Fat Bias at the Red Cross

Do Bettter Red CrossI received the following e-mail today:

I am so angry about this and I’m hoping you can get the word out and maybe stop this from happening to someone else.  Donating blood has always been a really big deal to me – I’m a “universal donor” and even though the homophobic rules about blood donation piss me off, this is a chance that I have to possibly save someone’s life (and I’ve researched and it seems like the Red Cross doesn’t make the rules and there isn’t anyone who takes blood that doesn’t have those rules.)

After exchanging several e-mails to make sure that they could accommodate me, I headed to the Red Cross today. I had chosen to donate platelets because they are always in need of them and people are less likely to donate them because it takes two hours, and they aren’t stable like blood so they are only good for five days.

As I went in the guy at the front desk showed me his Bandaids from where he had just donated and he told me how happy and appreciative they were that I was also donating platelets because they were so low that a few days ago they had to suspend surgeries because they literally ran out.

I had filled out their “fast pass” form so that they didn’t have to go through all the personal questions, they just needed to test my blood for iron deficiency  and then they could get to the donation.  I’ve donated platelets a lot of times so I know the drill, I just hadn’t been to this location before since I moved her pretty recently.

They took me back to the “intake rooms.” On the way we passed the place where I would donate and, as they had told me, the chairs had arms but they were able to swivel so the chairs would absolutely accommodate me.

Then I saw the intake rooms.  They were four VERY small rooms (the size of the bathroom in my apartment) and they included a big desk and chair for the Red Cross employee which took up most of the room. While there was an armless chair, it was wedged between the wall and the desk so that there was about the space of a plane seat left, and it was very obvious that there was no way I could fit.

I pointed out to the woman that I couldn’t fit in the room and she just said “we have to close the door for your privacy.”  I said that I was ok leaving the door open.  She said that she had to get her supervisor. As she went I looked around and the place was huge, there were lots of places that we could go that we would have been out of anyone else’s earshot, I figured this would be no problem.

The supervisor then came up and very curtly said “we can’t move the furniture.”  I blinked a couple of times, taken aback by how rude she was, and then said “Okay, can we just leave the door open?”  She said – again very curtly –  “No, you need your privacy.” They were both staring at me like I had two heads, mouths agape, looking very uncomfortable so I said “So do you just want me to leave?” and she said “We can’t move the furniture.”  So I just left and, sadly, took my literally life-saving platelets with me. It was so upsetting – they should have created spaces that accommodated fat people to begin with, but still this was a solve-able problem if they had just gotten over themselves.

There are so many things wrong with this, but I’ll try to narrow it down to the two most egregious.

First, they didn’t anticipate that larger people would want to donate blood?  If it was my job to convince people to let me take their blood to save the lives of others (especially when a quick google search finds all kinds of “emergency” requests for platelets), I would make sure that I was as accommodating as I could possibly be to as many people as possible.

Second, say it with me, fat people are more important than furniture.  Obviously the supervisor should have come out apologizing – maybe something like “I’m so sorry for all of this, we should have been more prepared.  Do you mind if we figure this out together ” rather than “We can’t move the furniture.”  But as long as she opened up with that – why can’t they move the furniture?  Maybe it’s bolted down, but if not then let’s move the damn furniture and accommodate the human being in front of us.

Fat people exist.  If you are involved in an organization like the Red Cross, you are going to interact with fat people and you owe it to them to, at the very least, learn to cover up your fat bias and, even better, address and overcome it. If you are responsible for a room/building that is used by the public consider taking some time today to look around and see if your space accommodates fat people – are there armless chairs and/or loveseats, benches and other accommodating seating? Do you have adequate space in rooms that fat people may be asked to use?  How could you be more welcoming and accommodating to fat people?

In the meantime, the e-mail’s author gave me the information about the Red Cross location she visited, so I’ll be contacting them tomorrow to offer to help them learn how to work appropriately and respectfully with fat people. If there’s something that you’d like them to hear please leave your thoughts in the comments and I’ll pass them along.

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27 thoughts on “Fat Bias at the Red Cross

  1. I remember back when I donated plasma, people over a certain weight had to stick around longer and give MORE than the thin people… for exactly the same amount of money.

  2. Gah. I donate blood regularly, but I am on the smaller side and haven’t had problems. I also don’t go to Red Cross, I go to Bloodworks Northwest, which is our regional blood bank.

