The first time Dennis Ellsworth gave blood, he really just wanted to have a good time. It was back in the 1970s, when he was in the Navy, and he and some fellow sailors had the bright idea that they'd get drunk faster if they donated first.
It may have worked, since he can't recall what port it was. (Don't try this at home, kids.)
Now, though, he and his brother Rick Ellsworth donate regularly, partly in tribute to a regular donor who helped their mother, and partly because a bloodmobile needed some repairs.
The Ellsworths run Wonder Brothers Auto Body, off the King Salmon exit of Highway 101. Ten years ago, when the shop was working on a bloodmobile, one of the mechanics asked if the blood bank could arrange a regular stop there. Once it did, the guys in the shop got on a steady schedule. Even Rick.
Rick hates needles. The cuts on his hands and arms from doing repairs with sharp tools and the jagged metal edges of wrecked cars don't bother him. But even after a decade of having his blood drawn, needles still do. Still, the bloodmobile was right there, and his brother Dennis, who got on board first, was hassling him. The very first time, Rick was so anxious that his blood pressure shot up and the nurse had to wait for him to relax and bring it back to normal.
"He had to lay down," Dennis says, laughing, as the brothers sit inside their body shop's wood-paneled trailer office.
Rick puts a hand on his coveralls over his heart and says he finally calmed down after a while. "Then they jabbed me with the frickin' needle!" he says, wild-eyed, "And they've done it every time since!"
Dennis leans into his desk, in full belly laugh.
The Northern California Community Blood Bank has about 1,475 regular donors (who give blood at least three times a year) like the Ellsworth brothers, and it is always looking for more. The regulars not only smooth out bumps in the blood supply, they can be life savers for those with special medical needs.
When the Ellsworths' mother was in her 30s, her appendix was nicked during an unrelated surgery. She lost a great deal of blood and needed multiple transfusions. Her blood type was rare, and she depended on repeated donations from one anonymous person in Eureka who was her match.
"Just one," says Dennis, the smile gone from under his thick moustache. "The only one who'd step up, anyway," adds Rick.
Their mother recovered, and the brothers, then just boys, were keenly aware of the need for blood, pint by pint.
Today, Dennis thinks he may have donated around three gallons, but Rick is sure his brother is closer to four. Rick has donated over five gallons of whole blood, as has their co-worker Rich Kelly.
On top of that, the Ellsworths reckon they've invited, cajoled and bullied about a dozen friends and family members to become repeat donors.
After the initial panic subsides, Rick says, the actual pain isn't that bad, and he expects to keep donating as long as he's able. "It's hard to just cut off something that's so important," he says, "It's a good deed." His brother calls it addictive.
Other donors share that enthusiasm. Robert Morones has been giving blood since he was 16, when his aunt talked him into it at a high school drive. Stories like his are one of the reasons the blood bank holds high school drives, where teens as young as 16 can donate with parental consent. For some of those young people, that begins a lifetime of giving.
In the back of a bloodmobile parked on Second Street in Eureka, Sharon Reid, a donor care specialist, swabs Morones' right arm with alcohol. Reid's laptop is showing a video of dolphins in the ocean, swimming to some bluegrass tunes that she calls "blood-pumpin' music." As donors sit in the bloodmobile's three adjustable chairs, they get a choice of an Angry Birds pig or bird to squeeze while their blood is drawn.
Since high school, Morones has donated about four times a year, usually in a bloodmobile. Nurses have told him he has great veins — prominent enough to be seen from across a room. He's also got good blood. It's O-negative, so it can be given quickly to people whose medical emergency is too pressing to wait for their blood to be typed, and it's free of cytomegalovirus, making it safe for babies and other vulnerable patients. That's one of the reasons he started donating regularly. "It felt good knowing my blood was going to little kids with serious illnesses," Morones says.
There's no way around it — the needle looks a little large. But the pain is brief. Blood, dark and berry colored, travels quickly, first to a small pouch that will in turn fill six vials for testing, and then to a pint bag. In less than six minutes, the machine beeps and the bag is full. Morones chooses a bright purple bandage. He knows his 7-year old daughter will like it.
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