It took just six minutes and 33 seconds for a pint of blood to flow from John Schenk’s arm into the donation bag at the Red Cross blood drive Thursday morning at Alexandria Motors.
Before the process began, as Schenk sat at the donation station set up on the showroom floor of the automobile dealership, Red Cross account representative Brenda Coyer fastened a pin to the collar of his bright blue polo shirt.
The gold pin, in the shape of a droplet with the Red Cross symbol on a white background, was given to Schenk to commemorate yet another milestone.
Thursday’s donation marked his 280th time donating blood to the Red Cross. Over his lifetime of donating blood – which now spans a half-century – Schenk has given 35 gallons of his blood to the Red Cross. That is 280 pints, or 560 cups, of A-positive whole blood – not platelets or plasma, but whole blood.
The Alexandria Technical and Community College graduate and now retired computer programmer has donated, on average, every 65 days since 1969.
Schenk now lives in St. Cloud with his wife, Dawn. Because his very first donation was made 50 years ago in Alexandria when he was an 18-year-old college student, he wanted to celebrate his 50-year milestone in the same town it all started.
Since that first donation, Schenk has spent about 33 hours of his life giving his blood to the American Red Cross. And that couldn’t make him any happier.
“It’s easy to do. It helps save lives and it’s fairly simple,” he said. “I try to be proud, but yet at the same time stay humble.”
Schenk’s parents were avid blood donors, but it was something his high school gym teacher said that helped him make that final decision to become a blood donor.
“He told all of us in his class, ‘When you get old enough, donate,’ ” Schenk recalled.
He never expected or imagined that one pint would eventually turn into 35 gallons, especially because the first couple of years, he wasn’t all that dedicated to it. The average adult has anywhere between nine and 12 pints of blood in their body.
As Kenzie Meier, the Red Cross phlebotomist (a person trained to draw blood from a patient) started the process of taking Schenk’s blood, he explained that he’s donated blood in three other states besides Minnesota. He gave blood when he was in the U.S. Air Force while stationed in Texas and in Nebraska, and even while on vacation in Florida.
Schenk, who is originally from Springfield, Minnesota, said he likes to find different blood drive locations because it adds a little excitement. However, if there is not one close enough, he usually ends up at the donor center, which is fun, too, because then he gets to see some of the same people.
Sue Thesenga from the Red Cross said the organization is fortunate to have dedicated supporters and blood donors like Schenk who are so generous with their time, energy and good health.
“He is a great example of someone who truly wants to make a difference in the lives of others,” she said.
Thesenga said the Red Cross believes Schenk might be the largest whole blood donor in Minnesota. She said there is one other person who has donated a few more units, but due to the number of actual donations, it appears the other donor may have donated platelets, which people can donate more often or what the Red Cross calls Power Reds, which counts as two units per donation.
Schenk has given more than just his blood to the Red Cross. He served on the St. Paul Blood Services board for 10 years and on the board of the St. Cloud Red Cross Chapter for 14 years. He has also served as a local and national disaster volunteer, and was deployed on 12 assignments in seven different states. He was a volunteer in New York after 9/11 and also went to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and to Oklahoma after the disastrous tornadoes.
“The Red Cross is my life,” he said. “This is my thing.”
At one time, Schenk had set a goal of reaching 25 gallons. When he reached his 30-gallon milestone, he told the Red Cross he keeps coming back because he realized there were patients in need and that his donation was critical in changing the lives of others.
“Donating blood is my way of giving back,” Schenk told the Red Cross after his 30-gallon milestone. “If I could encourage just one other person to become a blood donor, it would be the best reward ever.”
And now that he’s hit his 35-gallon mark, Schenk said his only goal is to stay healthy enough to be able to continue donating his blood.
“It’s a great thing to do to help others and save lives,” he said. “I encourage the younger generation to donate and to try and make it a habit. For those who are able to donate, do it. It truly is a great thing to do.”