I had given the gift of life many times before – in fact, 15 times before since 2007 in places like fire stations and shopping malls. But this time, it was different. This act of service changed me for the better. I am not a doctor, nor am I a superhero. There are no capes, no miracles, and no valor needed.
Yet, a simple act that I and numerous others did amid the COVID-19 pandemic meant that a child undergoing cancer treatments might be one step closer to defeating the disease; a woman who was critically injured in a head-on car collision might have a fighting chance; and an elderly patient who received a heart transplant could live a better life. We were blood donors who voluntarily (albeit donating blood comes with some great perks!) donated a pint of blood during a recent American Red Cross blood drive in northern Virginia during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Amid the warnings to socially distance and always wear masks outside of the house, people scheduled appointments throughout the day to donate whole blood and platelets. Every appointment slot from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. was filled, and every person showed up. We all knew that the need for blood does not stop during a global pandemic, and in fact, it probably increases. Hospitals have enough to deal with in treating critically-ill patients in the ICU and keeping up an ample supply of blood is a necessity.
I arrived to the donation site, a private performing arts center in northern Virginia, and warily placed my surgical mask over my nose and mouth. This was only my third time out of the house in three months. This same center was a place I had driven by numerous times, and had visited six months earlier with thousands of others to see a Christmas concert. It was a night of excitement, loudness, and closeness with others. All that now seems like a lifetime ago before our world was forever changed by the novel coronavirus.
Today, as I entered the performing arts center, I was the only one who walked through the entrance. The place was eerily quiet as I walked through the vacant hallways to the blood donation area. Once I reached the lobby, a volunteer took my temperature, each of us standing far enough apart that we could put two arm lengths between us. The volunteer then motioned for me to continue to the next station where another volunteer checked my identification and confirmed my appointment. Each of us eyed the other apprehensively, as if we each had COVID-19 germs gushing from our pores. Finally, I was led to a chair where I waited my turn to donate.
I sat in that chair watching the phlebotomists draw blood from other donors, everyone with solemn looks on their faces, which were hidden behind masks. There was not the usual cheerfulness or small talk between phlebotomists and donors. The air in the room was as if these blood donations were our last act of life. Just six months earlier, I had streamed into that same lobby excitedly with some friends as we headed into the Christmas concert. Now, COVID-19 has stifled the mood and everyone was serious. What was inspiring was seeing the constant flow of donors occupy the seats and the donation chairs in the 45 minutes I was there.
Every, single appointment was booked, and every person showed up. We all had a job to do and we took it seriously. People were dying in hospitals throughout northern Virginia, and it was our opportunity to do something valuable for our family members, neighbors, and coworkers.
Finally, I was called to a donation chair where they drew my blood in record time (I try to have a personal best each time I donate). Besides asking me the obligatory questions, the only time the female phlebotomist spoke to me was when the bag was full, and our eyes connected. She said from behind her masked face, “Thank you, Mr. Sandell, for coming in today. This donation will change someone’s life.”
Her remark brought life to me, and suddenly, the room seemed brighter. I was reminded why people give of themselves to help others. The pandemic’s dark side had subsided in that room as people from all walks of life donated their gift of life. We were all there to help, in a simple way, and while I know this donation will not be my last, this donation experience changed me for the better.