Ohio man crisscrosses the country asking people to give the gift of life
Despite his kind and gentle demeanor, Al Whitney is out for blood.
Whitney meets a lot of people in his travels back and forth across the country. After he says "hello," he'll ask you whether you are a blood donor. Answer in the affirmative and you have an instant new best friend.
Hesitate, and he'll boldly ask you why not.
"It's the easiest thing in the world, and you could be saving somebody's life," Whitney said.
That's been Whitney's mantra since 1965 when he saw a sign saying "Donate blood here." He followed the sign's instruction, and then when he walked out, he said he had an epiphany on the sidewalk.
"That was so easy – I could do even more." Whitney's "more" was to offer to run blood drives on behalf of the Lorain County Blood Bank in his Avon Lake community, located west of Cleveland, Ohio.
With the blood bank's support and encouragement, Whitney began arranging bloodmobile visits to his church every eight weeks, the time cycle for a person to donate, rejuvenate their blood supply and donate again. Sometime in the late 1960s or early 1970s, he converted his whole blood donations to platelet donations. That allowed him to be eligible to donate every two weeks, up to 24 times a year.
Platelets are a blood component that aid the clotting factor in a medical patient recipient. The donation process is similar to giving whole blood, but the blood is passed through a machine that separates the platelets and returns the blood right back into the donor's body.
In 1985, he realized if his donors had another commitment during the time the bloodmobile was at the church they would miss their every 8-week opportunity.
His "I can do more," attitude kicked in and he began to schedule weekly drives every Saturday, in addition to his every 8-week church visit bloodmobile visits. He was a regular donor himself and always on the lookout to recruit new donors.
When he retired from his job as head of maintenance for a manufacturing company in 2000, he also backed away from his blood bank sponsorship. He set a goal of "2,000 in 2000," determined to urge 2,000 donors to give in his final year of blood bank coordination. He surpassed his goal by 69 units.
Whitney has personally donated five gallons of whole blood and about 720 units of platelets.
Although no longer coordinating the blood drives, Whitney continued his platelet donations on a regular basis.
In the fall of 2007, Whitney had another "I can do more than this" epiphany. He started a nonprofit corporation, "Platelets across America" and determined to donate in each of the 50 states, and to evangelize donors through news media outlets as he did so. Now, five years later, he has donated in every state and has made multiple visits to several states, including Pennsylvania. He finances his travels with his Social Security payments.
Whitney said he is often asked why he continues to be a blood donation advocate.
"Walk through a hospital cancer care ward and you'll have your answer," Whitney responds.
Chemotherapy cancer treatments kill blood cells as well as cancer cells, he said. In his advocacy trips, Whitney has visited his share of cancer patients and children's wards to see for himself the value of donating blood or blood products. He said many of the visits can be heartbreaking, and he has seen a lot of personal bravery as well as suffering.
Sometimes what he sees can be troubling, but "I cope by doing what I do" he says. On her death bed two years ago, Whitney's wife extracted a promise from her husband. "Al, I want you to keep on doing what you're doing," she said before her passing.
Whitney has had the personal experience of having three of his donor recruits coming to him later and telling him donating blood had literally saved their own lives. "The blood donor screening process is so thorough and comprehensive that the three donors were found to have potentially fatal medical conditions discovered while they were still in an early stage, and could be treated," Whitney said. "My doctors would not have known about my medical condition until it killed me," was the message his recruits gave him.
Whitney said his "I can do more" attitude originated outside himself.
"I have been led on this journey," he said. "I have no idea what I'm doing, but it works. I'm being led by the Lord, and I've met some of the most wonderful people in the world in blood donation centers.
"You tell your readers to call the Miller-Keystone Blood Center and arrange a time to donate," was Whitney's closing remark during his Lehigh Valley media visit. "They'll be giving a gift of life to someone."