ASBP: Al Whitney and ‘Ted E. Bear’ Spread Joy, Save Lives
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Al Whitney and ‘Ted E. Bear’ Spread Joy, Save Lives

01/29/2016
By Jessica Pellegrini, ASBP Staff Writer
White blood cells, also called leukocytes, protect the body from infection. According to the American Society of Hematology, they are much fewer in number than red blood cells and account for approximately 1 percent of a person’s blood. There are several types of white blood cells, but the most common type is called a neutrophil. These cells are responsible for the body’s “immediate response” to an infection or disease, but they live for only one day in a person’s bone marrow. Granulocytes, another type of white blood cell, are used in more specialized transfusion therapy. They are collected through apheresis, but have a short shelf life. For this reason, when a patient requires a white blood cell transfusion — often times, the patient’s last resort treatment — a donation must be collected, tested and transfused within 24 hours of collection.  

Al Whitney has been a blood donor since 1965. After running blood drives and donating for more than 30 years, Whitney began his “Platelets Across America” journey in 2007 — a mission to donate platelets in every state. In less than five years, he had completed his quest and donated in every state and three countries. In January, he stopped by the Armed Services Blood Program Office at the Defense Health Headquarters in Falls Church, Va., to meet and say thanks the staff, and to share the story of his special companion named “Ted E. Bear.”

In addition to donating blood and platelets, Whitney is also a white blood cell donor. It was through one of his white blood cell donations that the legacy of Ted E. Bear began.

“White cells are collected for patients and it is often times their last chance for survival,” Whitney said. “They have no shelf life, so when they are collected, they go directly to the patient. At my blood bank, while they are going directly to the patient they are also being tested at the same time.”

For almost all donations, a donor will never know who exactly their donation is going to. But one day, Whitney was called by his local blood bank and told a 12-year-old girl was in need of white blood cells.

“On my way to the blood bank, I stopped at the card shop and got a ‘Thinking of You’ card and bought a teddy bear for her,” Whitney said. “It’s important. We have to make these people feel good; we have to help them somehow.”

Whitney was not allowed to put his name to the card or reveal who was giving the teddy bear to the young girl, so he didn’t sign either gift. When the nurse brought the white blood cells and gifts to the room, the parents were curious.

“They were looking at this card with no name on it and no name on the bear indicating where it came from,” he said. “So they asked the nurse. She explained that the white cells came from a donor in the blood bank who was on a machine for three hours so their daughter could get this medicine. (The girl’s parents) were blown away. They were just so grateful that they called the blood bank to express their gratitude.”

Afterwards, the blood bank picked up on what Whitney had done. So now, with every first unit that goes out to a patient, a teddy bear and card go out with it. And now donors are allowed to write their first name on both items.

In 2005, Whitney once again made a donation with the blood bank. This time, he signed his name to the card and teddy bear and sent it to the patient. The patient survived and soon afterwards sent Whitney the following letter:

Sunday, December 31, 2006

Dear Al,

Even though I don’t know who you are, for the past year you have been on my mind. You were the first person to save my life. On December 27th of 2005, I was diagnosed with leukemia and presented with a host of accompanying issues and problems that went along with it. But, with your help and all the work at University Hospitals and the Ireland Cancer Center I was able to beat the cancer and become a survivor. But more importantly, you helped me to change as a person. Your generosity, courage and selflessness showed the side of what a person could be, and what is now what I strive for. The Teddy Bear you sent me sits proudly in my office at home and is visible in front of my computer where I can often see it. It is a remembrance to me that people do care and represent all that is good.

Thank you for all you have done for me.

Gary

“Now that letter has my name on it, but it does not belong to me,” Whitney said. “It belongs to everybody in blood banking that donates blood.”

Whitney continues to travel around the United States, donating platelets and speaking to donor centers about his experience running blood drives. Ted E. Bear — who according to Whitney, “has more mileage than myself” — and this letter go with him everywhere he goes.

“When I go around and I read that letter, I start out with ‘Dear,’ and then I pause,” Whitney said. “I have them say their name so they can internalize that this letter is going to them. If patients knew who was donating and who was helping save their lives, they would send out thousands of these letters.”

At many of the stops, Ted E. Bear collects a pin to wear on his shirt as a way to remember each of the donation sites.

“If he had one for every stop, you’d never see them all,” Whitney joked.

Over the course of his “Platelets Across America” campaign, Whitney has donated at more than 70 donor centers, including seven Armed Services Blood Program blood donor centers, and completed a total of 764 platelet donations — but he isn’t stopping there. Whitney is now making it his mission to donate at all 20 of the ASBP blood donor centers.

“Words cannot express how appreciative the ASBP is of the strong work and support that Mr. Whitney is doing for our warfighters, patients and our program,” said Navy Capt. Roland Fahie, ASBP director. “Platelets are our biggest need, and he is out there donating and rallying support and awareness for the need for platelets since they expire in only five days after collection. It is my honor to meet someone like him.”

On Jan. 14, he added the Pentagon Blood Donor Center to his list and completed his 764th platelet donation. Ted E. Bear and Gary’s letter were there with him.

“My experience with the ASBP has been fantastic,” he said. “The most wonderful people in the world donate and work at blood banks.”

Over the next six weeks, Whitney will travel all over Texas to donate at some of the ASBP’s four donor centers in the state, starting with a donation at the Robertson Blood Center on Fort Hood.

“The saddest part in my travels is when I leave a blood bank,” he said. “I feel like I’m leaving a family.”

For more information about Whitney’s “Platelets Across America” campaign, visit his website at: http://www.plateletsacrossamerica.com/.

About the Armed Services Blood Program
Since 1962, the Armed Services Blood Program has served as the sole provider of blood for the United States military. As a tri-service organization, the ASBP collects, processes, stores and distributes blood and blood products to Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines and their families worldwide. As one of four national blood collection organizations trusted to ensure the nation has a safe, potent blood supply, the ASBP works closely with our civilian counterparts by sharing donors on military installations where there are no military blood collection centers and by sharing blood products in times of need to maximize availability of this national treasure. To find out more about the ASBP or to schedule an appointment to donate, please visit www.militaryblood.dod.mil. To interact directly with ASBP staff members, see more photos or get the latest news, follow @militaryblood on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube and Pinterest.  Find the drop. Donate.