paper cut, every time something touches it, it burns. Water burns it. A gentle breeze burns it.

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Donating blood is the complete opposite. In fact, the whole process from signing in at the beginning to taking a doughnut at the end is designed to be as enjoyable and stress-free as possible.

When you enter a blood collection site, you immediately encounter a friendly volunteer handing out cuddly fleece blankets, free MP3 downloads, chances to win tickets to a rock concert, or the ever-present XXL Red Cross T-shirts. You wait a few minutes until an interview station is clear, and you are halfway done.

The interview is completely confidential - the Red Cross will never pass any information to your parents, the police or anyone else. The nurse asks everyone the same questions. Questions range from whether you were in South Africa before 1972 (even if you were born in 1991) to whether you take the medication Accutane.

At this time, the nurse also checks your iron. She pricks your finger and deposits blood into a greenish solution. If your blood sinks to the bottom, your iron is high enough. I've discovered that if I eat a small box of raisins - raisins contain a lot of iron - every day for two weeks before I give blood, I pass with flying colors.

But don't be discouraged if the Red Cross tells you your blood-iron level is too low and they can't accept your blood. Red Cross standards are extra high, so the loss of blood doesn't make you sick.

After the interview, you receive a folder and your blood bag, and you sit by the donation beds to wait. When it's your turn, the phlebotomist rechecks all of your information and begins to prep your arm. She swabs iodine all around the inside of your elbow. Then she hangs up the donation bags and tubes and inserts the needle into your arm.

Once the needle goes in, it doesn't hurt. You barely even feel it. The nurse gives you a stress ball to squeeze. This helps pump blood out of your arm. As blood collects in the bag, a weird draining feeling and some numbness goes up your arm. When the one-pint bag is full, the nurse withdraws the needle.

The actual donation process takes at most 15 minutes. Last of all, a volunteer leads you over to the canteen to snack on Hawaiian punch, doughnuts, pizza, Tasty Kakes or other sugar-filled treats.

Then, you're out the door.

Donating blood is important. If the pain-free process isn't enough to interest you in donating blood, consider these numbers:

97 percent - the chance that you will know a person who needs a blood transfusion. This doesn't even count the people that need blood for more common procedures, or ER trauma patients.

2 seconds - that often, someone in the United States needs blood, and never just one pint.

3 lives - That's how many people one pint of blood can help. One pint can help a patient who needs blood plasma, to a teenager who is having their appendix removed. Just think about it, blood is the most important thing in our bodies. If someone doesn't have blood, his or her body cannot perform any action, even maintain a coma state, nothing.

6 times a year - that's how often you can donate blood; that's once every 56 days.

42 days - that's how long blood lasts in a blood bank.

5 percent - the percent of the eligible United States population who donate blood, but not necessarily regularly and maybe not more than once. Because less than 30 percent of donors ever donate again.

Over the past four years, these numbers have astonished me enough to do something about it. As a freshman at North Hagerstown High School, I became involved with the school's three blood drives a year.

Now I'm a senior. I have been an organizer at 12 drives. Three times a year, I become known as the persistent permission slip girl, but that doesn't bother me. I've done the math; the blood we have collected in four years has helped as many as 2,000 lives.

Consider giving blood. I hope all your myths about the experience of donating blood have been busted. It's not icky and painful, as some people fear.

If you still are afraid of needles, don't just give up on blood donation altogether. Convince your parents to give, your friends to give, and maybe in a few years you'll feel comfortable enough to donate.

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