    I am also shocked that they would turn away someone who is willing to donate platelets or whole blood. These things are SO necessary and so many people who are otherwise able to donate don’t because of needle phobias or the stupid homophobic rules or they just don’t think about it.

    I hope the Red Cross is responsive.

    Incidentally, while I don’t know if I have personally helped anyone, I know several people who have needed blood transfusions of one kind or another, so it IS vital.

    1. I can’t donate blood, but my whole family used to go donate blood, regularly, when I was a kid. When I turned 18, I went to try donating blood, and the guy turned me away because he said he’d blow my veins. Then, a few years after that, the Red Cross declared that my entire family was ineligible, because we lived in Europe during the wrong decade, and MAD COW!!!! So, we can’t donate, anymore, even if vein-blowing wasn’t a thing.

      So, although I can’t donate blood, I do encourage others who can, because I know how vital it is.

      But now, I don’t want to encourage people to go to Red Cross. Other blood banks? Sure.

    2. I have tried giving blood for at least 2 decades, but have been unsuccessful at each time. The 1st time I had severe anemia and was turned away because my blood was below the threshold they take (I was 12.4, they don’t take below 12.5, since then I’ve learned my iron should be 120). All the others my veins are too small or deep, and one nurse said “well then you should stay away and not waste our time”. Next time they called to set an appt. my mom let them have it.

  3. This is very disappointing. I regularly donate to the Red Cross and hadn’t experienced any problems myself. There are so many restrictions on who can donate–including minimum weight requirements–that it feels all the more encouraging to not be restricted for being too large. You would think that they would try to avoid discouraging people whenever possible, given all the restrictions that leave a relatively small pool of people who are even eligible, let alone willing.

  4. I can see it. I really think there are people who simply live (by choice) in a world where fat people don’t exist. I got that Oh My God stare from a four year old today at the library. She is four. I looked at her mom who was thin. I bet the little girl has never seen a fat woman before. I just smile and wave cheerily at kids when this happens. When it is an adult who gives you that look, it is bizarre. Do you live under a rock? A segregated rock? With today nationwide focus on eradicating obesity from the face of the earth they have got to be aware of the “epidemic” of fatties out in the world right? How can we be both held up for public scrutiny and not seen at the same time?
    “Invisible Woman” By Charise W. Goodman is a good analysis of the phenomenon. And looking back at them and smiling is a good interim behavior.
    Now at the blood center. definitely go to a super supervisor! That IS a life and death situation for someone!

  5. I don’t know where the original letter writer lives, but this is the kind of thing that in my city, I would call the local news “investigative” team. It’s the type of story I think they would cover, especially since there is ALWAYS a need for blood and donors.

    I would also go as high up the chain of the Red Cross organization that I could to complain about this.

  6. How very …interesting. When they have the monthly blood drives at my husband’s office, they have them right smack dab in the middle of the atrium in the center of his building, with just a curtain around the donation bed. You could fit an entire bowling league into the donation “booth” if you felt so inclined. There is no rule or regulation requiring a door, nor for it to be closed- we left the curtain open so I could sit with my needle-squeamish but civic-minded friend and there was no issue. Our Red Cross certainly doesn’t care if you weigh literally 2000 lbs- they need that blood too badly! I think the higher ups in the organization would definitely want to hear about this.

    1. This makes me think it was more because of a phobic local leader than the Red Cross, itself.

      Unfortunately, stories like this taint the Red Cross as a whole, in the minds of potential donors, both for blood and for money.

      There are so many other charities out there that are NOT offensive, after all, and my resources are so limited.

      But I am glad to hear that this is not an organization-wide thing, but a local issue. That gives me hope.

  7. I have tried to do the double red donation. You are required to be larger to do it, and it also takes extra time. But they only have a medium sized cuff to use with the machine. It is somehow a special cuff. So, if you are a great size with lots of blood to actually do this, you cannot do it.

    Also, every place I have ever donated with the Red cross there has been an issue with the blood pressure cuffs.

    1. Blood pressure cuff is an issue at most doctor’s offices too. How can they not ever have large cuffs? So when they take blood pressure with an inappropriate cuff or on the forearm, the result is higher than it actually is and then you have to argue with the nurse that no, you don’t actually have high blood pressure. So annoying! Also the fact that larger people will naturally have a somewhat higher blood pressure and this is normal for them. Most nurses/doctors just don’t know about it. I wish there were general practitioners that specialized in only treating heavier people.

