A Snapshot from the Bloodbank

What it’s like to donate in the middle of an emergency and a pandemic

The entrance to the New York Blood Center in the MetLife Building. / Photo by TuAnh Dam for NY City Lens 

I hadn’t been on the subway since early March. Back then, the city was still running, sirens were quieter and the air wasn’t steeped in fear. On Tuesday, I descended into the subway once again to head to Grand Central, where I was going to donate blood.  I felt awkward being out after almost four weeks of social distancing. When the train door opened, something landed at my feet. A little pool of spit. The man in the doorway spat again.

I smiled and walked away towards another car. My appointment, set at 9:15 a.m.., was made two weeks ago as the city started running low on medical supplies, ventilators and blood.  I donate blood regularly, and signed up on my own not for the purpose of writing a story, but this was my first time doing so in New York. My first time in the middle of an emergency blood shortage. My first time in the middle of a pandemic.

“Should I just go home?” I thought to myself. I could meet more people like that man who spat at me. Or, even worse, I could get sick – just another coronavirus patient in New York City.

But the subway started moving and on I went. Past Columbia University, past Columbus Circle, past Times Square until I arrived at the MetLife Building. My footsteps echoed through the marble lobby as I headed towards the stoic doorman. “I’m here to donate blood,” I said. His face, tan and leathered, broke into a smile. “Thank you so much,” he said, tipping his grey hat. He directed me up the escalator where another security guard guided me towards the center. She thanked me as well, her cheeks stretching above her blue face mask.

A large red “Emergency Blood Shortage” sign leaned against the wall. Signs plastered to the New York Blood donation center door asked donors to wait outside. Someone would be out shortly, it said, to prescreen patients. No one else was there with me.

Signs telling donors to wait outside for pre-screening./ Photo by TuAnh Dam for NY City Lens

After five minutes,  a nurse came to the door and fired off questions: How was I feeling today, had I been in contact with someone who’s sick, do I live with a medical worker? She took my temperature before letting me into the center.

Before I even sat in the examination chair, three more people – the nurse who took my vitals, the receptionist who had marks on his face from wearing face masks, and another donor drinking juice after his own donation – thanked me.

Two other people were already donating blood when I walked in, spaced out with an empty station between us. The paper lining on the chair crinkled as I settled in, reclining back and placing my right arm on the arm rest.

The phlebotomist, covered from head to toe in personal protective equipment, gently inserted the needle into my right arm and massaged the blood into the bag. I watched the hemaflow scale rock back and forth as she chatted with me, there were no other donors there requiring her attention. It’s great you’re here, she said, people are scared of coming out, but you’re needed.

Seventeen minutes and 33 seconds later, the scale beeped. The bag was full of a pint of my O- blood. She wrapped a teal bandaid around my arm, thanking me over and over again. I finished the snacks – potato chips and apple juice– they set out for me.

As I walked out the door, the man from the subway was far from my mind. The only things that stayed with me were the ‘thank yous’. One from the receptionist as I left and one more, along with a smile and a wave, from the doorman who had greeted me on my way down.

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