What It’s Like to
Donate Platelets

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In Short: Bladder management.

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Several weeks ago I received a call from my local blood center asking if I could donate platelets in the next few days. This was unusual, but I was a match to a specific patient in need.

Platelets in your bloodstream help your blood clot. They’re nature’s way of keeping a paper cut from becoming a medical crisis.

For most people.

There are individuals who can’t make or don’t have enough platelets. For them that paper cut can turn into a serious situation.

A major reason for low platelets: Cancer. Platelets are made in bone marrow, something routinely destroyed by certain types of cancer and, ironically, certain forms of chemotherapy.

Just like blood donation, a needle is inserted into your vein. Unlike a blood donation, which collects directly into a bag, platelet donation - called apheresis - feeds your blood into a centrifuge that spins it down, extracts the platelets, and returns the rest back into your arm. You actually don’t lose any significant amount of blood in the process.

The author’s hand squeezing a rubber ball as an apherisis machine “borrows” his blood. (Image by the author.)

I refer to it as “borrowing” my blood.

In years past it involved two needles, one in each arm. One for blood going out, and the other going back to you. These days there’s just one needle. Blood is drawn out for about 15 seconds, then returned through the same needle. This back-and-forth process repeats until you’re done.

And there’s the only downside: platelet donations take anywhere from one to two hours. That’s time in the chair, being unable to move the arm with the needle. Add the time to check-in, be screened, get set up, and then hang around for cookies afterwards, and the total might be more like two to three hours. I bring a tablet to read, watch videos, or catch up on email, all one-handed.

While you’re donating you’re unable to go to the bathroom. It takes a little bit of planning. I call it “bladder management.” My normal pot of coffee in the morning is strictly off-limits. A single (strong) cup to get me going, and that’s it. Not until after my donation do I “tank up” on fluids once again. (And, yes, I’ve had to cut one session short due to poor planning. The good news is the blood center staff see it often enough, and totally understand.)

A traditional platelet donation generally helps three people, typically cancer patients. While blood can be stored for weeks, and even frozen, platelets can be stored for only a few days. Particularly if you’re near a cancer treatment center, as I am, platelets are in constant demand. In addition, while you can donate blood every two months, you can donate platelets every week. I try to strike a balance at about every three weeks or so.

Back to my “match.” I’m not clear on exactly what it means. My blood type, O-positive, is common, so there’s more involved.

No matter. Of course I said yes, and two days later I was in the chair while the machine “borrowed” my blood. The individual for whom I was a match would likely get the entire donation.

It’s great to be able to help several people at once, but somehow knowing there’s a single person, a person whom I’ll never knowingly meet, that I can help directly, touches me deeply. I can’t even say why.

If you have the time, and the patience (and the bladder capacity), certainly consider donating platelets, if the blood centers in your area collect them.

If not platelets, consider donating blood, if you can. There’s always a need.

Leo Notenboom is a coffee-drinking, Corgi-loving, techie who’s been blessed with an above average amount of good fortune. He wears so many hats that only an online business card can keep up with it all: leonotenboom.com.

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23 thoughts on “Donate Platelets”

  1. I became a blood donor in the army in Vietnam. After the army, I went to college, where the Red Cross sent buses for students to donate, and I became a regular. Soon after, my cousin was diagnosed with Leukemia, and he was always in need, so I made sure I gave as often as I could.

    I went to work in another county, but they still had those Red Cross buses, and I kept my old habits. My donation did not help my cousin, but I am sure they helped somebody else.

    A friend told me about donating platelets, and it seemed so simple. The idea that I could donate without giving up anything I needed appealed to me. It still does, though my doctor today says other health concerns I have might be complicated by giving. I miss being able to help.

    Thank you, Leo.

    • To me the biggest obstacle was the time commitment. Given that I’m in a position to do it when so many others cannot, it seems only logical.

      Thank YOU for your donations as well. We never know how many lives we touch, but it’s many, for certain.

  2. I used to donate platelets as well. Being 0 negative [universal donor], I was in high demand. We, too, have a cancer center nearby. I went about every month. The thing I disliked was squeezing the rubber ball every 10-15 seconds. By the end, my hand would be really sore. But there’s very little else you can do that can save a person’s life with so little inconvenience. As I aged, arthritis and a couple of hand surgeries put an end to my donations. I feel a little guilty about quitting, though.

    • I’ve had that experience as well. Sore hands, or worse … my arm positioned in such a way that it started to go completely numb during the procedure. Same thoughts as you: it’s a small inconvenience in the greater scheme of things. (And my arm “wakes up” quickly once I’m done.)

      Don’t feel guilty. You touched many lives, I’m certain.

    • Don’t squeeze the ball, instead roll it in the palm of your hand (imagine it laying in your hand, and you use your fingers to roll it “on the spot” so it stays in your hand, but is turning whilst there — kinda like the bearings in the capt’s hand in the caine mutiny). I do plasma donations every 2 weeks, and whole blood on the 12th week (I have something in my blood they like for certain things). When I worked in a blood bank I was told to tell the patients to squeeze and hold for needle insertion, then roll the ball (or stress toy these days) afterwards. It’s all about getting movement in the limb so the blood moves.

      Do they offer antacids when you donate? In Australia they offer quickeze tabs to plasma donors to counteract the sensations caused in the packed cell return… they’ve only done that in the past few years.

    • That’s a great piece on platelet donation and it’s all so true. I’ve been platelet donating for years and I love the whole peace and quiet of it. You’ve at least an hour to yourself with no one to bug you — I’ve even managed to get a light snooze in from time to time!

