DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Mary Chanthabandit, 19, and her brother, Johnson, need blood transfusions every month. Her cousin Asialand Whiting, 7, and her brother, Ikaika Whiting, 5, give her a hug before they leave.
A needle prick is a small price to pay with so many lives at stake
More donors could help alleviate Hawaii's blood pressure
I used to think I had an unreasonable fear of needles until I realized that being afraid of needles is, in fact, perfectly reasonable. You are supposed to be alarmed when a sharp object is suddenly jabbed into your body. That's why God made nerve endings.
But my wife shamed me into overcoming my aversion. She did this by giving blood about every eight weeks of her adult life. And each time she helped save the life of somebody she didn't even know, I felt a little diminished by my cowardice.
I finally went to donate blood and found that if I didn't look at the needle and hummed a jolly tune when "contact" was made, there was no pain. Being a rather large walking reservoir of blood (about 4.5 gallons), losing a pint was inconsequential to me and took about four minutes. I didn't even need the juice and cookie afterward, but I ate them anyway because I think it's some kind of a law.
That was several years and three gallons of blood ago, and, while I'll never catch up to my wife, at least I don't feel like such a weenie. On the other hand, she'll never catch up with her father, now in his 90s, who has given more then 17 gallons of blood in his lifetime. And none of us will probably catch Hawaii's top blood donor, Richard Allen, who has given more than 30 gallons. I checked with someone who knows math better than I do and that's more than 260 pints of blood. And since each pint is divided into three blood products (platelets, plasma and red blood cells), that means Allen has helped save the lives of more than 700 people in Hawaii.
Allen, like my father-in-law and my wife and, it seems, most people who give blood regularly, are rather modest and humble folks. They don't beat their own drums and, in fact, I'm sure my wife doesn't even own a drum set. And most blood donors never meet the recipients of their blood, content to know in the abstract that they are doing a good deed.
Being a media animal, I exist in a less abstract world. And it bothered me to hear that only 2 percent of the population provides all of the blood donated. When you consider that 60 percent of us will need blood at some point in our lives, that 2 percent figure seems rather pitiful.
I thought it might persuade more people to give blood if they could actually meet the folks who use it. So I arranged with Stephanie Rosso, communications director for the Blood Bank of Hawaii, to follow my next donation of blood through processing and hopefully to the end users.
If Rosso was concerned about allowing a newspaper humor columnist to tackle a subject like this, she didn't show it. The Blood Bank needs publicity. It needs to gently coerce donors into coming forward. Unlike those commercial outfits that use plasma for research, the Blood Bank can't pay anyone for blood. And wouldn't want to.
"The safest blood comes from people without any incentive to give other then they want to give," Rosso says.
The main reason people don't give, according to surveys, is that they are too busy, she tells me. I tell her I think that's hooey. If the president of the United States can take a five-week vacation, no one is too busy to spare one hour every two months to give blood.
I think it's the needle thing.
One of the great ironies of the Blood Bank is that it's called a bank at all, Rosso says. It's more of a Blood Pipeline, with gallons pouring in and out every day. Very little is "banked" or even can be.
I met her at the Hawaii Blood Bank donation and processing center on Dillingham Boulevard at 1:30 on a Thursday afternoon. The task of withdrawing my blood fell to Joey Madriaga, a member of the nursing staff who seemed a bit nervous. You'd think she'd never taken blood from a humor columnist while a photographer snapped pictures and the Blood Bank's communication director and assistant stood by watching.
I intended to scream when Joey inserted the needle, just as a joke, but thought better of it. I feared the poor girl might go into cardiac arrest.
Before giving blood, donors fill out a questionnaire about their general health. But the real interesting questions come in a private interview room. That's when they ask you things like, "Have you ever had sex with anyone born in Africa?" "Have you had sex with anyone who takes illegal drugs with a needle?" And, "Have you ever had a dura mater brain graft?" I'm not even sure what a "dura mater brain graft" is, but it's nice to be asked. That part of the interview is confidential and probably the only time in your life a complete stranger will ask you if you've ever had "Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease."
They reason for the screening is obvious, in these days of HIV, AIDS, hepatitis and mad cow disease, which is what Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease actually is.
The actual blood-giving is anticlimactic after that. I don't scream and scare Joey. Mosquito bites hurt more than the needle.
