Universal Donor

(A true story)

I gave blood this past Monday, my seventh donation. They love to see me come… I’m Type O-, the universal donor. Everyone can take my blood! My lifetime goal is to give blood 100 times. I started late, but if I stay healthy, it’s do-able.

Giving blood is an emotional experience for me. I always wanted to be a blood donor, but a busy life got in the way. When I retired, I vowed to follow in my dad’s footsteps and be a regular donor. I was about eight perhaps, when he received his red and white lapel pin for ten donations. I was so proud. Decades later, when Dad needed a transfusion as a cancer patient, the blood was there because of other donors. I was so grateful. Now I have the chance to pay it forward.  

Canadian Blood Services does a tremendous job of making blood donation feel like a significant civic contribution. Their commercials on television are very effective. Some clips spotlight individuals who have received blood transfusions. A smiling face turns directly to the camera to say a sincere “thank you.” Another commercial focuses on an ordinary guy wearing a shirt with one sleeve cut off above the elbow. He says that as a kid he always wanted to be a hero, like Superman, and save lives. Then he smiles broadly and says, “Now, I just save lives… I give blood.”

My blood donation took place, appropriately enough, at the New Life Pentecostal Church in Petrolia. When I registered in the gym, the receptionist welcomed me warmly, and booked my next two appointments. She thanked me for coming and then directed me to the next station. A nurse verified my identification, pricked my finger, and tested my iron level. She gave me some literature and a questionnaire. She thanked me for my willingness to donate blood and sent me to a table to fill out my form.

The first time I filled out the questionnaire, it was rather daunting. Lots of questions about where I had travelled, whether I had ever had any of several strange illnesses ending in “sis”, and whether I had ever worked with monkeys. The little monkeys in my classrooms didn’t count. I’ve done this now a few times, though, so I zipped through the paperwork.

Another nurse motioned me into a privacy booth, took my temperature and my blood pressure, and asked me all the embarrassing sex questions. “Have you ever traded sex for drugs or money?” “Have you ever had sex with someone who has been in prison?” Now that I am an old hand at being a blood donor, in addition to just being old, I hardly even blush at the long list of sex questions. She thanked me for taking the time to give blood today and then led me to my stretcher and instructed me to lie down.

A blond middle-aged nurse with aqua eye shadow and pink lip gloss introduced herself. You notice these things when you are lying on your back and you can’t see much else other than the ceiling. She thanked me for volunteering to give blood today. She complimented my earrings and praised my bravery because I watched her inject the needle in my arm. When my super O- negative blood was flowing well, she turned her attention to the young man beside me.

She thanked him for coming out to give blood, and asked what he was going to do with the rest of the day. He said he was a part-time student at The University of Western Ontario and he had to write an essay about the welfare system in Canada and Kenya. This was interesting, so I listened in while I was staring at the rafters.

There was a brief silence as she poked him. He must have looked away because they shared a chuckle and he admitted, “I don’t like needles much.”

“I guess you don’t have any tattoos, then?” she joked.

“Yeah, actually, I do,” he said. “I have one on my back. My dad and I got them together. It’s our family crest. It kinda hurt, but not too bad. At least it’s not a stupid skull or something I’ll be embarrassed about when I get old.”

My nurse got pretty excited about this. “Believe it or not, my mom just got a tattoo for her birthday. She just turned 65! We wouldn’t believe she would do it, she’s so refined! She got a crown tattooed on her back because her nickname is Queen Irene. Now she goes to the seniors’ dances with a dress cut low in the back, so her tattoo will show.” They laughed. “I remember when she would say tattoos were for low-lifes, you know, like prisoners and sailors, and not for people like us! But now tattoos are fashionable, so she changed her mind! I’m thinking of getting one, too, just a little one, like a butterfly on my foot, or something.”

“Yeah,” agreed my neighbour, “they’re pretty popular now. All the basketball players and celebrities have them.”

It didn’t appear that I was going to learn any more about the welfare system in Canada and Kenya. When I had finished giving my pint, the nurse smoothed a band-aid on my arm, told me what to do if I start bleeding or feeling sick, thanked me again, and asked me to stop at the refreshment table. They like you to stay for a few minutes to make sure you are not feeling faint before you drive home. A cheery volunteer, wearing a red apron decorated with a flock of colourful service pins, thanked me for giving blood today and stamped my card with the date. She brought me a coffee and a Peek Frean shortbread cookie and called me “dear.”