  3. Thanks for being a donor, Leo. We have one important thing in common. I am also a Corgi lover. My Pembroke Welsh Corgi (tri-color) is named Lilly and she is almost 14 years old.

  4. This sounds much like donating plasma which I’ve done many times. And yes you have to time it right. Don’t drink any or very much caffeine before you go and try to use the restroom right before you’re going to get into that chair. I became quite the pro at finishing in less than an hour because my bladder just couldn’t hold it very long. They used to give you juice when you were done, then they switched to sports drinks. Now they give you nothing. Just send you on your way while you wait for the funds you earned from your donation to show up on the bank card assigned to your account.

    • Wow — they pay you to donate? That seems to contradict a donation.

      Many places pay for plasma, and Business Insider did a story about the ethics of it just last month. I’ll let Leo clarify about the policy where he donates. -rc

      • FYI, in the US, it’s illegal to pay donors for blood products that will be used for direct transfusion. When you “donate” plasma through a plasma center like Octapharma or Biolife, it’s being processed into things like pharmaceuticals and test kits. It’s still a good and needed thing, but it’s not going to a patient in a hospital in the near future like donating blood, platelets and plasma through the Red Cross or your city’s blood center.

        I’ve working in a blood bank for the past 15 years, and this is a common misconception. We often get people who are irate that we don’t pay donors for blood.

  5. I donated platelets pretty regularly back with the 2 needle system. Still have the scars. Usually ate 6-8 Tumms to fight the tingling. Not long before I left the area, they showed a short video that they’d developed for recruiting and awareness of a high schooler fighting bone cancer.

    “Your platelets may be going to him,” the tech told me. “You’re the right type and subtype.” Even if they didn’t, it was nice to have a face to think of.

  6. An observation: with whole blood donations, the time between donations is 56 days, while the time between apheresis donations is seven days — for a reason. With the latter, all they are removing is a small amount of blood (for testing, a few cc’s) and then a bag of platelets. If you have normally functioning bone marrow, you replace that in hours. I suspect the timing is more about allowing the puncture wound to heal. With the former, you are “a pint low” and it takes a while to recover. So apheresis also has less impact on your health.

    It is a great excuse to go watch a DVD.

  7. Thanks for sharing this. I donate platelets a few times per year. In 2018 I was privileged to meet the family of a 3 year old that received my platelets. It really cemented how important it is to donate in my mind.

  8. Interesting how requirements and intervals differ between organizations or areas of the country. I’m eligible to donate platelets every two weeks, plasma every 4 weeks, and red blood cells at some interval greater than that. As Leo put it, I “strike the balance” and go every 4 weeks or so and let their computer system and the initial test determine what I’m eligible to donate each visit. Today it was three units of platelets and a plasma.

    Striking that delicate balance between adequately hydrated for donation and comfort — agreed on the restroom stop immediately before the chair and the Tums given right before starting.

    It’s guilt-free social media scrolling time for me: my attention has to be breakable enough to glance at the screen pictured to know to relax the arm for the return cycles.

  9. I’ve been giving platelets every two weeks here in Sarasota for a few years. I’ve been thanked by many people, including my primary care doctor, for my donations. The doctor’s daughter needed them until recently.

    Previously, I gave blood for many years. I remember, after 9/11, reading a letter to the editor in the local newspaper. The writer was furious that not all blood was being shipped to New York City. He did not like the idea that the blood was being wasted on local people.

  10. As a fairly long time donor, I find it highly rewarding to do donations. Our local Red Cross (NW Ohio) started doing apheresis donations in the 70’s and I was happy to be one of the early donors. Because of a vein problem after a period of time, I generally have to do whole blood now. I tried doing a double red cell donation, but it’s not compatible with ultrarunning — too many red cells lost that don’t regenerate for weeks. I still donate as often as possible, and wish that everyone capable of donating would do so at least once a year. That would go a long way toward eliminating shortages.

  11. The technology seems to go back and forth. Local (Northeast Red Cross) center is back to the two needle system, but they give you headphones and a roku remote for the hand without the ball. Individual screen per donor and netflix. I catch up on something while donating platelets.

    Something different about the two-needle system, I rarely bother with the Tums. Although I used them regularly with single-needle system.

  12. Leo and commenters make a great case for donating platelets, of which i’ve never heard. I had to stop donating blood more than thirty years ago after being diagnosed with CFS, based on a virus which is not contagious normally but might cross in my blood. For all those who lived because of your generosity, thank you!

  13. I’ve been donating whole blood regularly (every 3-5 months usually) since a little before I turned 18. Here in Israel the minimum wait between donations is three months (although if you show up after at least 80 days, you can donate subject to being stabbed in the finger for a hemoglobin test). It’s a small enough place that there’s just one central blood bank AFAIK, but whole blood is collected at various blood drives (around 10-12 on average on any given day, I think?) around the country, with special vans/buses — in some cases small ones with all the equipment to set up shop in a space (e.g. school gyms, clubhouses, event halls), and in others larger vehicles that are self-contained and can just park off the street and have the whole process run from within the van.

    They also come to IDF bases throughout the country with varying frequencies. That setup means that donating is often very convenient (for the last several years I’ve donated at work — for a while they’d come and set up in the lounge every month-month and a half, and I recently moved to a new workplace that has a truck under the building almost every week). The flip side is that for apheresis you need to come in to that one central location, so even though they do it for both plasma and platelets, I’ve never gotten around to looking into going in to do it. I guess I’ve also been assuming that it’s one or the other (I know you can donate platelets more often, but no idea if you can donate while still on the whole blood cooldown), though maybe I should actually find out what the rules are….

  14. I donated blood until 2009 when I was told I could never again be a donor. Having had cancer disqualifies you. 🙁


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