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Out for blood 

The sky above our heads was inky black. But the sky on the horizon was not dark at all. It was shot with crimson, like a splash of blood.

Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier

Thankfully, there were no splashes of blood on the Northern California Community Blood Bank's Bloodmobile last Monday, although blood bank nurse Judy Frey did have a copy of Rebeccaon hand for the slower moments. Not that they wouldn't be prepared for a splash: There's an arsenal of code-named products aboard to keep things safe and sanitary, such as red wipes, blue wipes, purple tops, smelling salts and something called a sharps container (tip: Don't open it). A drawer labeled "Donor Pants and T-Shirts" is stocked in case someone needs a loaner.

Frey, along with Donor Care Specialists (the ones who poke you) Celeste Kofi and Jed Cruz, who were parked at First and I Street in Eureka, had only seen one donor so far, and it was already almost 3 p.m.

"There's a lot of downtime," said Kofi, who had brought along Marian Keyes' novel Watermelon for such occasions. "It's unpredictable."

"You just can't anticipate it," said Frey.

The previous Saturday, Kofi said, she had been so inundated with donors that she'd had to call for backup. Thankfully, the donors -- and the blood -- started trickling in soon enough. Jim Clark, a supervisor at the Humboldt Office of Environmental Health, stepped aboard.

"How are you?" asked Cruz.

"Full of blood," he replied -- an auspicious beginning.

Kofi said many people think they're ineligible to donate, especially after the blood bank announced it would stop collecting women's plasma to avoid the risk of the potentially fatal Transfusion-Related Acute Lung Injury to recipients. But women can still donate blood. She rattled off a list of individuals whose ability to donate blood is not compromised: cancer survivors, diabetes sufferers, people with high cholesterol ...

"A lot of people are kind of surprised," Kofi said.

After verifying Clark's name and birthdate, Kofi swung into action, laying out a handful of bags, vials and tubes before painting the crook of Clark's arm with iodine and drawing an X with a black Sharpie. This marked the vein she'd soon stick with a needle, which would be used to suck out 470 milliliters of his blood.

"Now's the time to look away," Kofi said. Deftly, she guided the needle to its destination, causing at least one occupant of the bloodmobile to feel a little woozy as it punctured the skin. The purplish blood began its journey, snaking through a tube from Clark's arm to a small bag from which Kofi drew four vials (which, like all donations, would later be tested at the NCCBB lab), then to a larger bag beneath the chair, nestled in something called a Donormatic, which gently rocks the blood back and forth (to prevent clotting) and weighs it.

The donation went off without a hitch, which was both a relief and a little disappointing. Where's the gore, the excitement? In truth, the minimal on-the-job mishaps appear more gruesome than they actually are: Sometimes a donor passes out and has to be revived with ammonia (the overpowering scent of which clears the whole vehicle), or a blood spill gets on a donor's clothes.

Then again, all spills are treated as potentially hazardous.

"It's a dangerous job, if you think about it," said Kofi. "That's why I'm super clean on the mobile."

"She just brushed her teeth twice," added Megan Grimes, another blood bank employee.

Clark finished up and was replaced in the chair by his colleague Melissa Martel, another Environmental health supervisor and a veteran donor. "I don't watch," she said. "I look away. Once the needle's in, I'm happy; once I've done my duty, I'm happy. It's a really good cause and it makes me feel good when it's done."

Four hundred and seventy milliliters later, Kofi asked what color of bandage Martel would prefer.

"Hot pink, please," she said. "I have a 5-year-old daughter. It impresses her."

Her husband has never donated, Martel said. But another family member will be ready to in about 11 years.

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Joel Hartse

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