RICHMOND, Indiana – It was a day for heroes to honor fellow heroes Wednesday, April 3 at the Richmond Fire Department’s downtown fire station. RFD ceremoniously received the first Community Blood Center (CBC) “Cuffs and Ladders” Blood Drive challenge trophy from retired captain Mel Ponder, who spent 36 years fighting fires and saving lives – and the last 10 battling a life-threatening blood disease.
Mel was the guest of honor at the blood drive, held Saturday, March 30 at the Richmond CBC Donor Center. It featured a friendly competition between the Richmond Police and Fire Departments to recruit the most blood donors. The fire fighters claimed the trophy by receiving the most “votes.” There were special t-shirts, refreshments, emergency vehicles, mascots (SAL the Bloodhound, McGruff the Crime Dog and Sparky the Fire Dog), Mel’s photos and turn-out gear on display, and a live radio remote broadcast by KICKS 96.
The idea for the drive came from Mel’s daughter Vicki Parks and 17-year-old granddaughter Chloe Parks, who is a CBC volunteer. Mel receives blood transfusions every two weeks as life-saving treatment for the blood disease myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS).
“My bone marrow doesn’t produce red cells,” said Mel. He remembers no early sign of the disease during his 36 years as a firefighter. He stayed active after retiring in 1990, but found that he would be deferred when he tried to donate blood due to low hemoglobin. Finally his red blood cell count plunged, just as a snow storm hit Richmond. “The snow was so deep,” he recalled. “My neighbors pitched in and made a path to get me to the hospital.”
His first treatments involved chemotherapy, but family members say it seemed to do more harm than good. “He got a new oncologist who said, ‘Let’s try blood transfusions,’” says Mel’s daughter Vicki. “He did better on that than anything. So for four years now, it’s been strictly blood transfusions. That’s all. That’s what’s keeping him going.”
Chloe shared the connection between Mel’s treatment and the “Cuffs and Ladders” blood drive with the ranks of firefighters assembled in front of the fire station for the trophy presentation. “The only think keeping my Papaw alive is the blood transfusions,” she said. “He gets two units of blood every two weeks. Our family wanted to find a way to ‘pay it forward’ to all heroes – blood donors and first responders.”
“You never know when it will be you that will be needing blood,” she said. “You don’t like to think about it, even in a job when one bad call could mean you need a transfusion. Not having enough blood is a matter of life and death.”
KICKS 96 account executive Laura Bailey worked closely with CBC representative Melinda Frech organizing the drive and securing sponsors. “Melinda said she wanted 50 donors and we had 46,” she said. “We did help people and we look forward to next year!”
Standing without his walker, Mel presented Lt. Harold Erbse with the Cuffs and Ladders trophy. Earlier Mel had talked about the close-knit community in the fire house. “We were all here 24 hours,” he said. We would cook, eat and sleep together, and we would treat each alarm the same when it came in – like it was my family, my home.”
Though Mel must now rely on the sacrifices of others for his life-saving treatment, he encourages the community to support the common cause of blood donation. “I say to people it’s not just for me,” said Mel, “but for all the people you know, your family or close friends who may need blood.”