Bloodsucking Friends: The other vampires of Rhode Island

On a frigid winter night in 1892, the villagers of Exeter exhumed the corpse of Mercy Brown. Her cheeks blushed, her lips still red – Mercy’s body was desecrated in the name of a centuries-old superstition of vampires.

The deceased 19-year-old went on to become as famous as Salem’s witches and Fall River’s ax murderess, and inspired Bram Stoker’s depictions of Lucy Westenra in the horror classic Dracula.

But RI is home to another set of bloodsucking fiends – though these ones, a bit friendlier. Across church basements and VFWs, phlebotomists collect blood for victims in need.

If you were there on that rainy fall morning – in the basement of St Thomas Church in Providence – you would have uncovered the sounds, smells, and sights of a typical blood drive:

Rockwell’s “Somebody’s Watching Me” played on the radio. The sweet aroma of a snack table covered with grandma-made brownies, a lukewarm Box-of-Joe, and Lorna Doones wafted toward the door. Encircled by a corral of beds, the phlebotomists went about their bloody work.

What is the most common question new donors have at a blood drive? “What is my blood type?” says Hazel, a phlebotomist with the Rhode Island Blood Center.

It’s OK if you don’t know your blood type. A blood drive is a welcoming place for all. As Hazel says, “All blood is useful.” Whether you’re B-, AB+, or the coveted O-, a blood bank will find a use for your donation.

In Dracula, Professor Van Helsing doles out transfusions like they’re candy. But in the real world, matching blood types is a tricky business. That’s why each visit, donors will be asked a series of questions about their ethnic background, health history, sexual history, and even pregnancy. These are, of course, incredibly personal questions. But putting your blood into another person’s body is an incredibly personal matter.

That pregnancy question gets odd looks sometimes, but if blood centers fail to check a donor’s history with pregnancy, it can result in a health complication called TRALI (Transfusion-Related Acute Lung Injury). But does this mean someone who’s gone through a pregnancy can’t donate? No. “We test for TRALI on everyone who’s been pregnant,” says Hazel.

Your background can be important to helping people, too. In 2020, a little girl in Florida needed a blood transfusion, but she happened to have some of the rarest blood in the world. Little Zainab could only receive blood from folks who also happened to be missing the “Indian B” antigen on their red blood cells. And so, a global call went out to find someone – most likely from the same ethnic background – with compatible blood.

This is the same reason you’ll sometimes see dedicated blood drives for Black folks to donate, since they are much more likely to carry the sickle cell trait, and therefore more likely to have compatible blood for recipients with sickle cell disease. This is why blood centers seek out a wide variety of people from all backgrounds to donate.

You can also donate parts of your blood. Blood platelets help blood coagulate, so that often goes to folks going through chemotherapy. And plasma (the watery part of your blood) can be donated to help burn victims. These donations often take longer, but can be more helpful to recipients because they’re a more concentrated dose.

Not everyone is eager to have a pint of blood drained from their arms though. Most people lost their fear of vampires after Twilight made them sparkly, but needles still frighten a lot of folks. Hazel reminds us, “The finger prick that we use to test your iron hurts more than the needle in your arm.”

Once the needle is in, the most discomforting part is how warm all the tubing is. We are warmblooded beings, but the same way a seat warmed by someone else’s buttocks can be… unappealing, a warm bag of blood can make some folks uneasy.

Unfortunately, not everyone can donate. If you’ve lived in a malaria-endemic country, you may not be able to donate. But the most common reason donors are turned down is because of their iron. Women, on average, have lower hemoglobin levels than men. But red meat, leafy greens, and other iron-rich foods can help raise hemoglobin levels. Good circulation in your fingertips also helps the phlebotomist get an accurate reading.

Another reason some folks can’t donate is sexual history. Currently, the FDA requires a man who has had sex with another man to wait three months after intercourse before donating. This is due to the increased likelihood of bloodborne diseases passing via certain kinds of sex. Or at least that is the reasoning the FDA provides.

But Hazel advises, “We are actually altering the questions this week or next week, and we will get a little more specific about that.” Getting specific about your sex life will make many folks uncomfortable. But as Hazel says, the goal is “broadening the spectrum for who is able to donate” while still obeying FDA regulations. If you are turned down from donating, know that there are other ways to give. You could “volunteer with the blood center. That’s always a good idea…or get the word out about donating. That’s very important.” And anyone can sponsor a blood drive if they’re willing to invite phlebotomists into their community.

If you want to donate but aren’t sure whether you can, give your local blood bank a call. They can review your health history with you and help determine whether you’re eligible for donation.

But before you donate, Hazel reminds everyone to “eat a full meal. Drink a lot of water beforehand (that decreases the chance that you will have a reaction). And hydrate well the day before.”

So this spooky season, sure, you can gather with friends for a horror double feature, you can search for the gravestone of Mercy Brown in the hedgerows of Exeter, but why not work a blood donation into your fall festivities, too?