On February 13, 2021 I donated blood. A few weeks prior, I had seen a news segment that commented on the dire shortage of blood donations; there’s always a need, but with COVID the need is greater — so many have been afraid to donate and so many are sick. After months of feeling quite helpless, this felt like a great opportunity “to do my part”.
I had donated blood as a teenager and college student. A few times, I had also been rejected for low iron, so the whole week prior I made sure to eat iron-rich foods. I wanted to make sure I could fulfill my civic, human, duty.
Now, as I’ve stated, I’ve donated blood, but it’s been awhile — after college it had slipped my mind and the rules often barred me when I remembered (ex. no donating within a year of a tattoo). Nevertheless, I want to emphasize that I do have experience, because I cannot for the life me understand why I had this image of an impeccably clean modern site. Why did I have this idea or feeling that I would be in a beautiful facility, with space, and warmth, and a feeling of security?
I was living in the year of our Lord, 2021, in the richest country in the world; of course I thought I was going someplace pristine, beautiful, healthy!
So, what follows is what I’m trying to rationalize — had my previous experiences been painted through the memory of youth and ignorance? Had I forgotten? Why did I expect so much?
Allow me to paint a picture:
Location: parking lot in front of the local police department.
I’m a woman of color, watching an impeachment trial discussing the real and present danger of white supremacists in our country, less than a year after police brutality and the history of policing was the backbone of civil unrest — yup, this seems like a great welcoming location, for all.
Yup. A converted mobile bus with chipped paint definitely gives off “legitimate” and “sanitary” feels to all that walk up to it as well.
Parking lot on a normal, chilly, February day — though, as a native Californian, I need to state that it was definitively cold by southern California standards.
A light breeze, no sun, and we had to wait outside for our turn and sit outside after donating . . . outside in the cold. Three K-mart seats and a cloth cot for the faint, along with bottled water and vending machine snacks made this waiting area ooze wealth and health in the middle of a pandemic.
The actual process?
Well I had to take four uneven steps into my mobile facility — because nothing epitomizes accessing and maintaining the American healthcare system like an inequitable distribution of steps serving as the only entry point to hopeful triage and care.
So, I ascend one small step, one wide step, one tall step, all the steps, and am ushered into a “private” closet. “Private” because the Big Lots curtain that reaches our seat clearly means no one can identify or hear us discuss my personal information — personal information being input into a 20 year-old Dell laptop . . . on Internet Explorer. I can literally taste 1990.
Now, in the middle of our cramped informational session, the computer dies, because the charger isn’t charging. Is the charger old, or did the desk the size of a plate, rubbing up against the hazardous trash bag, have something to do with it? I’ll never know.
I have a few technicians slide in front of me, back and forth, trying to fix the computer. Thank the stars, the US can afford a back-up charger.
Now, I’m left alone, with some curtain privacy, to fill out the questionnaire that ensures my eligibility. It took me longer than I would have liked — the keyboard keys are stubborn and I haven’t had the likes of AOL since middle school.
Alright, time to come out of my cupboard. Where would I like to lay down? To the left or to the right — the left with broken and missing cabinet doors beneath my makeshift bed, or the right where the boxes are currently being stored? Decisions, decisions.
“Doesn’t matter”, I smile as though it mattered, as though I’m in 2019 when masks weren’t a thing, and a pandemic wasn’t clearly raging through this dilapidated mess; a smile that would have indicated my combination of unease and nerves.
I lay down, accepting that my shower beforehand was fruitless. I had washed my curly hair, my curly thick hair that extends just below my waistband, so when I lay down it perfectly covered the whole bed — if I had swished back and forth maybe the residual conditioner would have wiped it down for the next all-American fool. Who knows.
I make some small talk; it comforts me. But who needs comfort?
There’s nothing more reassuring than realizing there is no soap and water, just hand sanitizer for the people handling all the materials to draw your blood. Actually, I take that back, the most reassuring part was the pee-yellow bags that will hold my blood — after all, when you think sterile, who doesn’t image urine?
So I continue to lay in my third-class bunker bed, staring at the off-white ceiling, listening to personal conversations, and begin to feel this bubbling. I don’t know if I should laugh or cry — not just because the converted bus was swaying with every movement, but because I was embarrassed.
I was donating blood in the middle of a pandemic, I was helping in a way that nearly 100 years ago wasn’t regulated, safe, or even possible. I was happy, but I also looked around and couldn’t help but take all of it in, and plainly see that this space and place was embarrassing — and the greatest rendering of the American healthcare system: uncomfortable, outdated, sad.
Honestly, the only thing wrong, the most un-American part of this experience, was that all the workers were pleasant. Despite the lackluster tools, facility, and weather — and the fact that we’re in the middle of a pandemic — there was demonstrable joy and thanks. In a way, it was heart-warming and in another way it further solidified the experience — we are the richest country in the world, the only one without universal healthcare, and somehow in our broken-down system we manage to smile, donate blood, and accept that this is good enough . . .