Unicorn Blood: Why my blood is extra special and so is yours

“The Red Cross keeps calling me to get me to sign up to give blood.”

I can remember laughing with my college roommate sometime in 2010 at the fact it seemed like the only time my phone ever rang anymore it was someone from the Red Cross asking if they could sign me up for an appointment to give again.

It had been a few weeks since the first time I ever actually did it; rolled up my sleeve and let a phlebotomist draw blood. A friend’s fraternity was hosting the drive on my college campus at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, and I remember wanting to help them reach a donation goal.

Even though I didn’t like needles (who does?) and always felt squeamish at even the thought of what I had to do — I gave it a shot. The pros outweighed the cons, I thought; a few minutes of slight discomfort for the opportunity to save someone’s life? It didn’t seem like a big deal to me.

Soon after that first donation a donor card arrived in the mail for me and told me my blood type was O-. Some more information helped to educate me on what that meant and I quickly took in the value attached to blood like mine:

  • O negative is the most common blood type used for transfusions when the blood type is unknown.  This is why it is used most often in cases of trauma, emergency, surgery and any situation where blood type is unknown.  O negative is the universal blood type.
  • Only 7% of the population have O negative  blood. Due to the its versatility for transfusions, it is in high demand.  In an emergency, it is the blood product of choice. For example, just one car accident victim can require up to 100 units of O neg. Meeting the demand for O negative blood is always a priority for the Red Cross. 

I understood the importance, and I thought I’d try to give when I could; when it fit into my life. It wasn’t always easy though, often taking many attempts to donate just once due to so often being iron deficient. I once went to a standing blood drive 8 Fridays in a row until I finally passed the “iron test;” even with loading up on iron-rich foods during the week between attempts. Any excuse for a burger, right?

After each successful donation, I was met with so many “thank yous” and so much gratitude for an event that took less than an hour and came with great snacks! “Why don’t more people do this?” I thought.

Now I knew my O- blood was important, but I started getting notifications that not only was my type the universal donor but there was something else that made it even more special: I was CMV negative.

Ok … what is that?

I doubt many people know what CMV is or have ever heard of it — I certainly hadn’t.

Cytomegalovirus (good luck pronouncing that) or CMV is a flu-like virus that MOST people are exposed to at some point in their life. As with most viruses, once you have it the antibodies stay in your body. Magically, I have never had it.

When a baby needs a blood transfusion, their little, fragile bodies often need blood free of some of those “extra” antibodies. Actually, receiving those antibodies can be harmful to them. So the fact that I was CMV negative AND O- was kind of a big deal, maybe even “unicorn status”…

Some donation moments over the years

The Red Cross calls us “Heroes for Babies” and very graciously offers a few extra incentives to encourage us to donate our unicorn blood; t-shirts, lunch boxes, gift cards, etc. But honestly, isn’t being the provider of special baby blood enough? According to the Red Cross, the CMV virus is in about 85% of adults by the time they’re 40, so there are only a small group of us who fit this very specific medical need. So the free t-shirts are cool, but I do this expecting nothing in return- except the satisfaction of knowing a little baby somewhere is probably going to get my blood.

My blood is the safest blood to transfuse to immune deficient newborns. Wow, read that again.

Listen: having special, unique blood is awesome and I try my hardest to give blood as often as I can. I didn’t do anything extra to have this, you could probably chalk it up to sheer dumb luck. But the reality is, every person’s blood is important. Every single drop of it. No matter what type you are: your blood is special.

And if more of the people who are eligible to give blood donated on a consistent basis, the blood supply wouldn’t be as vulnerable. Only about 3% of the population gives blood. For me it has been a journey longer than a decade at this point, and I’ve donated around 4 gallons, but I have no plans to stop and I’ll continue to be a blood donation advocate.

Some of the “Heroes for Babies” swag

I’ve never needed blood, but it is actually a very common medical procedure. Statistically it’s only a matter of time before someone I love (or me!) will need it. And when that time comes I just hope there is someone else out there who took the time to give blood so it was there, waiting on the shelf to help save a life.

Not sure if you can donate? Check out the eligibility criteria here.

Sign up to give today at www.redcrossblood.org and follow your blood’s journey from your arm to a patient’s arm in the Red Cross Blood Donor App!

Written by Illinois Communications volunteer Holly Baker

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: