PORTSMOUTH, Va. (NNS) -- With a clear mission in mind, the "Platelets Across America" founder came to Naval Medical Center Portsmouth's blood donation center March 20 to make a donation, his 721st in the 50 years he has been donating whole blood and platelets.
Al Whitney's trip to Virginia from his home state of Ohio focused on two things - giving his platelets to someone in the Armed Forces or one of their family members, and spreading the word about the importance of donating.
"This is just something that I feel I have to do," Whitney said about his frequent donations over the years and his decision to donate at NMCP. "This is only the third time I have donated at an Armed Forces Blood Program location. I donate because I know I can do more."
Blood donations at this time of year are just picking up after the typical lull around the holidays, and Whitney's donations were welcomed by the staff in the laboratory.
Whitney chatted with lab staff, telling some jokes, talking about his wife and relating a few stories of his trips to other donation centers, before getting comfortable in the donor chair and settling in for the nearly two-hour platelet donation process. Whitney knows the routine well; he donates the maximum, which is every two weeks.
The Avon Lake, Ohio, native started donating blood in Cleveland in 1965. It began with a sign urging "Donate Blood." So he did. After his first donation, he decided he had more to give.
"I stopped on the sidewalk, and it was as clear to me right now as it was then," Whitney said. "I heard something that said, 'You can do more than this.' I went home, called my church, and I called my local blood bank and told them I wanted to run a blood drive.
"The person at the blood bank said, 'Great, have you ever run a blood drive before?' I said no, and they weren't too enthused," Whitney said. "They must have thought, 'Yeah, he's going to run a blood drive, like it's so simple.' Well, I ran my first blood drive and it was a huge success. (I) collected three units of blood, and I thought that was great because there's only one way to go after that."
Whitney continued to donate blood and run blood drives, dedicating many hours to the cause, in addition to his primary job performing maintenance in factories. Then he began organizing drives every Saturday so people could fit blood donation into their schedule, running them until he retired in 2000.
In his retirement, he continued to donate platelets, but in 2007, Whitney once again felt called to do more. He decided to donate in every state and become a spokesman to raise awareness about the need for blood products. Whitney has reached his goal to donate in every state and continues to make visits across the country. He funds his own trips, driving himself on each one.
During the trips and between them, he mentors others who work at blood banks across the nation to help them improve their operation. Using the experience of organizing blood drives, he helps them figure out how to recruit donors, plan what brochures and materials to pass out and how to improve the donor's experience.
NMCP's lab staff was grateful to have him visit, donate and pass along some of his tips. They presented him with a plaque and an Armed Services Blood Program coin to thank him for his contributions.
"I think what he's doing is a very good thing," said Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class (SW) Todd Woodard, an apheresis technologist. "We wish he was here locally so we could see him more often. I hope that people are seeing what he's doing and think, 'If he's doing it, I can do it too.'"
Ralph Peters, NMCP blood donor recruiter, said, "We're very happy he's here, both as a person and as a donor."
Whitney says he will donate as long as he can, and dreads the day he's told that he can no longer donate. His wife was his biggest cheerleader. Before she died two years ago, she made him promise two things: to continue to donate and to see Mount Rushmore when he went to South Dakota.
Whitney does not usually take the time to sightsee while traveling, but in keeping his promise to his wife, a remarkable thing happened.
"I was in the gift shop and had my jacket on with my logo on the back," Whitney said. "I was standing face-to-face with the shop clerk when a woman comes and physically pushes me and the clerk apart. She throws her arms around me, gives me a hug and says, 'Thank you. It's because of people like you that I'm alive today.' When she was 14, she received platelets and whole blood. You never know who you're donating for, and it doesn't matter to me."
It's that very idea of saving someone's life is why he urges everyone he meets to donate.
"Think about the importance," Whitney said. "Take the time and make a difference in someone's life. The greatest gift you can give someone is the gift of life, and that's what you're doing by donating.
"The saddest part of my trip is when I'm done donating," Whitney said. "I just love blood banks. The people in there are some of the best people. They save lives every day they come to work. Doctors can't do their jobs without what they are doing."
NMCP hopes to recruit about 70 donors each month.
Other locations and donation requirements can be found on the ASBP website, www.militaryblood.dod.mil.
To learn more about Platelets Across America, visit www.plateletsacrossamerica.com.
For more information, visit www.navy.mil, www.facebook.com/usnavy, or www.twitter.com/usnavy.
For more news from Naval Medical Center Portsmouth, visit www.navy.mil/local/NMCP/.