My pint of blood is then sent up to the lab, where we watch Shandrie Mangonon, the blood "components coordinator," put it in a Beckman 6 centrifuge the size of a washing machine. Twelve minutes later it is separated into PRP (platelet-rich plasma) and red blood cells. Shandrie shows me the PRP, which is almost clear. She says, "You've got pretty blood."
I say, "It must be the chardonnay."
She says sometimes the PRP is cloudy. She's not kidding, I've got pretty blood.
I tell her I'm not kidding, it's the chardonnay.
Actually, I am kidding. In preparation for giving blood, my body has been a temple of purity for two days. Well, if you forget the tacos.
Anatomy of a Blood Donation
STEP 1: DONATE THE BLOOD
CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Star-Bulletin columnist Charles Memminger withstands the prick of the needle, as nurse Joey Madriaga draws the blood.
STEP 2: PROCESS THE BLOOD
CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Shandrie Mangonon of the the Blood Bank of Hawaii holds the cover over a centrifuge machine that separates blood into platelets, red blood cells and plasma.
STEP 3: USING THE BLOOD
DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Mary Chanthabandit, 19, and her brother, Johnson, need blood transfusions every month. Charley Memminger was with them and their family during a recent session. Mary's sister, Chandra Namumnart, is sitting at the end of the bed as the monitor is being adjusted at Kapiolani Medical Center.
The platelets will be separated out and kept at room temperature under constant movement. They have to be used within five days and likely will go to cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy.
The red blood cells are refrigerated and can be kept up to 42 days. The plasma can be frozen and kept for up to a year. By 3 p.m., my blood is ready for screening, then shipping to local hospitals.
On Saturday morning, I meet Rosso again. This time at Kapiolani Medical Center for Women and Children. Hospital public relations rep Patricia Oda takes us to the ironically named "PAU" ward. PAU stands for Pediatric Ambulatory Center and it's where patients with cancer and blood diseases, many of them children, come for transfusions. In this case, PAU means hope.
Lying on beds in a small room are 19-year-old Mary Chanthabandit and her 16-year-old brother, Johnson. They both have thalassemia major, a disorder that prevents the creation of red blood cells. They have to get fresh red blood cells every four weeks. They are on an IV, being given Benadryl, an anti-allergy agent, before they get their blood. Or maybe, my blood. The Benadryl makes them groggy. Johnson, trying to watch a college football game on TV, falls asleep.
Also in the room is Mary and Johnson's half-sister, Chandra Namumnart, who has been bringing Mary for her treatments since Mary was 11 months old.
Think about that. Every four weeks for 18 years, Mary's been coming to the hospital for a transfusion that takes six to eight hours.
"Sometimes I don't want to come," she says.
It rips my heart out. When talking about things they don't want to, most girls her age are talking about not doing the dishes. "Even though I'm tired of it, I'm still thankful," she says.
Today she'll get three "units" of red blood cells, that is, from three different donors. Johnson gets two.
Mary sits up. She's wearing a "I Love Mama" T-shirt. Mama is at the foot of her bed with a couple of young cousins playing video games. It's family time.
After her transfusions, she feels lively and healthy. But as the four-week deadline approaches, she becomes tired and rundown.
"At times I have so much energy," she says. "But when I'm tired, I get really emotional."
When she's feeling well, she also becomes a spokeswoman for the Blood Bank. She talks to high school and college students even though she has a (perfectly reasonable) fear of speaking to large groups.
Nurses hang bags of blood on the IV stands and begin the transfusions. I don't know whether it's mine or not. But it's pretty enough. Mary lies back, sleepy. She's 19 but as she lies there hooked up to the life-sustaining fluid, she looks like a fragile little girl. An incredibly brave, fragile little girl.
And I feel like an idiot. My fear of needles was unreasonable after all. And by the time I leave the PAU ward, passing by other children getting transfusions, that fear is gone forever.
HOW TO GIVE
» Be in good health
» At least 18 years old
» Weigh at least 110 pounds
» Have valid ID
Where the blood goes
» 35 percent to cancer patients
» 30 percent to newborns, bleeding ulcers and other forms of treatment
» 25 percent to open-heart surgery patients
» 10 percent to accident and trauma victims
BE A BLOOD DONOR
You can save three lives in about an hour.
To make an appointment: Call 845-9966 or visit the Web site, www.bbh.org.
Donor centers: 2048 Dillingham Blvd. and downtown at 126 Queen St.
What to expect: The donation process takes about an hour, beginning with a screening that includes a confidential medical history. The actual collection of blood takes only five to eight minutes. Raw blood is divided into platelets, plasma and red blood cells.