Yesterday I was deferred from donating blood.
Let’s face it: I had known it would happen. But I was determined to at least try, to throw myself into the fire and become–in a way–a martyr of equality, to change discriminating minds and make a difference.
It didn’t quite work out that way.
First, this experience (as you’ll see) has made me thankful for integrity in a way I hadn’t considered it before. This also means that this post marks the (overly delayed) continuation of my attempt to name one hundred unique things I’m thankful for. After about twenty-five it got challenging; after thirty-five it’s been outright impossible to think of things I haven’t said before. Integrity is number forty. I’ve still got a long way to go, but experiences like this, they go a long way in helping me get there.
Second, if you’re not privy to the issue, I encourage you to read my essay “B is for Blood” to learn about the issue at length. In short, in the US, men who’ve had sexual contact with another male are deferred from donating blood for being considered high risk for HIV. It’s not exactly that simple or straightforward, but that’s the case at hand.
Finally, my school hosts a blood drive with the Red Cross every semester. Usually I’m in class when it happens and can’t go, but this year, not only was I not in class, I’m also on the Student Government, and since the SGA co-sponsors the drive, we were all there to assist the recovering donors, giving them food and drinks until they felt well enough to go on without risk of fainting.
So when I got there after my Wednesday class, I signed in, read through the binder of information they give you, and then waited. And waited. And waited. And waited. And then moved up a bit and waited right under the air vent (I was shivering then, to compound my seasonal congestion). And waited. And waited. And moved up a bit more (ah, warmth). And waited. And waited. And then I was called.
The one nurse came by, took my ID, tried to take my pulse and instead told me to think calming thoughts, took my blood pressure, took my iron count, took my pulse again, and then left me to answer the questions. So I sat before the computer and answered them.
This is where integrity starts to come in.
I’ve had this debate with a few friends, and many of them agree on one thing: I should lie. They said, what does it matter? Donating is a good thing. It saves lives. There’s a current shortage. More people should, but more people don’t. So lie. It’s what’s right to do. And besides, who’s business is it anyways what I’ve done or not done?
However, I don’t like lying. I don’t like lying to myself and I don’t like lying to others. Certainly lying is easy to do (and I’ve done it enough to know I do it well), but unless there’s no way around it, I don’t do it. I just don’t like to. I just don’t want to.
So I didn’t.
Honesty takes courage. Takes strength. Determination.
And after months of missed opportunities, I was prepared with as many number of comebacks and retorts as you can imagine. My favorite was this: I’d ask if she were dying, and if my blood were a match, if she’d take it or die. Surely anyone would say they would take it (I’ve used this once before in another talk on the issue, and she said she would, obviously), and when she did, I’d get to grin and be chilling and say, so slowly, so softly, well, I’m sorry, you’ll just have to die.
I was born in a Snake year. I’ve got a sharp tongue when I need it.
Instead, the nurse looked crushed. She assured me to her it did not matter, told me that most of them at the Red Cross don’t support the ban, but the FDA won’t let them take my blood anyway. She asked a couple more questions, procedural things, got the deferral form, and I walked away. Out of protest I wrote in red marker “Impure” on the name tag they’d given me. I’d have gone with “Mudblood,” but I felt the sentiment could give the wrong impression.
The thing was, whereas I’d assumed I’d walk away anguished or upset or furious, I walked away touched, possibly even empowered. On the one hand, it had taken a large effort on my part to keep to my integrity, to not lie even when I’ve had so many tell me I should. And on the other hand, I respected the nurse’s integrity in turning me away and the compassion with which she did it.
Later on one of women in administration (if I caught her position correctly when she introduced herself) came over to where we were giving out food to speak with donors about platelet donations. There weren’t too many recovering at the time, so we from the SGA could talk with her. So the first thing I did was ask if the ban prohibited me from donating platelets and plasma; and she told me it did.
But a funny thing happened: A conversation was started.
For half an hour, three of us talked about the ban, other bans, and the state of the US blood supply and the health of our population. She said early on that she agreed the ban was antiquated (and alluded to the fact that although they’re being pushed to appeal to the Hispanic population for more donations, they’re among the highest infected by HIV, which she clearly said creates a double standard), but when pressed further, she insisted she was not allowed to have an opinion on the matter while she had her badge on.
My friend had lived in Germany in the eighties, an army brat as she calls herself, and this brought us to the irony that Germans can donate in Germany, but they can’t donate here. I asked why, if other countries didn’t have bans, why we still have them. She told us that, in most cases, there just isn’t enough statistical data to say that lifting these bans hasn’t had a negative effect on the quality of the blood supply in those countries. It’s a weak position from my viewpoint (I would think, unless a noticeable affect is seen when the bans are lifted, that itself would say the ban was senseless), but it was a moot point I couldn’t take any further.
However, she did take it further. She told us that parts of Europe (or maybe all of Europe, or just England? Forgive me, it escapes my mind at the moment) will soon lift the ban on men like me, but that their position is that they’re pretty much asking you to say you’re not gay anymore in order to donate.
That’s preposterous. If I’m not going to lie in order to donate, I’m not going to lie in order to donate–no matter how they’re asking me to lie to do it!
We continued to talk (I find the company of knowledgeable people incredibly interesting) and I asked, if countries in Europe don’t have the same bans on blood donations that we do, why do they tend to be healthier in general than people in the US? This is when her integrity began to show: She gave us a queer smile and put on a stoic face, telling us with a slow nod that, “Our blood supply is the safest in the world.” She did elaborate, however, that it is true Americans are not as healthy as those in other parts of the world, but that this is mostly due to lifestyles, not blood supplies, to which she reiterated, “Our blood supply is the safest in the world.”
Throughout the conversation, I appreciated her candidness, her informed responses, and her politeness, but I also appreciated that when she saw herself approaching a point of discussion that she–in her position–should not be engaged in, she didn’t merely sidestep the issue or tune us out, she told us plainly and clearly that she couldn’t tell us any more than what she already had. I respected that to an end greater than I can describe, and those around me did as well.
Integrity is something we don’t really see. We can talk about it and describe it, but it’s not shown by acting integritably–that’s not even a word! You can show kindness by acting kindly, leadership by acting leader-like, wisdom by acting wisely–so these are all things we can see to put an image to the abstract definition, things that we can know and recognize and intuitively understand.
Integrity is something different. We show our integrity by what we do and how we do it: By not lying, by doing what we’re obligated to do, by being completely honest about what we’re also not allowed to do. We embody integrity when we are completely ourselves in everything we do, in everything we say, in every way we act. And after being taught about the importance of integrity in numerous leadership workshops, and after witnessing integrity in so many ways yesterday, I’ve found I’m rather thankful for integrity when I see it.
The master irony of the day is this:
When the nurse handed me the deferral form, she marked my deferral “current illness.” “It’s nobody else’s business,” she said to me. But isn’t it everyone’s? After all, if nobody knows that healthy people are being turned away, why will the system ever change?
And the way we’re told to change is simple:
Speak to Congress. Tell them to force the FDA to lift this antiquated ban. I’m going to. You should too.