Anthony “Simon” Turner has a standing date with a needle. And he couldn’t be more excited about it.
Since 2013, Turner has visited UCHealth Garth Englund Blood Donation Center more than 100 times to give up his platelets, plasma and red blood cells, doing his part to replenish this northern Colorado’s much-needed resource.
Turner’s ultimate number may end up someday being a record, but that’s not the point. Because of his consistency, his community is healthier.
“The reason I’m so passionate about it is that I understand the biology of how important this is,” Turner said. “Especially for transplant patients and cancer patients.”
A retired professor of veterinary medicine at Colorado State University, Turner has spent much of his 30-plus year career doing research using animals, like sheep, as a model for human diseases to help develop treatments for diseases like osteoporosis. As such, he has personally witnessed the benefits of blood donation on his furrier patients and considers his ability to share his vital fluids so prodigiously a privilege, and even a responsibility.
Living several blocks away from the blood donation center doesn’t hurt either. The physically fit and energetic 72-year old said he often books his two-hour appointments with a detour to the grocery store and lunch.
“It’s a no-brainer,” Turner gushed.
In the nine years since he began donating, Turner typically has given red blood cells about every other month and platelets and plasma every month, waiting the minimum required time between donations.
“I’m a bored retiree and it’s walking distance from my house,” he joked. “What more could you want?”
The importance of donating platelets
Platelets are continuously in high demand in northern Colorado, according to Anna Johnson, manager of laboratory services at the Garth Englund Blood Donation Centers. What comes through the centers in Fort Collins and Loveland stays in the area to treat patients.
“We love our donors, but we need more to be able to keep up with the demand at the hospitals,” Johnson said. “We only have so many in our database who donate platelets on a regular basis and the bottom line is that platelet transfusions are outnumbering the donations we’re getting.”
According to Johnson, platelet transfusions have sustained an upward trend. The weekly target level for donations is 25 units/week, with the eventual hope to shift that target to 32.
“One whole blood donation (one pint) can treat, heal, and very well save the life of up to three different patients,” she said. “Our goal is to be completely 100% supported by our own donors.”
Every drop of blood helps
Blood is composed of several important components. Plasma is the base, made up mostly of water. Red blood cells pick up oxygen from the lungs and transport it via the circulatory system to every cell in the body, providing energy. Platelets help the blood clot to reduce bleeding after injury, the first step toward healing damaged tissues. Each of the parts can be safely transfused to patients who need them when in the hospital.
The year-round need for blood products exists mostly for those with chronic diseases, especially cancer patients, who often need platelet transfusions, Johnson said.
But warmer weather brings more outdoor activity and more accidents, especially motorcycle and car wrecks, which make the demand for blood supplies and platelet supplies even more severe.
So, when the effervescent Turner shows up for his standing date, brandishing a homemade lasagna, the blood bank staff can’t thank him enough.
“Simon is very passionate about donating, and we love that,” Johnson said.
“He loves the community aspect of it,” she continued. “We know that people like Simon are making a difference because without us having platelets in stock in the laboratory or available from purchase from outside blood banks, a lot of patients could suffer serious consequences.”
Make donating platelets a habit – 12 times a year
A native of Australia, Turner can’t quite remember what prompted his initial visit to Garth Englund or what spurred his zeal to start his impressive streak. He does, however, recall two hospital visits after bike accidents, eight and 28 years ago, that helped him realize the perpetual need to help out his neighbors.
“I saw people rolling around in wheelchairs, and amputees from war injuries, and that was a wake-up call,” he said.
Donating blood requires an appointment because the process can take one to two hours depending on what you’re donating. All donors fill out a questionnaire each time to ensure that they qualify based on their health, specifically relating to their disease history. That is followed by an interview with a phlebotomist, the health care professional who draws the blood, to obtain even more details.
First-time “apheresis” donations— as platelet and plasma donors are called — also get a platelet count, to make sure they are healthy enough to give. Females have an extra test to see if they are positive or negative, which takes about a week to get results.
The redundancy in eligibility requirements, Johnson said, ensures that the donation is safe for both the blood donor and potential recipient.
Come one, come all to the donor centers
Donors of all blood types are encouraged.
Blood needs can depend on timing and what is currently available. The most desired types of blood for red cells are O-negative and positive and type AB and B for platelet donors.
“We’ll always take (blood) platelets,” Johnson said.
After the registration process, someone checks your vital signs, explains the process thoroughly, and the apheresis donor gets hooked up to a machine — which Turner raves about.
“It’s very impressive. You can’t just walk up and buy it at Sears,” he said. “I’ve talked to friends and told them to watch me all hooked up.”
Donors can watch television, read or use their portable devices as diversions. Turner prefers to listen to CDs — classics like the Glenn Miller Orchestra and 1960s rock and roll — and chats up the techs and employees.
“We’ll bring you heated blankets, water, juice, Gatorade, tums, whatever you need to feel comfortable,” Johnson said. “Because here’s the bottom line: Platelets save lives.”
Good health has him helping others in need
As an avid, lifetime athlete, who swims regularly, has run nine marathons, biked and cross country skied, Turner feels that his good health requires him to give back to his community.
While he is clearly unafraid of the donation process, he also understands why people without a medical background would be squeamish. Some people fear needles, worry about giving up blood or feel they don’t have time.
But Turner said he’s had no adverse effects, either during or after the process, and can even begin exercising within hours of each donation (although strenuous exercise should be avoided that day). In fact, when cruising the aisles at the market afterward, he makes a point to show off the cotton swab taped to the front of his right elbow, just so people will ask about it.
“They’ll say, ‘What happened to him?’” Turner said in a slow whisper, leaning in close. “And I’ll respond, ‘I donated blood … and you should too.’”
Then, Turner puts it a bit differently. “I’m big on helping my fellow man. And I’m going to keep going until the day I die.”
(This story was originally written in June 2019 but was updated to reflect Turner’s 100th platelet donation at Garth Englund Blood Donation Center. All donors and staff are required to wear masks at the donation centers.)