Because you might need it, he’s been donating blood for more than 50 years

Feb. 13, 2023
Mark Nelson, who when asked why he donates blood, tells people it's because "You might need it."
Mark Nelson has been donating blood for more than 50 years. Photo: Kris Newcomer, for UCHealth.

By Kris Newcomer, for UCHealth

In all sorts of places and circumstances, Mark Nelson has donated blood six times every year for more than 50 years, earning him a place among northern Colorado’s most dedicated donors and doing his part to meet increasing demand.

A Fort Morgan native, Nelson’s lifelong “habit” of blood donation began in 1972, when he was an 18-year-old college freshman in Ottawa, Kansas. His soccer team was charging toward the field for a game when they heard a nurse in front of the student center call out, “’Hey guys! The basketball players just gave blood!’” Not to be outdone, Nelson and his teammates answered the call and rolled up their sleeves.

Blood collection is safe

Nelson, 69, a retired law enforcement officer living in Fort Collins, has seen tremendous change over the last 51 years. For one thing, his soccer team was sent directly to the field after donating blood on that spring day in 1972, which would not be advised today. Nelson’s subsequent donations occurred under the circumstances quite different than blood donors encounter now. “Back then, it might be a milk truck, or somebody’s basement,” Nelson recalled.

The science of blood handling has come a long way since then. Donated blood is now collected according to rigorous safety protocols, separated by sophisticated machinery into its components – red cells, platelets and plasma, each of which has specific clinical uses – and meticulously screened for pathogens. Surgical techniques have evolved, too, to reduce the amount of donated blood required for scheduled surgical procedures.

Eligible blood donors are always needed

But there remains no substitute for donated blood. One unit of blood (approximately one pint) can save three lives. The treatment of an array of medical conditions depends on it. Many cancer patients rely on it, as do some newborns and their mothers and, of course, people injured in car crashes, industrial accidents and mass-casualty events. Critically injured patients requiring rapid transfusion would not survive without it. “And that could be anybody,” said Nelson. “Nobody plans to be in an accident.”

Also unchanged is Nelson’s dedication. He eagerly shares his story and encourages others to donate blood, sometimes encountering curiosity from people who wonder: Has Nelson, himself, required blood? Was the life of a loved one saved by transfusion? “Sometimes people want to know, ‘Why?’” His simple answer is delivered with conviction. “I say, ‘Because you might need it.’”

Joe Dunn, donor recruiter at UCHealth Garth Englund Blood Center in Fort Collins, said Nelson is among an elite cadre of super-donors. Nelson’s lifetime total exceeds 40 gallons, enough blood to help a gymnasium full of people.

The need for blood donation has grown along with the population and escalated in 2022 when UCHealth Medical Center of the Rockies achieved Level I Trauma Center designation, recognized by the American College of Surgeons as equipped to provide the nation’s best available care for patients with life-threatening injuries. The hospital in Loveland is the only Level I Trauma Center north of metro-Denver.

Saving a life feels good

UCHealth Garth Englund Blood Center provides blood products for patients at Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Greeley Hospital, Longs Peak Hospital in Longmont and Estes Park Medical Center, as well as Medical Center of the Rockies. All blood donated through UCHealth Garth Englund is utilized locally, benefiting northern Coloradoans who might otherwise be forced to travel far from home for lifesaving care.

By donating blood, “you could be saving your neighbor’s life,” said Dunn.

There are three UCHealth blood donor centers in northern Colorado — in Fort Collins, Loveland and Greeley. To schedule a donation, create an account on the donor portal or call 970.495.8965.

Donors must be at least 18 years old (or 17 with parental permission) and show a photo ID. New blood donors should weigh at least 120 pounds. Prior donors should weigh at least 110 pounds and have had no complications with previous donations.