In his lifetime, Ronny Dentler has donated more than 43 gallons of blood to save the lives of people throughout South Texas.
That’s roughly equivalent to the amount of blood in 29 adults, enough to help more than 300 patients.
Dentler, 61, gives so frequently because as an infant he needed a blood transfusion to survive. Shortly after he was born, his physicians were stumped by a persistent fever that wouldn’t go away, so they decided to give him blood from eight donors in the hopes that it would save his life.
“They found people to donate blood and they transfused all my blood,” Dentler said. “So basically putting it in one side and taking it out the other.”
Dentler recovered from the undiagnosed health scare, and grew up to be one of the most prolific donors at the Victoria branch of the South Texas Blood and Tissue Center, which he visits several times a month to give back what others gave to him as a baby.
The gallons of blood that Dentler has donated over the past 43 years are part of a critical supply in the nation’s health care system. Blood transfusions are one of the most common inpatient procedures in a hospital, where about one out of every seven patients will need one, said Dr. Kevin Land, an expert on blood transfusions and donations. They are used for patients in a range of situations, including everything from trauma victims who have lost blood from a gunshot wound or car crash to cancer patients who need a transfusion amid their chemotherapy treatment.
Although Dentler and other super donors make blood donations a regular part of their lives, across the board blood donations levels are at historic lows. Only about 40% of Americans are eligible to donate blood, and of those, less than 10% will actually donate in a given year, according to most estimates.
Because younger Americans are less likely to make blood donations a regular part of their life, many of the spikes in blood donations are driven by horrific incidents with mass casualties. This type of event-based donation is “so scary” for communities’ overall blood supply, Land said. While blood donors who crowd blood banks after a mass shooting are admirable, the donations that actually save victims lives are those made days earlier, Land said.
“You think about (donating) after the Sutherland shooting or after the Vegas shooting, but the blood that saved all those lives had to have been donated one or two days previously when nothing was going on,” Land said.
It typically takes about two days for blood donations to be processed so they are ready to be used for patients in need. For victims of trauma, a blood supply is critical within an hour for the most serious wounds, but the sooner the better, Land said.
Although mass casualties typically remind communities about the need for blood donors, the majority of blood donations are ultimately used for patients who are not in emergency situations. Cancer patients receiving chemotherapy or a bone marrow transplant, patients with sickle cell anemia, or even those who have suffered a severe burn all might require blood transfusions.
Blood donation levels are cyclical, with levels typically dipping to worrisome lows around the holidays, during the summer, and at times when there is a natural disaster.
“If everyone did it once or twice a year we’d have no problems,” said Land, who is also the vice president of clinical services for Vitalant, the nation’s second largest blood bank.
He compared blood to a utility, like electricity or water, that was essential for a hospital’s ability to provide care.
Dentler donates so frequently that he’s at the Victoria blood bank several times a month, where he’ll visit with staff and ask them about their families and themselves during the several hours his donation takes. The Victoria blood bank, and the people who work there, have become so important to Dentler that he even made them stained glass of two red hearts. The display hangs proudly in the blood bank’s donation room.
The platelets that Dentler donates every 10 days will travel from Victoria to San Antonio for processing and testing. The majority of blood donations – more than 90%, Land estimates – will stay local. So after blood donations are processed in San Antonio they’ll quickly make their way back to a local hospital before they expire. From there, pints of donated blood churn into the rotation of a hospital’s daily procedures.
On a recent Friday, several blood donors sat patiently in reclining chairs. One woman watched an “Indiana Jones” movie while an apheresis machine chugged quietly beside her, taking blood out of her right arm, siphoning off platelets, and returning the rest back to her left arm. Another man sipped a Gatorade while he waited.
Lenora Kitchens, of Inez, squeezed a squishy ball while she donated blood. Kitchens, 44, has been a regular blood donor since she was a teenager. The act of donating took on an added significance for her when her youngest daughter was diagnosed with leukemia and needed transfusions during her treatment. Kitchens’ daughter has fully recovered and Kitchens makes sure to regularly donate blood.
Today, donors give two major types of donations. The first, a whole blood donation, is typically a little quicker. Essentially, everything in a donor’s veins is collected in a pint-sized bag. Later, the contents of the bag are separated into their major components.
The second type of donation is through apheresis, which can take longer but separates a donor’s blood into its component parts, collecting only what’s needed, and feeding the rest back into the donor’s body. So, for example, an apheresis donation would draw whole blood from a donor’s right arm, separate out the plasma, and return everything else to the patient’s left arm.
Dentler typically donates red blood platelets via apheresis, which is why he’s able to donate so frequently. For whole blood donations, donors can only give every two months.
Over the years, Dentler’s faith has pushed him to continue donating blood as a clear way for him to make a sacrifice for others to honor God’s sacrifice.
“It was personal to me as a baby and it’s still very personal to me and it will always be,” Dentler said. “I can really help someone with this. It’s definitely just a gift.”