Is Giving Blood Gaian?

I gave blood recently. While this is probably no big deal for many of you, this was very exciting for me, as it was the first time I’ve donated since high school. That’s because I was in England during the peak of the Mad Cow Disease scare (1996) and it was only recently that the FDA lifted the ban on donating blood for those living in England during that time.1

Kind of a cute picture, though when you think about it, kind of inappropriate too. (Found on (uncredited))

The donation process was mostly a good experience—it was kind of long and slow, and while I wasn’t exactly nervous, the waiting at the different stations (in the waiting area, at the history and hemoglobin testing station, and then on the donation bed) didn’t make it easier. But I put on a brave face as I brought my son, Ayhan, with me so he could see what this was all about. The technician was good though, allowing Ayhan to watch from nearby and at the end to even hold the bag of my warm blood for a moment (me too), which I admit was kind of cool.

Of course, I can’t just take any mundane action without dissecting it—without thinking how it could be made sacred—so I wondered if donating blood shouldn’t be some sort of Gaian action, almost a ritual of giving of oneself (literally) and whether I should do this quarterly, perhaps even following the wheel of the year.2 But then I wondered whether giving blood was even a good thing….

A Shoshin Exploration

Karate teaches practitioners the Zen concept of shoshin—to enter a new experience with a fresh or beginner’s mind. And that feels right in this case. We all have preconceived ideas that donating blood is useful and meaningful, but is it? And if so, how? Does it truly help people? Or does it mostly help maintain the companies and organizations that manage this lucrative trade? Or, as I joked with Ayhan on our way to the donation event, is it just keeping vampires well fed so they don’t attack people? Further, is it bad for you? Good for you? Good and bad for you?

Yes, yes, one might viscerally react to this—of course it helps people. It saves lives. And I assume that’s true. But, I don’t know. So let’s explore.

Does Giving Blood Help People?

Exploring on the Internet, it’s easy to find many statistics that support the value of donating blood:

These all feel intuitively true, and I have no reason to doubt them, but then again almost none were supported by any sort of data source.3 But perhaps assertions—and trust in these organizations—is enough? It seems undisputable that blood is saving people’s lives and I certainly want to help out. Then again, are do-gooder donors just being taken advantage of?

A man happily giving blood, while squeezing a little heart, which again feels a bit inappropriate (Image from European Union 2011 PE-EP/Pietro Naj-Oleari via flickr)

Are Donors Being Taken Advantage Of?

The statistics make you feel good. Except the nagging concerns that articles like these raise (this article describes a lawsuit that values a pint of blood at between $180 and $300). So, while I feel good that my blood is saving lives, I can’t help but wonder whether my blood may be subsidizing the overpaid executives of Red Cross (and other blood organization).

American Red Cross collects about 40% of the blood donations in the U.S. Not exactly a monopoly but a major force in this industry. And while I accept that the organization charges several hundred dollars to hospitals for a pint of donated blood (there is a lot of work to collect it and make it safe), I can’t not question the system when looking at Red Cross’s 990 forms. Red Cross is a $3.1 billion organization (that’s billion with a b), with about $1.9 billion of that revenue coming from blood (labelled “Biomedical products and services”).

Not a problem, I guess, after all, the U.S. is a big country, but looking at organizational salaries, the top paid executive is making $780,000, with the top five all earning more than $600,000 and even the fifteen highest paid making $300,000.4 Seems like these executives are profiting off donors’ blood. But I admit, I’ve always been disgusted by nonprofit salaries—sometimes they skew way too low (which recently triggered a wave of unionization efforts at environmental organizations)—but more often nonprofit executives (arguing that to get the best leaders we must pay corporate salaries) pay exorbitant salaries to their leaders. And just for context the president of the United States, managing far more responsibility, is making only $400,000 a year (which is still a lot). Even looking for a local blood organization (and I found one located right in Middletown), this organization—Connecticut Blood Center (part of the Rhode Island Blood Center)—which has revenues of around $45 million (about 2% of Red Cross’s blood revenue) paid its CEO almost as much as the U.S. president to manage fewer than 200 employees. That’s certainly not inspiring any feelings of charity in me.

Of course, just because we live in a corrupt system, where individuals rationalize their ill deeds and selfishly benefit from the good deeds of others, doesn’t mean we should stop giving blood—though perhaps we change who we give it to. (See Textbox below.) Then again, what if donating is not only enriching others but causing health damage to the donors and to the planet? Would that change the calculus further? And what if it actually improves donors’ health?

