(Editor’s note: These photos were taken before the new coronavirus pandemic. All donors and staff are now required to wear a mask.)
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 a total of 71 times (as of June 2019 when this article was first published) to give up his platelets, plasma and red blood cells, doing his part to replenish northern Colorado’s much needed stores.
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 because 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 69-year old said he often bookends his two-hour appointments with a detour to the grocery store and lunch.
“It’s a no brainer,” Turner gushed.
In the six years since he began, Turner typically has given up his red blood cells about every other month, and platelets and plasma about 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? Some people have been there 100 times, and I want to get there too.”
Why donate blood?
Platelets are continuously in high demand in northern Colorado, according to Kaitlin Zobel, blood donor recruiter for the Garth Englund Blood Donation Center in Fort Collins. And what comes though the center 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,” Zobel said. “We only have so many in our database that donate platelets on a regular basis and the bottom line is that platelet transfusions are outnumbering the donations we’re getting.”
According to Zobel, platelet transfusions have sustained an upward trend. The weekly target levels 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 counts
Blood is composed of several important components. Plasma is the base, made of mostly 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 blood clot to reduce bleeding after injury, the first step toward healing damaged tissues. Each of the parts can be safely transfused to patients that 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, Zobel said.
But summer brings more outdoor activity and more traumas, especially motorcycle and car wrecks, that 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, Zobel can’t thank him enough.
“Simon is very passionate about donating, and we love that,” said Zobel, whose roles include coordinating blood drives, as well as marketing and community outreach. And she stays busy throughout the year facilitating communication between donors and staff.
“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.”
It just became a habit
The 69-year-old Australian native can’t quite remember what prompted his initial visit to Garth Englund six years ago, nor 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 donors — 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 pre-qualification, Zobel said, ensures that the donation is safe for both donor and potential recipient.
Come one, come all
Donors of all blood types are encouraged.
Blood needs can depend on timing and what is currently available. The most desired types for red blood cells are O-negative and positive, and AB and B for platelet donors.
“We’ll always take platelets,” Zobel said. “We don’t discriminate against your platelets.”
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,” Zobel said. “Because here’s the bottom line: Platelets save lives.”
Again, why donate blood?
As an avid lifetime exerciser who has run nine marathons, biked and cross country skied, and still swims regularly, Turner feels that his good health mandates 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: like needles, the idea of removing substances that are clearly supposed to remain in their own veins, and the time commitment.
But Turner said he’s had no adverse effects, either during or after the process, and can even begin exercising within hours of the donation. In fact, when cruising the aisles at the market afterwards, 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 in perspective a bit differently. “I’m big on helping my fellow man. And I’m going to keep going until the day I die.”