This blood donor from Riviera Beach has given 100 gallons in 35 years

Harold Mendenhall is one unique volunteer: In 35 years, he has given 100 gallons of his blood to help save lives.

He never looks as the needle goes in.

Even though he’s done this more than 400 times, Harold Mendenhall still doesn’t like to watch it sliding into the raised vein on the inside of his left arm.

It doesn’t hurt, he just doesn’t like the visual.

“Make sure you give me the sharp needle, not that square one,” he jokes to phlebotomist LaTonia Federick.

“They always compliment me on my veins,” he says.

At the One Blood center on Northlake Boulevard in Lake Park, Mendenhall is a star. Last month, the 84-year-old reached a rare milestone. Since 1977, he has donated 100 gallons of blood.

He started on 7/7/77.

Seven, he says, is one of his lucky numbers.

It certainly has been for the hundreds of people Mendenhall’s blood has saved since that first pint 36 years ago.

He may be the favorite donor at One Blood, the name of the statewide blood bank formed last year by the merger of three blood centers in South and Central Florida.

“Hey sweetie, how ya doing?” a staff member calls out as she walks by.

“Lookin’ good,” another tells him.

To get a sense of Mendenhall’s accomplishment, think for a moment of how much blood 100 gallons represents.

In one gallon containers, 100 gallons would fill the top shelves of 10 refrigerators. It would fill the gas tanks of eight Honda Civics or one of those giant aquariums you see in the lobbies of fancy office buildings. It’s the equivalent of 800 of those pint-sized coffee creamer containers.

Now imagine that much blood coming out of your body, drop by drop.

Mendenhall started donating blood the year his wife, Frankie, was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was an RN at St. Mary’s Medical Center, on an IV team trained to be able to get a needle in even the tiniest, most uncooperative veins.

Giving his O positive was initially a way to honor her struggle while helping other medically-fragile patients.

When she died seven years later, Mendenhall was lost.

He began stopping at the blood bank, then on 45th Street in West Palm Beach, on his way home from work.

He kept going — giving six gallons a year — despite the devastation of losing two of his five children, following his wife’s death. Two of his sons died from complications of various disabilities at ages 47 and 53.

Donating blood was a way of coping. He couldn’t save his wife and sons, but maybe he could save others.

“For some reason, I’m still here and I’m grateful. That’s one of the reasons I keep donating,” said Mendenhall.

Mendenhall is so valued because he donates platelets, the gold standard in blood donation.

One pint of whole blood can yield five to eight units of concentrated platelets, blood’s clotting factor. Patients with blood cancers, such as leukemia, often require platelet transfusions.

Extracted in a process called apheresis, platelet donors like Mendenhall typically give two pints of blood at a time. The blood goes through a machine that separates it into components, including platelets, and returns the fluids back to the patient.

The ability to give two pints at once is the reason Mendenhall required only 400 donations to yield 100 gallons of blood.

Platelet donors can also give more frequently than those who donate whole blood. Mendenhall underwent the 90-minute-to-two-hour process every two weeks. Whole blood donors must wait 56 days between donations, but a donation takes only about 30 minutes.

“Giving blood can only be done by a human being, so that’s been my payback for my career and my good health and all the blessings I’ve had,” said Mendenhall, who lives in a mobile home community in Riviera Beach.

Said Frankie Groover, who helps run the platelets division at One Blood, “He has got to be the nicest, most generous person I know. If we call him with a special need, he always, always comes in.”

Today, Mendenhall arrived wearing his baseball cap embroidered with a picture of the SR 71 Blackbird, a spy plane used during the Vietnam War and over Europe during the Cold War. He helped develop the spy plane’s engines over 27 years in research and development at Pratt & Whitney, during the company’s glory days in Palm Beach County.

His background in R&D is one more reason he’s remained such a regular blood donor.

“I realized that while scientists are trying to develop man-made blood, they haven’t succeeded yet, so I feel like I’m filling in until they achieve that breakthrough,” Mendenhall said.

Thin and rangy at a steady 183 pounds, he takes no medications. Diabetes runs in his family, so he stays active, even helping friends with yard work. Donating blood has helped him monitor his own health, Mendenhall believes.

When he comes in every two weeks, the One Blood staff takes his blood pressure and other vital signs. They do 13 tests for conditions such as West Nile virus, HIV and hepatitis. He receives a note with his cholesterol reading.

“It’s like getting a check-up every two weeks,” said Mendenhall.

Nor does he discount the freebies. Donors receive coupons for free meals at a variety of restaurants, including Red Lobster, Chili’s and Olive Garden.

He has a message for every healthy person reading this: Celebrate your good health by giving some of it to someone else.

If you go to the blood center on Northlake Boulevard, just east of I-95, tell them Harold sent you.

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