How to Improve Equity at America’s Blood Suppliers

While two ideas come to mind, perhaps the most straightforward one would be a “Name-and-Shame” campaign focused on the Red Cross, being the biggest and best known blood supplier. These campaigns are especially powerful, as when they succeed, campaigners can then threaten to go after the next largest (down the chain) and most of those immediately capitulate, having seen the damage the biggest organization suffered. A classic case study would be the 1998 campaign by the Rainforest Action Network to stop Home Depot (which made up 10% of the lumber market) from carrying old growth wood. By 2000, after hundreds of store protests, 250,000 customer letters, and celebrity endorsements, Home Depot agreed to RAN’s terms. Later that year, 7 of the 10 largest Home Improvement retailers had agreed to stop selling old growth.

Strategically targeting Red Cross in a campaign could be very effective and if they capitulated, other smaller organizations would feel beholden to get in line too. And it could be simple, with organizers persuading donors to go to smaller blood centers to donate (along with writing letters, applying pressure on social media, and shifting monetary donations to other blood banks) this could quickly put pressure on the Red Cross as they see their blood revenue and reputation dwindle. The key would be figuring out the right demands: these should probably go further than simply paying their executives less, and incorporate other forms of justice—from increased transparency, a Net Zero Transition plan (see below), to better paying lowest paid employees (e.g. addressed with a more reasonable CEO-to-worker Pay Ratio), and creating a small fund for any donors injured in the donation process. Demands shouldn’t be so great to make the organization resist to the bitter end, but enough to mobilize donors to spend an extra half hour going to a different blood bank and writing to Red Cross’s CEO.5

Health Benefits and Side Effects

Unfortunately, the data, while more supported, isn’t black and white. Donating blood can lower blood pressure by lowering the viscosity of the blood through the lowering of hemoglobin levels. However, one study found that regular blood donations could create “an unfavorable modulation of serum levels of lipids that is influenced by donation extent.” This “may weakly contribute in a higher risk for coronary heart disease.” Or then again, donating could create favorable blood lipid profiles, and thus “may be protective against cardiovascular disease,” according to this 2013 study. And it could also help avoid symptoms for those with hemochromatosis, through the lowering blood iron levels. Unfortunately, there’s probably not enough information to know clearly what donating blood is doing to you—but just as women lose blood monthly, and bodies are designed to take occasional wounds, I lean on the side of saying that blood donation is, in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy terms, “Mostly Harmless” (while being very helpful to others).

My biggest concern, after reading the Red Cross’s pamphlet while getting my blood drawn was the warning that I may need a medical evaluation if “you have tingling or numbness in your fingers or arm.” That sounded scary and after further research I found this is called a “neurologic needle injury.” The good news is the one medical study I found on this investigated 419,000 whole blood donations, and found 66 cases of this. Of the 56 successful investigations made, all but four donors were fully recovered within 3 months, with 40% resolving in less than three days, and another 30% resolving within a month. The four who didn’t recover fully “had only a mild, localized, residual numbness.” Still not nice, but the rate of incidence is 1 out of 6,300, and for an enduring complication 1 out of 104,000. Not scary enough to deter one from saving lives (though it’d be good to know blood centers had your back if anything like this happened—i.e. covering medical costs for the 1 in 6,300 that need evaluation).

Even worse, this blood donor is squeezing the Earth! (Image from NIAID via flickr)

One effect I experienced this time that I don’t remember when I donated in high school: I was wiped out the next day. I dragged all day—it almost felt like I was catching something, and even the following day I dragged myself to bed at 9pm (a few hours earlier than normal) but I think it was just my body rebuilding its blood supply (something my teenage body did more easily). That’s something to pay attention to following future donations.

Of course there are psychological benefits to factor in as well. Volunteering makes you feel good, boosting your mental wellbeing, increasing happiness, reducing depression, increasing social connectedness, and so on. (There’s lots of literature on that that I won’t go into, not because it’s not important but as that’d be a whole article in itself.)

There are even ways to make this more meaningful. For example, see if a local hospital has a donation center to utilize the blood they draw, rather than relying on middlemen like the Red Cross. An article in The Washington Post talks about that (with the author donating directly at a children’s hospital directly providing children in his community with his blood). And to know your blood is going directly to helping children in your area, that’s beautiful.

