Over-Cautious Red Cross

Editor's Notebook

When I was 12, I wanted to give blood. Unfortunately, I quickly found out that I had to wait until my 17th birthday. I couldn’t wait. It was not so much that I thought my blood would save somebody else, though I did take that into consideration. It was more of the hero-allure: I wouldn’t need to rest after giving blood, I wouldn’t faint, it wouldn’t hurt me. I would be strong.

When I finally did turn 17, I scoured the local papers for blood drives. After a few weeks I found one. I went with my mother, and I told her I would be able to drive home if she was too weak. They gave us pens and told us to fill out forms before they stuck the needles in our arms. We went down the long list of requirements and proscriptions, checking “no” for most boxes that mattered, until we got to the one about England. It asked if we had spent more than six months there between the years 1980 and 1996. We lived there for about a year, when I was only a year old.

As a result, we were not allowed to give blood. I burst into tears. (So much for strength.) I didn’t understand. They explained that we might have mad cow disease, and it might be transmitted by blood. After all, no one knew much about it, or how exactly it was contracted, but just in case it was through blood we were not allowed to give ours.


I protested. I had been only a year old. I hadn’t exactly gone to restaurants and chowed down on beef steak every day. In fact, I probably ate no meat at all while I was living there. But apparently the fact that I was there was enough.

Though I understand the reason for the Red Cross’ caution—after all, AIDS used to be spread through blood transfusions—it seems to have gone overboard in trying to prevent a similar tragedy in the future. The form did not allow for vegetarians; it had no blank lines for explanation. Six months was the cutoff. What if someone had lived there for five and a half months and eaten beef every day? The people just shook their heads and ushered me out. Too bad for me: I was proscribed indefinitely from giving blood.

The Red Cross is short of blood. It cries out for donors daily, constantly promoting the altruistic motives for donating blood. Yet when I roll up my sleeve and offer my arm they turn me away. “It’s the rules,” they say. But it is precisely those rules which are too poorly worded. The Red Cross has such stringent regulations (there was a whole long list before the England question) that many of the people who would gladly give blood are turned away—often under faulty reasoning. Perhaps instead of adding more and more “purification requirements” to its ever-growing list, and thereby decreasing the eligible blood supply, the Red Cross should consider amending some of those proscriptions. Then maybe I would be able to prove my strength and give them my blood.

—Katherine M. Johnston

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