My name's Suraj Naik, and I donate blood.
The first time I donated I was 17, 6-foot-1, and 140 pounds. Exactly. I felt a little lightheaded after that donation, but the entire process was markedly painless - an unexpected result. The girl who walked me to the mats was pretty cute, and I had a conversation with a couple of our school's football players while trying to stay awake. Somehow, it certainly gave me the impetus to do it again.
When I began donating, I rarely if ever thought of a legitimate reason to give blood. People need blood via accidents, transfusions, surgeries, and other procedures. I have plenty - ok, well, not that much, but enough to spare for a few others - thus, I donate. There's also free food and drinks. I mean, what other reasons are there?
Then I came to Penn State in Fall of 2007. That semester I donated two times (at a much healthier weight of 170), but it wasn't until I discovered something called THON that I finally encountered the primary reason I and thousands like me donate every 56 days.
Fast forward to my first canning trip in October, about a week or two following the blood donation. I went with an organization that was not the Student Red Cross Club (SRCC), the group that I now consistently can with every opportunity I get. Before this trip, I learned a few things here and there about THON and the Hershey Medical Foundation. At this point, the Four DIamonds Fund was an unknown entity. I was seriously misinformed. After two days of eight-hour marathons of money collection, I slept about twenty hours on Sunday night and missed my first class the next morning (Nutrition 251 was the bane of my existence that semester). I endured it for the sake of actually getting to know the people of the organization, and as a result, I created a solid group of friends (who have all graduated, but whatever).
A couple canning trips later in the next semester, I met my first THON family. We canned on a Saturday in the middle of the awesome January weather, and on The organization's THON child packed a punch - literally. She was (and still is) learning karate, and to be honest, she could kick my butt with little trouble even at age 11, when we last met. Her parents were pretty much opposites. The mother had no issue talking to every kid who walked through the door. The father had trouble starting conversations, but he could talk football all day long. As for the girl, I knew little about what she went through, how she felt, and why this one kid was able to receive a Penn State family among the hundreds of thousands of others who are inflicted with the disease.
After another donation and a little talk with a couple of the members of the SRCC (i.e. forced coercion to reveal vital personal information that will likely turn up on some Facebook post 24 hours before I get my next job), I learned even more about what happened with my donations. Donations help everyone who suffers from diseases, not just people who suffered an accident or an injury here or there. I understood that to an extent but not to any degree that would make me motivated to keep giving. They can only be kept for so long - hence, the reason "shortages" may not seem like shortages, but are still shortages (get it?). With an A-positive blood, my blood was not in that high demand, but they still didn't refuse me because all blood types really are needed. Again, I kind of understood this stuff - more smalltalk.
Then came THON weekend. I was expecting a fair or carnival-type atmosphere; What I got was a celebration, concert, pep rally, and memory service all in one. Insanity may be the best word to describe it. Pure mayhem. Hundreds of people fitted on the BJC floor partying as they energize themselves for 46 hours of nonstop everything. Beefed-up jocks helping the tiniest kids. Sorority girls being far more friendly than I remember the people who had described them to me. I was not expecting that.
And I certainly was not expecting a useful lesson on blood and blood donations. That happened at the most unforgettable moment. Family Hour. 1 hour before the end. The most painstaking hour of my time at Penn State. A slideshow depicted all the cancer patients who passed away in between the previous THON and the current one - dry eyes were absent. Faces and names kept passing. Tears kept falling. People held arms. Others looked to the floor. Every single one knew the importance of what they were witnessing.
Then came the one man who really gave me THE reason to donate. I don't remember his name, but I remember his message. The blood lost. The fear. The agony. The sheer about of days staying by his daughter's hospital bed praying, wondering, fuming, crying - any emotion that decided to find its way out of his body was wriggling out. Those days he talked about how she constantly needed attention, hope, and just as importantly, blood. Cancer patients need blood, and her system constantly required more and more as the treatments got more invasive and painful. Unfortunately, she didn't win her battle. It was eye-opening. I could see how jst one pint of my blood would be the difference between a cancer patient living or dying - a frightening thought. I wanted to donate more often. Her father said he couldn't save his daughter, but I know his words saved a few lives in the future that day.
Then a year ago I sat in the house of Gabe Angus. Ok, he's the THON child, but he pretty much owns the house so let's leave it at that. The weeked of my 11th(?) or 12th(?) canning trip was just beginning. We reached the house on Friday night and had a couple confrontations regarding how some cars forgot to get food before reaching the house and how those cars suck and whatever. All that was irrelevant. Gabe's mom, Connie, knew what was important. Late that night when we were all prepared to encounter the next day of December snow. I already knew the speil about how we help, and how blood helps, etc. (I didn't need to pat myself on the back considering I do that plenty anyway). Taking us aside, Gabe's mother gave us the most important story she could.
The hell that Gabe suffered.
She discussed his procedures, his friends, and how his nurse became an important part of his life - cute but sad at the same time. He developed a need for blood, and though I felt I was experiencing deja vu with the man who spoke before thousands at the BJC three years earlier, this time the speaker was mere feet from me, talking to fewer than 40 volunteers. She gave me a clearer picture of the daily grind, but the family was just as concered about the tens of hundreds of others suffering in that building. The kids younger than Gabe who barely knew anything aside from cancer. The families who never anticipated how pain could come without a single touch. She spoke about what we did for the community, and how we consistently get blood for the people who need it is just as important as donating.
Motivation? Hardly. There doesn't exist a word strong enough to describe how THON and the THON families have converted me from a "blood donor" to someone who understands that a "donation" covers far more than one word can possibly encaptitulate. Every 90-pound girl who passes out after each donation understands it. The person who waits two hours in the HUB for ten minutes at the canteen understands it. Every single member who makes the Student Red Cross Club the organization it is right now understands it.
I've discovered that it's now a little harder to tell a blood drive volunteer the answer to, "Why do you donate?"