Though wherever you do it, giving blood offers a clear and tangible (and easy) way to make a difference. I constantly ask myself how am I helping the world—and constantly doubt whether writing essays and cultivating a Gaian community is enough. It doesn’t feel like enough when such huge crises are unfolding around us, when my consumption levels, as simple as they may be from an American standard, are ecologically decadent.

Finally, and what might be called enlightened self-interest (which one could argue is at the heart of the Gaian Way—as if we don’t take care of Gaia, we, ourselves will suffer): what goes around comes around. One day, if we live long enough, we may need someone else’s blood—so this is a very easy way to “pay it forward” (and frankly, I’m surprised this isn’t one of the Red Cross’s regular advertising themes to encourage people to give blood.6 The WHO actually notes that 76% of all transfusions in high-income countries are given to patients over 60 years old. So as with Social Security taxes, one can consider blood donations in the same ‘supporting the public weal’ kind of way—one you’ll probably benefit from in the future. 

Seriously? Another donor squeezing Earth? I shouldn’t be able to find so many of these online… (Image from Vince via Pixabay)

But is it Gaian?

Ok, so giving blood is a good thing to do, and might offer some benefits to you—even if some are profiting off your bodily fluids. But is it Gaian?

America’s Blood Centers’ slogan is “It’s about life.” Nice, clean, clear. Gaians, too, celebrate life, and to help the community in moments of its greatest need is certainly the Gaian Way.

But boy, oh, boy blood donations create a lot of biohazardous plastic waste. Sure, if we’re gonna use plastic, what better way than to keep people healthy and alive. But then again, a good portion of this blood is probably to treat diseases that are caused in large part because of our unhealthy food system, our sedentary lifestyles, and our toxin-filled environment (some of which come from the burning of this very waste).

But does that mean you shouldn’t give blood? It’s one more way to give of oneself to others—one that costs you almost nothing (truly it cost me about an hour and a half of my time, some fatigue, and a slight headache, comparable to the dehydration headache I get sometimes while fasting).

And perhaps it makes us more resilient (physically and psychologically), more able to handle unplanned fasts or wounds of the turbulent future. One website suggested a reason to give was because it’s like getting a free 500-calorie snack. As it takes your body about 500 calories to produce a pint of blood, it’s a way to lose weight (or not feel guilty about eating a bit of junk food). Said in a Gaian way, it’s another way of fasting—of giving up part of yourself (and your comfort) to better connect with fellow humanity and to give back to those less fortunate.

While few examples abound in nature of sharing blood intentionally (rather than parasitically), perhaps the best comparison is what makes us mammals: breast milk. Breast milk is a fluid generated by our bodies not for us, but rather to share with our offspring—a product that is complete and needs nothing else to provide life. Blood too is like that and our bodies can readily make more, so why not share this literal lifeblood? And this, unlike breast milk, is a uniquely human opportunity—a way to use our consciousness and tools to redistribute what we have with those in need, literally saving people’s lives in the process.

That said, curbing the excessive salaries and ensuring that blood is collected sustainably and justly is essential. While companies from Amazon to Wendy’s are committing to be net-zero by 2050, is that a priority of the American Red Cross? (See here for its generic statement on climate change and here for its Environmental, Social and Governance report, which sound nice but are far from enough.) The Red Cross is not a little organization like the Gaian Way, but a $3 billion organization that if it were a company would be ranked about the 800th largest in the U.S. (about the size of Lyft—which committed to 100% electric vehicles by 2030). What is Red Cross’s plan to become less toxic and more sustainable in the outsized role it now plays?

Are there ways to make this plastic intensive industry more Earth-friendly (other than not squeezing Earth balls)? (Image from Robert DeLaRosa via Pixabay)

Making Sense of All This

The bottom line is that giving blood is a good thing to do (even if the data is sparse); fewer people than I thought actually do it; so Gaians should do it—at least a couple times a year if they’re able (I’m not yet quite ready to commit to four or six times). But we should also work to make it a more sustainable process and the organizations that run it more just. And it certainly wouldn’t hurt to deepen studies of the effects of blood donations on the physical and psychological wellbeing of donors. We owe honesty and transparency to those who are literally giving of themselves.

What do you think? What experiences have you had giving blood? Have I missed anything? Add your comment below and let me know.


1) Actually, I was in the epicenter—the Midlands, where beef was such a key commodity that it only left our school lunch menu for a few days during the initial alarm!

