Al Whitney can check another state off his list. The 71-year-old Ohio man has made it his personal mission to donate blood platelets in all 50 states. This week he visited Memorial Blood Centers in Minnesota.
Whitney started his tour in 2007, and already he's more than halfway to his goal. Minnesota is the 29th state on his platelet donation tour. He would have come here sooner, but he's paying for the travel out of his own pocket.
"I'm old and retired, and I have to find cheap airline fares," said Whitney.
You would think if he's paying for his travels out of his own pocket, that Whitney would have a profound personal story that explained his passion for platelets -- the small cell fragments that help promote clotting. Nope.
Whitney, a retired factory worker, says he just realized one day that there was a need he could help fill. That was many, many years ago.
"It goes all the way back to 1965, and I was in downtown Cleveland. I saw a sign that said 'Donate blood.' I walked in, donated, and it's as vivid to me as if it happened right now," said Whitney. "I walked out on the sidewalk and I said, 'You know, I can do more than this.'"
Whitney started by organizing blood drives. In the early years he was one of his biggest customers. Whitney has personally donated more than five gallons of blood.
But then he got drawn in by platelets, which don't get as much attention as whole blood. So Whitney saw an opportunity to boost their profile.
Whitney's quest has taken him all over the U.S., and this week brought him to Memorial Blood Center in St. Paul, where he chatted with first-time platelet donor Tom Claesgens of St. Paul.
Claesgens has donated blood many times before, but he told Whitney he finally scheduled a platelet donation after he learned that a friend of his has cancer.
"It's at kind of an advanced stage right now, so she needs to have transfusions and she needs to get chemotherapy treatments. So I guess that has a lot to do with it," said Claesgens.
Cancer patients, in particular, often need extra infusions of platelets to replace the ones that are destroyed by cancer treatments like chemotherapy.
Whitney predicted Claesgens would feel so good about his platelet donation that he would soon become a regular platelet donor.
"Now you have to go home and recruit your family," Whitney told him. "You said you told your family about it. You've got to get them in here, donating whole blood and platelets."
A few beds away, Minneapolis resident Barb Kalvik marveled at Whitney's dedication to his cause.
"I think that's great. When I think about traveling I think I'm going to visit a ballpark, not give platelets in all the states," she said. "But maybe I should do that -- go to all the places that have a major league ballpark and give blood or platelets there."
Donating platelets does require more time than a standard blood donation -- usually around an hour and a half to two hours.
During the process, called apheresis or automated donation, blood is drawn from a vein and channeled through a small tube into a machine that separates out the platelets, and then returns the other blood components back to the donor.
Dr. Betsey Perry of Memorial Blood Center says that makes recovery much easier.
"You really feel fine when you leave from donating apheresis platelets because the fluids are equal," said Perry. "And we know you had plenty of platelets before you started, so you'll have plenty when you're done."
But the platelets have to be used quickly. They only have a shelf life of five days. So if there's a run on platelets at a local hospital due to illnesses or accidents, it doesn't take long for a shortage to develop. That happened in the metro area last weekend.
"We were short. We were short on red cells. We were short on platelets," said Perry. "It varies a lot, depending on how acute the patients are in the hospitals."
Memorial Blood Centers asked some of its employees to help replenish the supply.
Blood product shortages tend to happen more in the summer months. Perry says she hopes this summer will be an exception to that rule, thanks to Al Whitney's campaign.