BILLINGS — Nobody in Al Whitney’s family has ever needed a blood transfusion. But that’s not why he is the force behind a program called “Platelets Across America,” and not the reason he started donating whole blood back in 1965.

Whitney said he was simply inspired by a sign in Avon Lake, Ohio, asking for donors. Not long after his first donation, he contacted a nearby blood bank about organizing a blood drive at his church.

With that support, Whitney donated blood and coordinated drives every eight weeks.

In the early 1970s, he decided to donate blood platelets rather than whole blood.

“Platelets are primarily used by cancer patients and burn victims,” Whitney explained. “They act as the clotting factor in the blood.

Amazing human body

“The body is constantly making platelets. When you cut yourself, it goes into overdrive and makes more. The body is a wonderful machine we live in.”

According to information from United Blood Services in Billings, platelets are also used in large quantities by aplastic anemia and marrow transplant patients. They are also used during surgery to help stop bleeding.

Whole-blood donations contain around an ounce of platelets, and it takes between five and 10 donors to provide enough platelets for a single transfusion. When someone gives platelets — called a pheresis donation — a cell separator collects the donation, removes the platelets and returns the rest of the blood back to the donor. In the two hours it typically takes to donate platelets, one donor can provide enough for one transfusion.

High demand

“Platelets rarely, if ever, go to waste because there’s such a high demand for them,” Whitney said. “They only have a shelf life of five days. The first two days they have to be tested, so that really only leaves three.”

In 1985, Whitney expanded his blood drive efforts and scheduled one every Saturday and once every eight weeks on a Monday evening. That worked out to about 56 blood drives each year. In 2000, Whitney’s final year of organizing drives, his events brought in 2,069 units for LifeShare Community Blood Services in Elyria, Ohio. He, of course, continued to donate platelets.

Five years ago, Whitney told himself, “I can do more than this.”

Deciding to donate platelets in every state across the United States, he worked with America’s Blood Centers and launched Platelets Across America.

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So far, Whitney has hit 48 states, including Alaska and Hawaii, with two to go: Montana and Wyoming.

“Al contacted United Blood Services and explained what he was doing,” said Carrie Rigney, a senior donor recruitment representative. “We are a Rocky Mountain region, helping both Montana and Wyoming. It’s so important for people to know that there can never be too many platelet donors.”

Rigney said Billings has the only center in Montana with the resources to collect platelets, so where Whitney would donate was an easy call.

“We also decided on Casper (Wyoming), because they struggle greatly there for platelet donations,” she said. “We thought that would be the perfect place for Al to do his 50th donation and help raise awareness.”

Whitney has also donated platelets as far away as Canada and Australia.

“I’m not a large organization,” he said. “I’m pretty much doing this with my Social Security. And the whole purpose is to raise awareness.”

Out of every 100 people, Whitney said only about 37 would be eligible to donate blood or platelets for various reasons. Out of that 37 people, only an average of 1.8 actually do donate.

“I remind these places what I learned in my years as a volunteer for successful blood drives,” he said. “Do you know what one of the major reasons is that people don’t donate?

“Nobody asks them.”

After Whitney planned to donate in Billings last week, he headed for Casper, Wyo., on Aug. 8. He plans to make return trips to the many states that are interested in having him back.

Platelet donations

Donating platelets is not painful and is very safe, according to United Blood Services. Plateletpheresis donors must be at least 16, weigh 110 pounds and be in good health. The entire process usually takes two hours or less. The human body is able to replenish its supply of platelets quickly, and donations can be made every seven days.

For more information about platelet donation, call United Blood Services at 248-9168. Or, for blood donations, call the Butte office at 723-3264. For more information about Whitney and his Platelets Across America program, visit www.plateletsacrossamerica.org

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