      1. UI hate to say thins but there are. Barriatrics is a huge and growing element in medicine. They “treat” fat people exclusively… In hopes of making them into thin people, of course. My doc office someone always has to go and get the larger cuff. Puhlease! You only have one for the whole clinic?

      2. I LOVE my doctor. They have large cuffs in all the exam rooms. Either that, or I’ve always been sent to the one exam room that has the token larger cuff. But I’ve been in a variety of exam rooms, so either they are moving the one cuff around, or they actually have large cuffs in all the exam rooms.

        Based on my experience with my doctor, I believe the latter, because he is just great!

        He’s also not taking any new patients, so I can’t recommend him to my fat friends, or any friends, which is a real pity.

        But, hey! There is hope! There ARE good doctors and med-techs out there, and people who know their business and accept and treat fat people. Good luck finding them, and when you do find them, hold on tight.

  8. When you reach out to Red Cross tomorrow, please let them know that you have at least one reader (and very likely many more) who would be happy receive blood and/or platelets from donors of all sizes–fat, skinny, or in-between–if there’s ever a need. Shame on them for turning away a life-saving donation to avoid the inconvenience of moving around some furniture to accommodate a donor.

  9. My wife had a stroke this past Saturday. It’s really bad and even the best doctors are telling me she won’t recover. Telling my daughter and grand daughter the news was one of the worst I’ve ever had to do.

    I know everyone here is very sympathy, but that’s not why I’m posting. I’m posting that as someone who’s wife will likely not live mich longer, as someone with Alzheimer’s disease, I beg everyone to think: why would we not want EVERY medical advantage we could get? Why not take blood from anyone willing to give it?

    Are the doctors going to be able to justify never giving me and my wife the same treatment they would have given a thin person? ( Their lack of attention to our symptoms may have made our stroke happen faster than it would have in thin patients) but just like this will someone needing blood be able to justify not getting it because they wouldn’t have a chair that fit a human being?

    1. Denny, I am very sorry for the struggles you are going through. It is absolutely heartbreaking You are a very nice man who deserves to be treated like a king, not in the shameful way you have been treated by your doctors.

  10. Is it possible to reach out to a main Red Cross office that over sees the ones in the area and make a complaint, or offer to work with individual donation sites on accommodating fat people? (or barring that just plain make a complaint against the one you were at!)

  11. Not only fat people, but people in wheelchairs! They couldn’t accommodate a person in a wheelchair, in that sort of set-up. Did they not even have ONE wheelchair accessible room? If it’s an old building, with an old set-up, they might get around ADA requirements, being “grandfathered in,” as they say. But if they’re new, or only fairly recent, then they are clearly in violation of the ADA, for wheelchair accessibility, alone.

    And plenty of people in wheelchairs are able to donate blood. If they lost a limb, or lost the use of a limb due to nerve damage, the blood is still just fine.

    How can people who are supposed to be all about HELPING people be so DAMAGING?!

    “Oh, we have people whose lives depend on donors, but we can’t just take a fat donor! Or a donor in a wheelchair! Or a claustrophobic donor! That would be bad.”

  12. I hope we get an update on this one. I’d love to hear what the problem was. It makes no sense to me.

    Although we have a mobile unit come out to get blood donations, and I will ask them next time to ensure there are no hangups for our employees. Hasn’t been so far but perhaps someone has refrained from donating due to a fear of something like this person’s experience, and I’d hate to have that happen.

  13. Gah! First of all, thank you so much for donating platelets. I’ve needed platelet transfusions a couple of times and likely will again at some point. Second of all, tell the Red Cross I said :P.

  14. The last time we had a Blood Drive at my work I contacted the person through my work who was organizing it to get a contact number for her contact person at Red Cross, and then I called him and told him I was scheduled to donate, [context-they were giving out free shirts to donators during this drive] and asked him if he could arrange to have some larger shirts sent with the bus that comes to do the drive. I told him I need a 3x minimum to fit me and there are several large people at my work, can you make sure they bring more than just 2x and below, like they did the last couple of times they brought t-shirts. He said he would try to let the people know who would be organizing this blood drive or getting all the stuff together for it but it would depend on the availability of the shirts and he made no promises. The day I tried to donate blood [heart rate too high] they still gave me a shirt but all they had was 1x…. thanks, I feel the appreciation.

  15. I’d love to hear the person in charge of this Red Cross chapter explain why a donor was treated in this way.
    Do they go out of their way to train their people to be ignorant and insensitive?

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