Giving Blood in Korea

One thing I never thought I’d ever do in my life was donate blood. I grew up in and around hospitals and was very squeamish and hated needles, going to the doctor, or even hearing someone describe an injury or medical issue.

When I was in middle school, I went to a big children’s hospital and had my blood drawn and tested because I was consistently on the low end of the height and weight chart for my age (2%). I fainted afterwards and ever since the thought of blood, needles, and even the picture of the Red Cross made me feel lightheaded and awful.

In high school, the blood donation truck came to our school and asked everyone to consider donating. I sat with my back to the giant window in our cafeteria as I ate lunch, horrified that it was legal for them to even park in the parking lot. Thankfully, because I was underweight, I was banned from giving blood. I was ecstatic.

Fast forward to when I starting thinking about getting pregnant. I knew it would be a good idea to have a check-up and see if I was up to date on all my vaccines, etc. so I asked the doctor to do every kind of test they generally think is good to do before getting pregnant. I got a blood test and my husband was there as I got my blood drawn and I was already super nervous and working myself up. He joked that they took four vials (I think they only took two) and made me feel even worse (he’s a medical professional and totally used to seeing blood and the insides of people’s bodies). I felt really dizzy and had to sit down for a while afterwards.

The doctor told me I needed some vaccine boosters for a few things like rubella, which most people get as children but I had no idea vaccines sometimes wear off. I didn’t have any antibodies for it anymore and rubella is extremely dangerous if contracted during pregnancy, so I was really glad I got tested and got my booster shot. Especially because around that time, we had a small measles outbreak in Korea. Even if you’ve been vaccinated in the past, definitely go get checked regularly because you never know if you’re susceptible!

Anyway, I knew that if I got pregnant, I’d have to do blood tests quite regularly, and I was terrified of fainting again. Some Google searches told me that sometimes the anxiety or nerves are actually the cause and not the actual blood draw, so I tried to use calming techniques when I had to get blood drawn again. I did get pregnant and did have to do a lot of blood tests, but eventually I just knew to stay calm and hydrated and they never made me dizzy. It also helped that the nurse taking my blood usually did such a great job that I barely felt anything.

Once, when I was pregnant, I had to do the dreaded glucose test and I failed the first time. So they made me go back about a week later and get the three hour test. For those of you fortunate people who have never had to do the three hour glucose test, let me just tell you it’s brutal. I showed up on an empty stomach as requested, got my blood drawn and then drank two bottles of the gross glucose drink in quick succession. Then I had to wait three hours in the hospital and had to get my blood tested every hour. I was also instructed not to throw up. So of course, all I could think about was how nauseous I was. I had to get my blood taken from a different place each time and it got kind of ridiculous by the end. Thankfully, I passed and wasn’t diagnosed with gestational diabetes!

During my pregnancy, I also had to get multiple shots of antibiotics because I tested positive for group B strep. A month before my due date, my doctor wanted to prescribe me some antibiotics to take orally but I absolutely cannot swallow big pills (even small ones give me trouble if I think about it too much) so I knew the best way to ensure that I’d be correctly dosed is if I got a shot. I begged him to just let me get a shot. I couldn’t handle staring at a huge handful of pills knowing I wouldn’t be able to get them down and then it would be my fault if they didn’t work. So he was very skeptical and told me it would be very painful but allowed me to get penicillin instead.

The nurse who ushered me into the room also kept apologizing for how painful it would be, and the nurse who administered the shot also apologized profusely. She mixed the penicillin with a lot of the solution that dilutes it and keeps it from being so painful when injected. Because of this, she told me it would take longer to get all of it in. It was quite the experience. It burned going in and hurt so badly that afterwards I just sat in the waiting room with a sore butt. Thankfully, my husband was nearby and picked me up so I didn’t have to walk to the bus stop.

I also had to get two more injections of a similar antibiotic (though not painful) during labor. I felt like with all the shots, blood tests, etc. that I had to get while pregnant, I just got over my extreme fear of needles. I got the flu shot with my husband and son last year and it was no big deal. I got over my fear of needles for the most part, and knew that I didn’t faint when getting blood drawn anymore.