2) In the U.S. one can give blood up to six times per year, so one couldn’t do this for all eight stations, but perhaps for solstices and equinoxes, or maybe even the cross-quarter days to increase their significance (I did do this a week after Winter Cross, so that, coincidentally would align).

3) Many of these statistics come from unsupported sources, including web pages of the Red Cross, which of course has an interest in encouraging blood donations. I do not know where to find data-supported statistics. The World Health Organization did find that for high-income countries generally, the blood donation rate is 3.15%, which does corroborate the number I found. Here’s a fuller reporting of global blood statistics from the WHO.

4) It was the COO who made $781,120. The President & CEO, Gail McGovern, would have made more than $800,000 if she hadn’t chosen not to take her bonus during that first year of the pandemic (the most recent 990 form was from 2020). Kudos to her for putting that money to “other charitable uses,” however, did she really need all of the other $640,000 she made? And what about subsequent years?

5) The second idea is a bit more radical but could have more immediate results. If someone organized donors to strike until executives of blood banks reduced their inflated salaries that should trigger change quite quickly, as the FDA would step in and facilitate an agreement to prevent disruption to the nation’s blood supply (as preserving this is surely as critical as America’s railroads). But that would take a passionate organizer, one (as with any strike leader) who would be willing to take a lot of abuse to spearhead this. And the risk could be a disruption in blood supplies or a vast increase in price (worsening inequity)—so a Name and Shame campaign seems more strategic. 6) A guy is being wheeled in a hospital, with frenzied activity all around. We need three units of O+ stat! Someone calls back—we don’t have enough. Camera pans to patient’s face—all bruised, clearly indicating an accident—and he loses consciousness and it goes to dream-state, where his friend asks him to join him donating blood after their workout. “Nah, I don’t like needles….” Fade to black and the flatline sound plays. (Beeeeeeeeeeeeeep.) Deep baritone voice says: “One Day You Too May Need Blood.” [End]

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5 Responses

  1. lynn

    There is an energetic link created when giving someone blood.

    • Erik Assadourian

      Interesting idea. As with Gaia, some would argue this is true only metaphorically. But even at that level, it’s quite profound to know (as with breastmilk) that my blood is sustaining another person’s body and lifeforce.

  2. Venkataraman Amarnath

    I donate cerebrospinal fluid mostly for research purposes. It involves lumbar puncture, not pleasant as the word sounds. i also donate blood, again for research purposes and only in small amounts. In both cases I recover in a day.

    Regarding CEO salaries FIX in ‘Economics from the top down’ has done a lot of research. The larger an organization, the higher is the hierarchy and the bigger is the salary. Non-profit organizations also fall in this trap. Just like other things, Keep it local and small.

    As well-informed as you are, you might have come across Gayathri Manthra, the appropriate prayer for Gia-thri. All we ask from the earth goddess is:
    We meditate on the glory of that Being who has produced this universe; may She enlighten our minds.

    • Erik Assadourian

      Yes, hierarchy seems to lead to bigger salaries, but it’s strange that the CEO of the Red Cross can justify a larger salary than the president of the U.S., which indisputably is a far bigger and more complex hierarchy than an NGO. And thank you for sharing this prayer.

  3. ken ingham

    My favorite experience giving blood is described in this poem.

    Connecting with Creation

    While having breakfast on the porch
    reading cereal box ingredients
    through a magnifying glass
    a high-pitched familiar hum
    descends like a miniature Huey
    over the great mammalian landscape of my arm.
    It touches down, stumbles around
    tripping over hairs
    divining a perfect spot to drill.
    I focus the glass with my other hand.
    It lifts up, hovers, and docks at last
    then slips its feeble proboscis in between
    two epidermal fibroblasts.

    Mosquitoes, unlike some phlebotomists
    never seem to miss the vein.
    A few nanoliters of anticoagulant
    cause not pain but acute itching
    an impulse to blow the intruder away.
    But soon the itching subsides
    as if withdrawn with the first blood.
    The translucent belly swells up pink
    to several times its empty size.

    Then laboring with my heavy gift, it drifts away
    got to lay some eggs today before the frost
    it crashes at the edge of the pond
    where a salamander loiters by the mud
    changing colors in the sun.
    He snatches that mosquito with his tongue
    swallows it together with my blood.

    That afternoon I hear a splash
    Look up to see the ripples dissipate.
    Can’t help but wonder
    what that fish just ate?
    And later, on another day
    I bow my head and pray
    Thankful for the fish upon my plate.

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