So you’re probably wondering by now, And what is so emotional about all this?

Well, blood is a central symbol of my Christian faith. At the Lord’s Table, we “eat his body, drink his blood” as one song puts it.  Stated that baldly, it sounds barbaric, even to my ears. I can almost sympathize with the Romans for thinking the early Christians were closet cannibals.

I grew up in the Christian Reformed Church, far from the dynamic stained glass of Roman Catholicism, or the hyperbole of dramatic fundamentalist preachers. I never really gave this blood imagery much thought. I blithely sang the old favourites about Jesus who “interposed His precious blood,” whose “blood can cleanse each spot,” and who washed me “in the blood.” In fact, I rarely saw blood in my own life except for the odd cut or scrape. Abstraction nicely sanitized the blood right out of my spiritual life, too.

That all changed when I saw the movie, The Passion of Christ. This is not a movie review, so I won’t go into a critique on its merits as a film. What did impact me most powerfully, though, was the scene where Jesus was whipped. I didn’t want to watch it. Visual images tend to imprint themselves irrevocably on my brain. I usually avert my eyes when I see violence and gore on TV, but I had this spontaneous idea, rational or not, that if Jesus could endure a flogging for my sake, the least I could do was steel myself to watch in wordless acknowledgement. A kind of penance, for so carelessly glossing over his agony throughout all my years as a Christian.

The verse “through his stripes we are healed” has now been viscerally and forever clarified. The nail-studded “flagellum” scored horrific stripes on Jesus’s writhing shoulders and back. As the lashes continued, the stripes devolved into a jagged grid, gaping darkly through the spurting blood. Then a crimson lava flowed down his trunk and legs. The blood pool left spreading in the courtyard at the end of the scene strained credulity. How could someone who had lost that much blood even survive long enough to be crucified? I didn’t weep, like some audience members around me, but I was deeply affected.

A long time ago I saved an article by a medical doctor detailing the trauma of a scourging. I went back to check the facts. His graphic description supports the movie’s portrayal of this event.

The heavy whip is brought down with full force again and again across Jesus’ shoulders, back and legs. At first the heavy thongs cut through the skin only.  Then, as the blows continue, they cut deeper into the subcutaneous tissues, producing first an oozing of blood from the capillaries and vein of the skin, and finally spurting arterial bleeding from vessels in the underlying muscles. The small balls of lead first produce large, deep bruises which are broken open by subsequent blows. Finally the skin of the back is hanging in long ribbons and the entire area is an unrecognizable mass of torn, bleeding tissue.  (. (THE CRUCIFIXION OF CHRIST FROM A MEDICAL POINT OF VIEW by C. Truman Davis, MD, M. S.)

Later, when the crown of thorns is pressed into Jesus’s scalp by the jeering soldiers and the robe is torn from his lacerated body, more blood flows. Mel Gibson got one thing right. There was a river of blood.

That’s why I get emotional when I give blood. I can no longer pretend that it didn’t cost Jesus all that much to save me. I can no longer ignore the excruciating price tag of my sin-encrusted soul. I can no longer avert my eyes.

Every time my own dark red blood slips out of my body through a skinny antiseptic tube, that rich O- blood that everyone can use, I witness again that bloody sacrifice. I see Jesus. I don’t see an abstract salvation boxed in doctrine and creed and church attendance and favourite hymns. I see the materiality of sliced flesh and ripped sinew, a physical body shuddering in paroxysms of pain. Blood spurting like a fountain, flowing like a river. Sufficient. For the needy in Canada and Kenya and for low-lifes like me.

I hope that my blood will help someone in a medical emergency. It does feel good, even heroic, to think that my gift might save a life. I know my dad would be proud to be remembered in this way.

But there’s another reason why it’s good for me to donate blood. Because it’s there, at New Life Pentecostal Church, that I am reminded about the only right response when someone gives blood. “Thank you.” Over and over again. “Thank you for coming out to give blood today.” “Thank you for your donation.”

Dear Lord Christ, thank you. May the evidence of my gratitude be your name tattoed over every inch of my life and a multitude of service pins emblazoned on my days.   



3 thoughts on “Universal Donor

  1. Cathy, in my more cynical moments I wish a better image than blood could have been provided for our redemption/salvation. Blood that saved us is so hard to explain to children and someone who is not familiar with Christian symbols. Your story, however, is so helpful.

    I liked how you tied everything together from beginning to end.

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