Saving Lives, One Pint at a Time

Suzy Hopkins
By Suzy Hopkins June 15, 2008 10:52

Dominic DiFabio was a 22-year-old Navy sailor stationed in Oakland when he first started donating blood in 1956. “They said, if you donate blood, you get a weekend pass.” He rolled up his sleeves in a hurry.

“Then, when I was on an aircraft carrier in the Philippines, they said, ‘A movie star will hold your hand as you give blood,’ and of course we all volunteered for that.”

After leaving the Navy, DiFabio began to donate blood to a relative who needed constant transfusions. Fourteen years ago, Dominic and his wife Lorraine retired to Tuolumne County and began volunteering and giving blood at quarterly mobile blood drives in Sonora.

When Stockton-based Delta Blood Bank opened its Sonora center 18 months ago, Dominic was one of the first to stop by. He is the center’s oldest active donor and its most prolific lifetime donor, with a total of 16.5 gallons. He donates as often as allowed (six times a year, about once every eight weeks or so), always on a Wednesday, right after bowling.

For DiFabio, who works part-time at a local fast-food restaurant, the act of giving blood never gets old. In fact, when asked what he would tell someone who is reluctant to donate, his voice lifts with emotion.

“There’s such a feeling of giving, knowing that you’re helping somebody else,” says the 73-year-old Sonora man. “It just makes me feel so good to do it. I know that in some way my blood is giving somebody else life.”

That’s the type of compassion Delta medical director Dr. Benjamin Spindler has come to expect from Tuolumne County seniors. He credits their generosity as a key to the Sonora center’s success – and one of the reasons Delta decided to build the state-of-the-art center here.

“Every time we were in Sonora doing our mobile drive, it was very obvious that this was a very connected community,” Spindler says. “There was a spirit here that was very easy to see. People here just seemed to be connected and unified in the way that they experienced their community.”

The comments he regularly hears from Sonora seniors – “It’s important that we donate blood, it’s part of our civic contribution” – mesh perfectly with the blood bank’s mission: to ensure that enough blood is in stock to meet the daily life-and-death needs in six counties, including Tuolumne, Calaveras and Stanislaus.

Sonora Blood Bank ranks highest for donations – units of blood per community of its size – among Delta’s 12 blood centers. Those centers are part of a highly coordinated effort to save the lives of accident victims, surgical patients and others in medical crisis. Delta’s job is to supply 16 area hospitals with enough blood and byproducts to keep pace with a fluctuating and ever-growing demand.

Meeting that demand involves a complex system of collecting, testing, preparing, and distributing this unique substance that can only be created within the human body. And it can only be obtained from volunteers who are in good health, have an hour to spare, and can cope with the minor indignity of a needle prick.

All the blood collected locally is distributed within Delta’s service region, with much of it returning to Tuolumne County for use at Sonora Regional Medical Center, according to Spindler. At every stage of the flow from donor to end user, time is of the essence.

“When a person needs blood, you can’t tell that person that it will be available in a couple of days, that you’ve got it on back order,” Spindler says. “When it’s a life-threatening event, it’s got to be there. We try to plan so that it’s readily available – in the hospital, on the refrigerator shelf – usually within minutes. For that system to work there’s a lot that goes into it.”

First and foremost: donors. More than 5,000 people have donated at the Sonora center since it opened in 2006. The center gathers about 100 pints each week from about 25 donors a day, four days a week. “We’d like to increase that to 30 donors a day, and about 125 units per week,” says Spindler.

Registered nurse Cindi Myers has been in charge of the center since it opened. Seniors comprise about 60 percent of donors, she says, and are a big reason for its success.

“I tell people that most donors feel better when they give blood regularly,” she says. “When you donate, essentially you are shedding old blood cells. Many of our regulars, women especially, often say they feel better afterward.”

Karen Gray used to own a Sonora restaurant before becoming a phlebotomist at the Sonora center. She had never donated before.

“Before I started here, I had no idea how important blood donation is, and I think that’s true of a lot of people unless they’ve needed blood or know someone who has,” she says. “One unit of blood has the potential to save between one and three lives.”

There are other incentives. Donors get a free mini-physical and a blood-iron test. They also accrue “points” that quickly translate into theater and movie tickets, fast food, even motel stays. Come back within seven days of next eligibility and the donation points double. Points can also be applied to blood insurance plans; just one pint covers blood costs (hospitals charge $200-$300 a pint, Gray says) for an entire family for a year.

The beautifully appointed center –a sunlit study in wood, stone and soaring arched ceilings – offers high-speed wireless internet access, a café, and a conference room that groups can use for free if a few members donate blood periodically.

Spindler says the center, the most elaborate within the Delta system, will serve as a template for future sites: a multi-use community meeting place dedicated to meeting one of the community’s most basic needs.

And seniors take note: If you’re in good health, there’s no upper age limit. Dominic DiFabio, for one, plans to keep giving “until they tell me I can’t do it anymore.”

Sonora Blood Bank

Location: 850 Sanguinetti Rd., Sonora (next to Rite Aid)

Phone: (209) 536-5801


© 2008, Friends and  Neighbors Magazine

Suzy Hopkins
By Suzy Hopkins June 15, 2008 10:52
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