Here's What Happens To Blood After You Donate It

After the horrific shooting in Orlando, the many expected conversations began. As we always do when these things happen (because sadly, they happen way too often), we've been talking about gun control, the shooter's motive, and the safety of our kids. But this particular senseless event has also brought discussions about the blood-donation process — especially our problematic restrictions against donations from gay men — back to the forefront of the conversation.

Last year, the FDA announced that it was lifting its 32-year ban on blood donations from gay and bisexual men — but only for those who are sexually abstinent for the 12 months prior to giving blood. After local centers put out a call for blood donations for the victims, many gay men spoke out on social media about the insulting irony of, as one user put it, "refusing to take a gay person's blood even though you need it to save a gay person's life."

In spite of the controversy, many were moved to see thousands of people across the state of Florida lining up to do what they could in the face of such tragedy.

And the truth is that blood is a year-round need. According to the American Red Cross, every two seconds, a patient in the U.S. needs blood.

Kara Lusk-Dudley, a spokesperson for the American Red Cross, says that the summer months are an especially tough time for donations. That's partly because summer holidays lead to fewer blood-drive sponsors hosting drives and fewer donors being available thanks to summer vacations. "Donations from those who usually give at these drives drop by more than 80% when school is out for the summer," she explains. All of this means that your donations are particularly valuable right now.

Click through to learn what to expect when you give blood — and all about the grand journey your donation will take as it makes its way to save someone's life.

Photographed by Jessica Nash.
First, you'll go through a short intake procedure, including a questionnaire about certain eligibility requirements. If you've gotten a tattoo in a state that doesn't regulate artists, if you've traveled in certain foreign countries, or if you're in the midst of an illness, you may not be eligible to donate.

This is also the part where they ask about your sexual history. In particular, they'll ask if you've had sexual contact in the last 12 months with a man who has sex with other men. If your answer is "yes," the FDA guidelines say you're ineligible at that time due.

If you are cleared as a donor, a nurse or phlebotomist (a person trained to draw blood) will draw about a pint of blood along with a few small test tubes of it. It can take your body up to six weeks to replenish the blood cells you lose during a donation. The bag and test tubes of blood are labeled with a bar code (but not your name) that's scanned and used to keep track of everything from this point on.

All blood-donation agencies follow the FDA's guidelines, so their processes will be nearly identical. But there may still be some slight differences in procedures between agencies.
Photo: REX/Shutterstock.
From there, the bag is sent for processing at one of the Red Cross' component labs. During processing, your blood is spun around in a centrifuge until its three main components are separated: red blood cells, platelets, and plasma.

At this point in processing, plasma may also be processed into something called "cryoprecipitate," which may help patients' blood clot if they have issues like hemophilia. Also, red blood cells usually undergo an additional filtering process called "leukoreduction." Here, white blood cells (a.k.a. leukocytes) are removed because it's thought that they can cause adverse immune responses in patients receiving the transfusion.

Each of these components is useful for different kinds of patients. People who have lost blood in surgery or have a traumatic injury (like a gunshot wound) need blood cells, while cancer patients often need platelets because of chemotherapy. The plasma, which helps blood clot, is primarily used for trauma and burn victims.

All of this means that one donation can be used to help save the lives of three separate patients.
Photo: Medicimage/REX/Shutterstock.
While the bag is being processed, the test tubes are sent to a laboratory for a multitude of tests that take about 24 hours to complete.

Here, the blood type is established and the blood is tested for infectious diseases, including HIV, West Nile virus, syphilis, and many more. If the lab finds a problem, they get in touch with the donor and toss the donation. This thorough testing is one reason why the "gay blood ban" has received so much criticism; if a person has HIV, no matter their sexuality, their donation can simply be tossed.
Photo: REX/Shutterstock.
Once your donation is cleared, no time is wasted. "We distribute the products as soon as they are tested and deemed suitable for patient transmission," Lusk-Dudley says. They're distributed every day of the week, 24 hours a day.

When they arrive at the hospital, they're stored in a "blood bank" until they're needed. Blood cells can be stored for only up to 42 days, platelets are good for five days, and plasma and cryoprecipitate are frozen and kept for up to a year.

The relatively short shelf life of blood cells makes blood difficult to stockpile for very long. And some research suggests this shelf life may be even shorter than we thought. It's difficult to know how many pints of donated blood don't make it to patients, but that number may be as high as 1.3 million pints per year.
Photo: Washington Stock Photo/Alamy Stock Photo.
When a patient does need one of the donated components, that person is matched up based on ABO blood type and several other factors. For instance, some patients have developed an immune response to certain types of sugars or proteins on the surface of the blood cells. So they need donations that specifically don't have those things. And depending on the patient's condition, he or she may require many more pints of blood; someone who's been in a rough car accident, for instance, might need up to 100 pints.

So, just a few days after your donation, the blood you give could go on to save someone's life. It's unclear when, if ever, the ban on donations from men who have sex with men will be lifted. In the meantime, you can get involved with the National Gay Blood Drive, a yearly drive in which gay and bisexual men come out and show their willingness to contribute to the nation's blood supply by bringing friends to donate in their place.

To schedule a time to donate now, the Red Cross has you covered.