To celebrate February 14, we asked our friend Penn Jillette — best-selling author, health transformation success story, and the taller half of the longest-running headline act in Vegas — to open up about his habit of opening his veins for platelet donation. What follows is from him, and it’s a bloody good read.
Valentine’s Hearts a-Pumpin’
By Penn Jillette
“We all need someone we can bleed on
And if you wanna, you can bleed on me”
— Jagger/Richards (and I would like to associate myself with the remarks of the gentlemen from England)
It’s the time of year for commercialized hearts, flowers, candlelight, chocolates, and random anonymous sex. My heart problems went away shortly after I bought my first Withings magic scale (of course it was a lifestyle change, but buying the scale was the first step). Whenever someone sends flowers to Penn & Teller for any reason, I bring them home and try to convince my wife that I stopped on the way home (at midnight) and bought them for her. I always have a scented candle burning (usually lavender). I like the smell, and it gives my children something to buy me for my birthday, since my ties are picked out by professionals. I’m vegan now, so my chocolate has to be very very dark and grownup — no animal products, so at least I’ll be showing some Valentine’s Day love for cows this year. And finally, I’ll also be showing love for random anonymous people by donating platelets at my local blood joint.
I try to give platelets once a month. Usually, the first Monday of the month, around noon, I wander into Vitalant Blood Services on Charleston Blvd. I like the whole experience. I get to chat with someone pleasantly about what countries I’ve visited over the past ten years. I get my blood pressure checked by a pro so I can make sure my Withings blood pressure cuff is right on (it always is). My phlebotomist asks if I’ve had mad cow disease and although it’s a horrible disease the words make me laugh. They ask if I’ve had sex with men, and I get to tell them that that’s a stupid and homophobic outdated rule and they should stop it and then I tell them I kinda haven’t, but not for lack of trying. They ask if I’ve paid for sex and I tell them, “Yes, with every fiber of my soul, but if you mean with money . . . nope, because I’m an idiot.” I look forward to our little chats.
I get into the nice reclining easy chair and let them borrow the blood out of my body, spin out the stuff they need and then put it back in. When the needle goes in, I pretend I’m Lou Reed and Denis Johnson (“When the blood shoots up the dropper’s neck, I feel just like Jesus’ son”). Then I watch the blood go out of me and come back in and I feel like the apocryphal Keith Richards getting his heroin-filled blood cleaned out and put back in while recording Exile on Main Street in France. When they strap my arm down, I get a little claustrophobic (it’s really not that bad at all, I’m a drama queen and as genius magician, Mac King, once said, I’m the worst exaggerator in the world!!!), and while I can’t easily move one arm, I think of my mom being paralyzed toward the end of her life. During February’s donation, I’ll think of how I sent my mom roses every Valentine’s Day and I’ll cry a little under the fluorescent medical lighting tubes. Yup, Lou, Denis, Keith, and Mom will be in the chair, but Penn won’t be there for the whole time. I’ll put on my headphones and do my meditation. I do Headspace and Andy calms me down and makes me feel happy and confident and then my friend, Sam Harris, with his Waking Up meditation course will try to drive me crazy. He’ll help me lose my sense of self and ego and just be conscious. Sam’ll help me get Lou, Denis, Keith, Mom, and Penn to go away and I’ll just be there in the present now, with my blood going out for a few minutes and coming back in for a few minutes. They add an anticoagulant, just like leeches and venomous spiders do, so my lips and fingertips will tingle a little, and I like that. When the tingling hits, I get to feel my Spidey sense and I get to add Spider-man to all the people sitting in the chair with me.
Regular whole blood donation, which is also always badly needed, lasts only about 15 minutes and there’s no bad feelings at all. So, do at least that. There is no claustrophobia or tingling with whole blood, but I always do the longer platelets donation. One can give platelets more often. One can give platelets every two weeks, but I’m a piker and try for every month and sometimes even fail at that. But, when I can do it, I love it. I get over two hours where no one can tug on my coat. After I meditate, I pull out my Kindle with one hand and I read. I really read. I could easily read email or talk on the phone, but I don’t. I pretend I can’t. I just read. Deep, real reading like I get at 2AM in the bath or that I used to get on planes before Wi-Fi (I often pretend it’s broken and don’t use it). I’m currently reading The Genius of Birds, Philip Larkin’s poems, I Married a Communist, and then I always dig into Nicholson Baker, Elisa Gabbert, and Moby Dick. So, I’m reading and at the same time I’m helping people. Knowing that real human love stuff (the kind that’s running through my veins and arteries and not the other love stuff that I don’t often read while donating) will be helping other people.
They tell me not to work out (I follow that rule) and give me a snack of Oreos (…vegan!). I consider the unit “snack” to be 12 cookies. Then the next day, my Withings scale rats me out and I go back to living like I like to live now.
My blood donation days are wonderful. There’s no better feeling. When I say that’s love, you best believe that’s luv – L.U.V. — Happy Valentine’s Day