So I decided to try donating blood. I have type O+ and in South Korea, 98% of the population have Rh positive blood, so mine can be given to just about anyone. My husband has given blood dozens of times and had talked about it a lot, and made it seem like no big deal. I saw a video recently of a girl who donates platelets and her video showed me how important and simple the process is.

However, I knew that as a non-Korean/foreigner some people were not able to donate blood, so I went on the red cross website and tried looking for eligibility information (which you can find here.) As far as I could tell, I was the perfect candidate, but there was some grey area, as I knew some people who said they’d been denied after giving birth or for other reasons.

I made up my mind to do it, and had my husband call a local donation center and ask if I needed anything special and they told me to just bring my ID card and that would be enough. I had heard that foreigners had to print off a special form to take to the center, but that turned out not to be true.

We arrived on a Sunday morning and I was surprised by how many people were there donating. The week we went, they were doing a promotion where they offered double rewards coupons to donators, so we were in luck. I had downloaded the app Red Connect, which is an app for people who have donated blood in Korea to be able to get information regarding their blood once it’s been tested and/or donated. I thought that was really cool – the app gives me lots of information and notes how many times I’ve given blood and will tell me when I’m eligible to donate again.

When we showed up, we had to answer questions on a computer about where and for how long we’d traveled to certain places, if we’d ever had certain diseases, etc. I hadn’t been sick in a while, I hadn’t traveled in a long time, and I wasn’t disqualified for anything, so we waited in the waiting area and were called back for individual interviews. I think in Korea, to donate blood, you should be fairly fluent in Korean because they ask very specific and important questions and I don’t think they allow translators. They didn’t allow my husband to be present for my interview, so maybe the reason many foreigners don’t or can’t donate is language ability related.

She asked me if I’d been in Europe for a long period of time (my parents were actually disqualified from donating whole blood because they lived in Europe during the time of mad cow disease, though apparently in US that ban has been lifted.) She also asked my weight and height and took my blood pressure, etc. and it was very thorough. She put a wristband on my arm like the ones you get when you’re admitted to the hospital, and it had my name and a bar code and my blood type listed on it.

My husband went first and seemed totally unfazed. They ask you if you’d like to donate whole blood, platelets, plasma, etc. and each process is slightly different and some require more time than others. We both donated whole blood, but in my husband’s case (he is type AB+) he probably should actually give plasma next time, since apparently that’s more useful. He’s the universal recipient and I’m nearly a universal donor.

After he was done, they called me back and said it would take about five minutes and I sat in this elevated chair where my feet were propped up and my back was supported. It was surreal to be surrounded by other people also giving blood and a ton of machines, etc. but I just focused on my phone and tried to distract myself. I didn’t mind the needle going in very much, and for the first few minutes I was totally fine.

Halfway through, I started feeling my arm pulse and feel numb and then I got sweaty and lightheaded. I didn’t know if it was my body reacting or if it was nerves, but either way, I was the only one in the entire place who was experiencing lightheadedness, so the nurses(?) came over to me and gave me water to sip on and raised my legs higher and fanned me to cool me down. They let me sit there for an extra few minutes before giving me a juice and letting me to go the seated waiting area. Normally they give snacks, but because of the threat of coronavirus, they didn’t offer any, and as soon as I was done with my juice, I put my mask back on.

I felt much better soon after, and we received our free McDonald’s meal tickets and were free to go. I was really proud of myself for doing it and for not passing out, and my husband learned that he has donated 25 times in total. If he donates 30 times, he’ll receive a medal!

Afterwards, we went to Shake Shack to eat burgers and fries and my arm felt sore but it wasn’t too bad. We both had bruises at the site of injection, but mine went away in a day or two and my husband’s lasted about a week. They told me not to lift anything too heavy, which was kind of hard as the mom of a toddler. I logged into the app afterwards and a few days later got some test results for cholesterol and other things like that and it was really cool to be able to see.

My experience overall in Korea going to hospitals has been very positive, and I was very happy to feel like I overcame my fear and also like I did something good for the benefit of others. I’m not sure I’ll donate again right away, but definitely in the future I’d like to try again. I am probably more predisposed to fainting than others, but I still had a good experience and am glad I did it. I’d encourage anyone to at least find out if they qualify to donate and to also find out if you need to get up to date on your inoculations!

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