DAYTON, Ohio – “What do you do here?” “Do you shop for groceries?” “Do you stand in line?” Al Whitney of Avon Lake, OH has traveled every state in America to donate precious blood products and ask perfect strangers some personal questions.
His most important question, and for some the most difficult to answer, is always “Are you a blood donor?” He was no less shy when he visited Community Blood Center (CBC) in Dayton Friday, Jan. 18 to donate platelets (his 718th lifetime platelet donation, in addition to his “five gallons” in whole blood donations).
It was Al’s first visit to CBC since Feb. 27, 2008 when Dayton was one of the stops on his “Platelets Across America” tour. He hit the road in 2007 determined to donate platelets in every state. He reached his goal with a donation in Casper, WY on Aug. 8, 2012. It was the end of the quest, but not the end of his life-long mission.
“I started in 2007 and got to all 50 states in less than five years, doing 10 blood banks a year,” he said. “It’s been exciting for me. I learned a lot and I passed on all I learned from blood banks to other blood banks.”
Al can remember how early models of automated blood machines could overheat if the rear vents were too close to a wall. As he donates at CBC he gives the phlebotomists friendly but firm instructions (“Seal the machine off, open the clamp, clear it out, draw a second tube…”) on how to get a more accurate reading of his platelet count. (He takes the information with him as he visits new blood centers that have no records of his blood donations).
But technical knowledge is not what Al values most from his travels. He likes to ask staff members “What do you do here?” so he can stop them as they give a title or job description and say, “No – you save lives. Because of what you do at the blood bank every day, somebody is going to have another birthday.”
To Al, everyone’s job description ought to be “blood donor recruiter,” and he has practiced what he preaches in all 50 states. He may start by asking if you shop for groceries… if you wait in line to pay for them… and if you ever thought about asking the person next to you if they are a blood donor. “Most people will say, ‘No one ever asked me before,’” said Al. “I asked a waitress once, and the next day she and a girlfriend were down at the blood bank donating.”
If Al wasn’t so persistent, he wouldn’t have reached his goal of donating in every state. West Virginia receives platelets from centers in Pittsburgh, but Al needed to donate in the actual state. “The Pittsburgh blood bank got permission from the FDA to move machines over to the blood drive in West Virginia and collect platelets,” he said. “I was the first platelet donor in the state of West Virginia.”
At age 76, Al is allowing himself to keep a slower pace. He coordinated a blood drive every Saturday night from 1985 up until he retired in 2000. Becoming an apheresis donor inspired the Platelets Across America tour, with many miles behind the wheel going from center to center. “The hardest part was when I had to leave,” he said. “I would usually spend three or four days there and got to know people.”
He’s still traveling to meet with civic groups or re-visit centers like CBC. Donating in 50 states was a challenging bucket list, but only a number. “That wasn’t my mission,” he said. “My mission was to get as many people as I can to be a blood donor. Am I done with that? Nope!”