Retired blood donor Stacey Seals said he never thought about what it would take to give over 70 gallons of blood in his lifetime - a threshold that he surpassed in early 2022.
"That wasn't a desire. That was just kind of the way it came out," Seals, who for a while gave blood the maximum allowed times of twice a month - totaling 24 donations a year - said in a phone interview.
Along with his brother-in-law, 81-year-old Seals started giving blood at Chattanooga area hospitals in his early 20s after his sister was diagnosed with lymphoma and needed to undergo blood transfusions as part of her treatment.
"At that time, they solicited donors by blood type so that they could give it straight to the one that was needing it," Seals said. "A lot of the people that I went and gave blood to, I didn't know - had no clue who they were - somebody just said that they needed blood, and they needed O-positive, so we went and gave."
Linda Hisey, community engagement and development administrator at Blood Assurance, said via phone the old method of hospital-based blood donation made it much more difficult to get blood quickly and efficiently to those who needed it. That's why local leaders from the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Medical Society, the hospitals and the Chattanooga Jaycees began the process of creating the nonprofit community blood center known as Blood Assurance.
Blood Assurance 50th anniversary
In the 50 years since it was founded, Blood Assurance has grown to become a full-service regional blood center with over 300 employees serving more than 70 health care facilities in Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, Kentucky and North Carolina.
Blood Assurance will host a public celebration for its 50th anniversary Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the headquarters parking lot across from McKenzie Arena. The full schedule of events is available online and includes live music, food trucks, lab tours, free ice cream, an announcement at 11:30 a.m. and on-site blood donation.
JB Gaskins, Blood Assurance CEO, said in a phone interview it's very hard to donate as much blood as Seals, who is tied for sixth on the center's list of most gallons given by a donor in Blood Assurance history.
"To me, it's one of the greatest things that a person could do," Seals said. "Life is precious - whoever it is - and certainly giving blood is one of the easiest things that a person can do maybe to save somebody else's life, and that's kind of the way I looked at it."
Seals said he gave "whatever they needed at that time," including whole blood, red blood cells, platelets and plasma.
"We'd give anywhere from three to four, maybe five, units in one sitting," he said.
Once blood is donated, Blood Assurance works to test it for various diseases, process it and distribute it to partner facilities.
Unlike many blood centers, Blood Assurance has an in-house lab that can do testing on-site, which Gaskins said is a major advantage.
"When a hospital has issues with what they call 'cross matching,' because people have certain antibodies, they can send us the patient sample, and we can help identify what blood type and what antigen will be correct for these patients," he said.
The fact that Blood Assurance is local is what distinguishes it from some other centers, Gaskins said.
"The donors and those in the community are ultimately responsible to make sure there is a local blood supply," Gaskins said.
Independent, community blood centers like Blood Assurance collect around 60% of the nation's blood supply, while the American Red Cross collects the remaining 40%, according to the 2022 U.S. Blood Donation Statistics report from America's Blood Centers.
Blood donated to the Red Cross can be given to anyone in the country, Gaskins said.
"But we are the sole supplier of blood and blood products to the hospitals here in this greater Chattanooga area, all the way down into North Georgia - to Cartersville, Georgia - all the way up through Middle Tennessee and up into Bowling Green, Kentucky," he said.
Gaskins said blood donors are always needed, because there's always a risk of supplies running out.
"That's why we keep at least three to five days supply on our shelves of each blood type," he said, noting that platelets are another blood product in short supply in part because their shelf life is five days.
Red blood cells can be stored for up to 42 days.
"We've had a pretty bad platelets shortage, but it's not because of a lack of donors, in this case. It's a lack of our supply vendor with the proper kits that are necessary to collect those donors," Gaskins said.
Hisey said that people with medical conditions or who are on certain medications often think they can't give blood, but that's a misconception.
"For anybody that wants to be a donor, don't self-defer - just come on in and talk to us," she said. "There's a big difference in what you could be taking to donate blood years ago than what can happen now."
Seals, of Signal Mountain, had to stop donating blood in April due to his age and because his hemoglobin count was declining, but he said he wants those who may be hesitant to try donating to ask themselves a question:
"Would they take somebody else's blood to live?"
Contact Elizabeth Fite at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6673. Follow her on Twitter @ecfite.