It was Winston Churchill who uttered the line, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat,” and until recently I was forbidden from offering that most precious of bodily fluids to my fellow man. In the early 1980’s the Red Cross dictated that any and every man who had ever had sex with another man was now persona non grata when it came to blood donation. I had donated blood perhaps a double handful of times over the course of a decade starting at the end of the nineteen seventies but that all came to a crashing halt with my last, final Red Cross donation.
HIV is scary today and it was even more frightening in the 1980’s when there was less known about ease of transmission and treatment was ineffectual. It was fear of HIV transmission that cut me out of the donation derby. This horse became tainted and he was subsequently put out to pasture.
I married Dawn, a Red Cross poster child of a woman in regards to blood donation. She’d earned multiple gallon pins and her O negative blood is in constant demand. I was a pale imitation of this blood giving behemoth but I donated at least once a year and was both happy and proud to do so. My donations ended when the usual blood screening for my donation was red flagged. That HIV scare that I mentioned earlier? Let me assure you that it’s even scarier when it’s got your name on it.
The Red Cross sent me a letter asking that I contact them regarding my last donation. I called and was told that my HIV test had come back as “Indeterminate.” This didn’t mean that I was HIV infected but that: A) I should contact a doctor and have further testing and B) That I should never donate blood again. Pretty upsetting news on both accounts but I wasn’t too worried, after all indeterminate means just that, neither negative, what we all want from an HIV test, nor positive, a sentence of interminable waiting and lifelong fear of a terrible death. Besides, my risk factors were low; really, really low. They just weren’t zero.
I hope that anyone who finds himself in this situation will seek medical help and come clean to his significant other. I did both. My subsequent HIV test came back negative and I assured my wife that monogamy had been the hallmark of our relationship. Could I have contracted HIV prior to meeting my beloved? Well, let’s review avenues of infection. Needles? Never. Men? Ditto. Women? Well, yeah, but people didn’t get HIV from heterosexual sex back in the old days. No, really, they didn’t. The number of women infected was very low when the AIDS epidemic started taking off and I’d climbed aboard that monogamy train I mentioned earlier long before anyone outside of the CDC or bath houses had ever heard of either AIDS or HIV. The blood test proved I wasn’t infected so I wasn’t worried and the only big change was that I couldn’t donate blood any longer. Their loss.
“Their loss,” changed on September 11, 2001: Blood donation was again a big deal to me. My country was under attack and I wanted to do what I could to help. One of the things being touted to the public was blood donation. I contacted the Red Cross, told them my story and the gal on the other end of the phone said she’d see if I was still ineligible to donate. Good to her word she followed up and called me with the bad news. Even though I’d checked out HIV negative the test that had flagged my blood was the Red Cross’ current standard and I was still ineligible. I could volunteer with the Red Cross, but I couldn’t donate. This was far from the news I was hoping for.
Living in the Northeast I assumed that all blood donation was through the Red Cross. Turns out that isn’t so. One Blood is a nonprofit player in collecting and distributing whole blood and plasma in Florida and parts of Georgia and South Carolina. When my wife and I moved to Savannah, Georgia the opportunity for me to donate again presented itself. The checklist that I filled out specifically asked if I’d ever had an HIV positive blood test. I hadn’t, so I marked the box “No” and donated.
Was I nervous? Well, yeah, but what was I doing that could harm anyone? I hadn’t lied, my wife of many years had continued to share a bed with me and donate blood and I knew that my HIV status was negative. I donated two more times, about once every other month, and during this time the Red Cross reversed their lifetime ineligibility for men who’d had a sexual experience with another man. They relaxed the rule so that men who’d been celibate from homosexual sex for at least a year and who passed all the other requirements were now eligible to give blood too. “Bully for you,” I had said out loud when I heard the news.
When I’d donated last I’d asked One Blood if they were going to follow the Red Cross example and allow celibate gay men to donate. “Yes, that’s the plan,” had been the response I’d been given.
On May 30th Dawn informed me that we would be driving to a nearby bloodmobile to make a Memorial Day donation. “It’s over by the Walmart and we get gift cards,” she said, waving her hands in the air in mock excitement. One Blood varies from the Red Cross in perks as well. One Blood has provided us with vouchers for haircuts, movie tickets and gift cards. We don’t donate for the perks, but receiving them is certainly not a deterrent for us donating.
“I wonder if One Blood is allowing gays to donate like the Red Cross is?” I asked as we pulled into the parking lot. A large, bald, white man slipped into the door just ahead of us and I added, “Now we’ll have to wait.”
“Luck of the draw,” was Dawn’s response and we sat down side by side and were handed the first batch of paperwork to fill out.
When we walked in there were four gals working the bloodmobile and only one active donator. As the man who came in just ahead of us filled out his paperwork another woman entered and was greeted by one of the nurses. “Hi, welcome to One Blood. Have you donated with us before?”
“No, not here. I just moved here from California. I used to give blood a long time ago,” replied the diminutive Latina.
“No problem. Let me give you some forms to fill out and some waivers to sign-”
As the nurse was speaking the large man stood up and demanded, “How much longer am I going to have to wait?!”
The nurse, whose name-tag read Lydia calmly responded, “I’m processing everyone as fast as I can. We should be with you in just a moment.”
“That’s bullshit! I was here before all these other people! I should be giving blood by now!”
The anger and impatience in the man’s voice and body language was apparent. Lydia responded with, “You’re next, sir. If you want to have a seat we should be able to take your vitals in just a minute and then you can dona-”
“Bullshit! You should have done that already. I got better things to do with my time!” he ranted, throwing his forms on the small desk in front of Lydia.
“Very well, sir,” she said overly sweetly, “have a nice day.”
The man sneered at her, flung the door of the bloodmobile open and then did his best to flip the bus sized vehicle on to its side by slamming the door ferociously. “I’m sorry,” Lydia said to everyone on the bus, “some people just give for the wrong reason.”
“No problem here, ma’am,” I answered. “Just glad he didn’t hurt anybody.”
“Yes. I think I need to put him on our deferred list.”
The Latina woman said, “I guess so. I have a friend who just found out he has leukemia; that’s why I’m giving.”
We made some nervous jokes about the incident. Dawn and I bantered back and forth about Memorial Day fireworks and within five more minutes we were facing one another, supine and squeezing our little heart shape balls as our donated pints flowed out of us and into the surgical bags. As we joked with one another I couldn’t help but think about Lydia’s statement concerning folks donating for the wrong reason; I also thought about how gay men had “earned” the “right” to donate so long as they are celibate for at least a year before giving and how grateful I was to again be able to do my tiny little part to save the world.
Blood really is the gift of life and I plan to go on giving for as long as I’m able. I sure hope I never get to the point where I’m doing it just to earn a ten dollar Walmart card. God bless the USA.