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The Reluctant Novice : GIVING BLOOD : Charity Beats Out Fears : Emotionally, you're no further along than your 6-year-old son who cries when he doesn't want a shot.

February 07, 1991

You've written checks to help feed starving children in foreign countries.

You've dropped bills in the guitar cases of untalented street musicians.

You've even bought mint Girl Scout cookies, even though you detest mint.

But your charity of spirit, you finally admit, has always had its limits. You have always given when it suited you and it cost you little. You have never really gone out of your way to donate anything, and you've never really had the sense that whatever you did donate made that much difference. You have always remembered what your mother once said: Great gifts should hurt the giver.

Granted, the idea of donating blood did cross your mind a few times. For years, you occasionally envisioned the feeling of satisfaction you'd get at perhaps having saved a life.

But mint cookies are one thing and needles quite another. Intellectually, you know there is nothing to be afraid of. Emotionally, however, you are no further along than your 6-year-old son who cries when he doesn't want a shot.

Your spouse, when you mention you are considering trying to overcome your fear, doesn't help things. "For your sake, I sure hope the needle is clean," he says off-handedly.

Before you commit yourself, you decide to call United Blood Services in Ventura and find out who is eligible to donate. Perhaps your course of action will be decided for you and you will be disqualified.

Rebecca Porter, a receptionist, asks you a series of questions. "Are you taking antibiotics?" No. "Had heart problems?" No. "Had cancer within the last 10 years?" No. "Ever had hepatitis?" No. "Been in a country with malaria within the last three years?" No. "Pregnant?" No. "Had surgery within the last year?"

This final question, you realize, might be your last chance to get out of it. You answer "no" to the surgery part, but add that you have had a couple of kids. Usually they exhaust you so fully that you feel in need of a transfusion.

For a moment, Porter doesn't answer. You take this as a good sign. "When would you like to make an appointment?" she asks cheerfully. Your throat tightens and then drops into your stomach.

You hadn't anticipated the appointment part. A few months ago, blood banks were appealing to the public because of their depleted reserves. But war in the Persian Gulf changed things. In the past few weeks, Porter tells you, the response from the community has been overwhelmingly supportive.

You arrive at the center, after eating a hearty lunch as suggested, and take in the scene in front of you. There are five blue reclining chairs, much like the ones Art Linkletter used to sell on TV. A young, clean-cut man in a crisp white shirt and tie is outstretched on one recliner, pressing a gauze pad to the crook of his arm, which is extended above his head. An overweight woman is lying on another, a red tube disappearing under the chair as she reads a magazine. At a table before you, an elderly couple sit munching cookies and drinking lemonade, the gauze pads on their arms proof that the ordeal is survivable.

After filling out a short health history, which also describes people who are at risk for having contracted the AIDS virus, you are taken into a soundproof booth. A technician, identified by his name tag only as Wes, asks you a series of personal questions that might identify you as having been exposed to AIDS. You are told that there is no risk of contracting AIDS from donating blood. Your blood, he says, also will be carefully screened.

You are then led across the room to a blue recliner. Visions of pirates walking the plank dance in your head.

In the few moments you are left alone, you consider bolting from the room. You could say you just remembered your child is sick at school. Or that you left the iron on at home. Or that you forgot a deadline. As a nurse approaches, you pray that your beeper will go off. It doesn't.

You have crossed the line of no return and feebly extend your arm. As though it's a source of pride, you are told that you have good veins. You turn your head away from the inevitable, and then feel a slight pinch. After that, nothing.

"Just let us know if you feel dizzy and we'll adjust the chair," the nurse says, moving now to the man in the recliner beside you. He is donating for himself, you learn, since he will be having hip surgery in the spring. The woman across from you tells the nurse that her brother is in the military in Saudi Arabia. "I just felt so helpless, I needed to do something," she says.

Five minutes later it is over. A gauze pad is pressed to your arm, which you hold momentarily above your head. Physically, you feel fine, but are told to drink plenty of fluids and wait a few minutes before leaving.

As you head for your car, a feeling of satisfaction you never got with mint cookies or open guitar cases begins to come over you. For the first time, you think, you gave of yourself with nothing expected in return.

Suddenly, you think of what your mother said about great gifts having to hurt. For once, you say to yourself, mother was wrong.

* THE PREMISE

There are plenty of things you have never tried. Fun things, dangerous things, character-building things. The Reluctant Novice tries them for you and reports the results. After all, the Novice gets paid to do them--and has no choice in the matter. If you want to tell the Novice where to go, please call us at 658-5547. If we use your idea, we'll send you a present.

This week's Reluctant Novice is staff writer Aurora Mackey Armstrong.

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