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Photos by Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette
Elaine Williamson, with her dog, Lovie, has donated 74 pints of blood in her lifetime.

Giving the gift of health

Top blood donors take great pride in helping others

Bill Borgman has donated more than 18 gallons of blood during his life in northeast Indiana.

– Maybe the American Red Cross can steal the popular credit card ad campaign for its own slogan.

Instead of “What’s in your wallet?” the catch line can be “What’s in your veins?”

For Elaine Williamson, it’s Type O-positive.

“I was working at a store, and they had a blood drive, and my brother said you should always know your blood type,” says Williamson, 70. “And that’s one way to know your blood type.”

That “way” was to donate blood for the first time, back in her native state of Pennsylvania. It would hardly be the last.

With a documented 68 donations comprising 74 pints of blood – and numerous others in different states – Williamson is to blood-giving what Niagara Falls is to water.

She, and others who match her generosity, is what the Red Cross trumpets as regular donors – the lifeblood, if you will, of the organization.

“Without our regular donors, I’d hate to think of how many lives would be impacted, because there’s no substitute for blood,” says Tracy Fox, communications manager with the American Red Cross of Northeast Indiana. “There’s no artificial product that doctors can use at this point. And every two seconds, somewhere in the country, somebody needs blood products, whether it’s a cancer patient undergoing treatment or somebody who has been in a traffic accident or a premature baby who needs blood products.

“The reasons that people need blood products are numerous, and the only option we have is generous donors. We would be nowhere without our generous blood donors.”

While it was at the behest of her brother that initiated Williamson’s first donation, it was the U.S. Army in 1967 that suggested Bill Borgman give.

“They had a need for blood, and I donated then,” Borgman says. “When I got out (of the service), I thought, OK, they need that. It’s no big deal. So I kept doing it for a number of years.”

Even though he has not given blood for more than four years because of a heart ailment that causes him to use an anti-coagulant, Borgman, 69, is still on the local Red Cross books as one of the more generous donors in northeast Indiana with 145 units, or more than 18 gallons of A-positive.

“It’s a feeling of being able to do something worthwhile,” says Borgman, retired from General Electric. “There’s no remuneration for it. It’s a good feeling being able to do it, knowing you make a difference in somebody’s life and health. It’s very much a sense of something I want to do.”

The donation process is quite simple, according to information from the American Red Cross. Donors must register, provide a health history and be given a brief physical examination.

They must be 17 years of age or older and weigh at least 110 pounds.

“It takes about an hour from the time you hit the door to the time you leave,” Borgman says.

Because Williamson has had breast cancer twice, she had to stop donating for lengthy periods of time. Now she’s back at it.

“You have so many years after having cancer that you can’t donate, but then after I can donate, I’m at Good Shepherd United Methodist (Church), so they have a blood drive twice a year,” Williamson says. “And then my daughter was a firefighter. You have your firefighters versus the police force, so you always have to give during their drive. Even though she’s not in town anymore, you still have to root for your fire department.”

Fox says the usual fears keep prospective donors away – that people don’t like needles, or they feel bad after giving blood, or that maybe they had a bad experience when they gave the first time and haven’t returned.

“A lot of times I think people are thinking of you have to fast for a test, you go to the doctor’s office and they draw blood,” Fox says. “You may not feel so great afterwards because you’re already sick or maybe there’s something else going on and you’ve fasted for 12 hours and you’re a little bit out of whack anyway. Those are the biggest reasons we hear.

“The actual process, from the time they insert the needle until you’re done is really only eight to 12 minutes, maybe. So it’s not like you’re stuck on a bed with a needle in your arm for hours at a time. And when you think with that eight to 12 minutes with a needle in your arm, donating that one kind of blood, you can help save three lives.”

Borgman said he would stroll into the Red Cross center on the corner of California Road and Coliseum Boulevard, thumb through the magazines, get his blood drawn and be on his way.

And there were times, he admits, that he wondered what would happen to his blood? Where would it go? Who would receive it?

“At one time I wondered,” he said. “They do a pretty good job of explaining what types of people use the blood – leukemia patients are one, and you also have people who have surgeries – accidents. I talked to a friend of mine who delivers blood and got a little bit more understanding.”

Fox notices the ages of Borgman and Williamson and says the Red Cross is marketing to attract a younger demographic, mostly high school and college students.

“In the Indiana-Ohio region, 20 percent of our blood drives now are high school and colleges,” Fox says. “We’re trying to get to younger people and trying to turn them into loyal donors, so, in another 50 years, we’ve got people like Bill.”

Adds Williamson: “It’s one of those things that you can give, and it costs you nothing and it helps so many.”