Tuesday, November 4, 2003
By JOHN SMITH
Special to the News
Recently, I gave blood at the local American Red Cross Blood Drive. The news briefs that precede these events speak to how perishable blood is and the need to replenish reserves. However, for whatever reason, supplies at this time were critically low. The bold headlines caught my attention and I realized the time had come for me to resume my routine of giving regularly.
For the last 10 years I have made it a habit to donate. Six times a year I manage the 5-6 day schedule into my work routine. I take time off if necessary but usually I can squeeze in as one of the final afternoon donors. Arriving late as I do the staging area always possesses a bustling, cheery weariness. The volunteers and staff have had a full day but do not miss a detail in concluding the drive’s efforts. And so it was in late September when I appeared at the National Guard Armory 15 minutes before the closing. It had been exactly one year since my last donation but the same ambiences prevailed. There were many new donors whom I did not recognize. But what I looked for and found were the familiar faces of those whose work and family schedules allowed them late afternoon opportunities. These are the other regulars with whom I was acquainted and I was about to re-establish my fellowship.
I cannot recall what prompted me to give my blood for the first time. There was not a friend or family member in need. No one encouraged me with a direct appeal. Initially, I am sure, it was an impulsive act. However, since that first time, excepting the last year, I missed few opportunities to donate. Perhaps I am just a creature of habit. Perhaps I felt a debt for my blessed and uncomplicated existence, for the extraordinary health of my family and myself.
Whatever, I digress. Donating became a part of my normal routine. Each time I received a pin for my contribution I was proud as a kindergartner with a star on their finger-painting. I was not changing the world but giving definitely made me feel good.
This time I again found comfort in the familiar ritual and protocol of donating. I completed the lifestyle questionnaire. I was attentive to my blood pressure and pulse readings. I watched anxiously as a droplet of my blood was immersed in a solution to measure hemoglobin. When finally it was my turn and following the needle’s stick, I was left alone for the 10 to 15 minutes as my blood was drawn.
This is the stage I had most missed. My tiny gesture has reached it culmination. For a brief moment in time I have finally done all that I can do. There is no way to know who or how many might benefit. Giving has a way of extending beyond the recipient. I take satisfaction in the fact that there is no recognition for this small anonymous gift. My reward is the right to indulge in some vanity. That and maybe, just maybe, I can momentarily answer the underlying question at the root of all this self-congratulatory musing: Do I make a difference?
The reason for the lengthy break in my giving blood is not a happy story. Every routine in my family’s life has been altered in the past year. Our oldest son, Noah, was seriously injured in a vehicle accident while returning to the University of Oregon after Thanksgiving.
He was left paralyzed and quadriplegic. Noah was the innocent victim of another driver’s mistake in judgment. Nothing in my life or that of any family member has been the same. It never will be.
There will always be a time before the accident and a time after the accident. Spinal cord injury is the most domineering force I have ever encountered. Paralysis rolls over all you hold familiar like a hurricane rolls over a trailer park.
In an instant, all the structures you assembled and nurtured for years to protect your child are leveled. Families stagger out of the ruins unable to recognize anything in this new wasteland. There is no solace in memories, for the pain of what may be lost is too much a part of them. Exhausted with grief, you sleep dreamlessly, only to awaken to a nightmare that will not end.
No, I have not found the opportunity to give of myself in the last year. The many details of care and recovery have consumed our lives. However, I have had much cause to reflect on the nature of giving. In fact, I have arrived at an epiphany: People simply want to give. We are a species that is hard-wired for compassion. We give because we are. And I can say this in spite of the horrendous mayhem we inflict on one another with our wars, both international and domestic. The mystery of this duality is that life’s horrors are the fertile soil from which hope and faith spring. Giving is the flower that blossoms amidst the violence.
Only now that I have suffered the need to receive can I begin to understand humankind’s intrinsic need to give. We are the beneficiaries of giving to a degree unimaginable prior to Noah’s accident. He did not need blood for his surgery but people in our community and beyond gave of their emotional blood. They gave of their spiritual blood. They gave the blood of their time and service. It flowed copiously without our asking. It poured forth in quantities that made me wonder whether we, or anyone, is worthy of such generosity. Noah received a virtual transfusion of care and concern. Every single drop has been needed and deeply appreciated.
Our search for old routines and familiar activities continues. The early devastation we felt has yielded to a determination of carrying on with hope for and faith in a better future. Slowly, my family and I pick up the pieces and try to rebuild.
Occasionally, a rogue wave of grief still catches me unawares and drowns my composure. Nonetheless, we go forward. We go forward because you chose to give. You have made a difference. Things are not normal but we are beginning to do normal things. Things such as giving blood.
P.S. Noah’s health is good. He has started to drive a car adapted with hand controls. He is taking a class online with the university. Eventually he may return full-time and complete his degree. His primary goal is to walk again. He is pursuing an intensive exercise regimen toward that end at a facility in Provo, Utah.
For more information on Noah and his progress, visit his Web site, www.noahsmith.org.