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Man traveling country to encourage platelet donations

by Valerie Baldowski

valdowski@henryherald.com

Local blood banks have found an ally in 71-year-old Al Whitney.

Whitney was in McDonough Wednesday as part of a nationwide mission to encourage people to donate blood platelets.

The retired Avon Lake, Ohio resident, and founder of an organization called Platelets Across America, is traveling to all 50 states, to visit local blood centers and promote platelet donations.

According to Sheila Zachow, the district community development coordinator for LifeSouth Community Blood Centers, Whitney's visit to LifeSouth's Southern Crescent office was his 30th stop, and his 639th platelet donation.

"Platelets are the clotting factor in your blood," said Whitney, who is paying for most of his own traveling expenses, and will be in Georgia until Friday, before heading to North and South Dakota.

His story began more than 40 years ago. "I've been a volunteer working with blood banks since 1965," he said. One day in 1965, in downtown Cleveland, Ohio, he saw a sign on the outside of a local blood bank asking for donations. "I went in and donated," he said. "When I walked out of the blood bank, I stood there and said to myself, 'I can do more than this.'"

Whitney said he went home, called the local-area blood bank and expressed his interested in operating a blood bank. The blood bank officials agreed to his request, and Whitney organized his first blood drive. "I ended up with six units of blood," he said.

He said he continued organizing blood drives, and donating, until the early 1970s, when he was asked to donate platelets. "That's when the infancy of the process started," he said. He continued organizing blood drives, he said, until retiring in 2000. "That year, I collected 2,069 units," he said.

From then on, he focused solely on donating platelets locally, until 2007, when another idea occurred to him. "I was lying there donating platelets, and I said, 'I can do more than this,'" Whitney said.

It was then that he decided to donate platelets at blood banks in all 50 states, and let each facility use him for publicity to raise awareness of the need for such donations.

Zachow, who met Whitney after she learned of his crusade -- through the American Blood Center -- expressed admiration for his drive and determination.

"He's a wonderful, motivating and very inspiring person," said Zachow. "It's been eye-opening and very refreshing."

She said she was awed by Whitney's commitment to bring more donors into local blood centers, and said she hopes his firsthand accounts of how he donated blood and platelets will help remove the fear some people have of donating.

"That takes a lot of excuses out of people's hands," added Zachow.

Whitney stressed the importance of donating platelets, which he said are used primarily for cancer patients, burn victims, and women who experience excessive bleeding when giving birth.

The most satisfying aspect of his campaign, he said, is encouraging others to donate platelets and whole blood after hearing his message.