It’s a beautiful, fall weekend with a calendar full of fairs and festivals, but Kirk Whitley has an appointment to keep. He arrives early, ready to roll up his sleeve and get started.
The folks at Greenville’s American Red Cross Donor Center have seen his type before — B-positive. It’s not the rarest type of blood they receive. (That would be AB-negative.)
What makes Whitley such an extraordinary donor is just how ordinary it is for him to contribute. The 70-year-old Robersonville man has been giving blood six times a year for more than 20 years. Since 1996, he has given 131 pints, which is about one every eight weeks. He already has an appointment for pint No. 132 on Nov. 30.
Shenita Brown, who has worked at the center for six years, has seen Whitley so often that the two are on a first-name basis, even though the computer system lists him by the name James Whitley.
“He’s a sweetheart,” Brown said Saturday after putting a bandage on Whitley’s arm. It’s red, just like the lettering on his hat, which reads, “KIRK WHITLEY BLOOD DONOR 100 PINTS.”
He reached that milestone five years ago. His next goal is the 17-gallon mark, which he should hit next year.
“If I can do it in five more years, I think 2024 will be 160 pints,” Whitley said. “I guess that will be 20 gallons if I can keep it up.”
Bernadette Jay certainly hopes he can. Jay, who serves as external communications manager for the Mid-Atlantic and Appalachian blood services region, said the Red Cross needs more loyal donors like Whitley.
“To have someone who has consistently donated for over two decades, that is what helps to sustain our life-saving mission,” she said. “People like Mr. Whitley take time out of their day to schedule an appointment, to show up, to roll up their sleeve because they know of the people on the receiving end.”
Jay said Whitley is among the top 1,300 donors in the history of the region, which includes portions of North Carolina and Virginia. That number includes donors of platelets, who can contribute 24 times a year, and donors of red blood cells, who can contribute up to 13 times a year.
For whole-blood donors like Whitley, 56 days is the the minimum waiting period the Red Cross requires between contributions, making it a longer process to hit benchmarks like a gallon (more than a year) or 100 pints (about 16 years). At that rate, it would take a whole-blood donor 80 years — from age 18 to 98 — to give 65 gallons of blood.
Whitley was 18 the first time he gave blood. He remembers his school principal recruiting students who were old enough to donate (16 is the minimum age, with parental permission). Following his first-time donation, Whitley gave occasionally but not as regularly as he does now.
Back then, he had a different passion. An avid runner for 20 years, he competed in dozens of races, including marathons. But running began to take a toll on his back, so in 1995 he hung up his running shoes. The following year, he decided to make it a habit to give blood.
“I just felt like the Lord was leading me,” Whitley said. “I really didn’t know it was going to end up in all this.”
He decided he could apply the same principles he used in running — desire, discipline and determination — to giving blood. Then he started seeking out blood drives the way he had sought out races to enter.
“I was a run-aholic; now I’m a blood-aholic,” he said, laughing. “You’ve got good addictions and bad addictions, and this is a good addiction. I would give every day if I could.”
According to the Red Cross, every two seconds, someone in the United States needs blood, and one donation can potentially save as many as three lives. In addition, research indicates that regular blood donors are less likely to have heart attacks or strokes.
“It just helps you mentally and physically, you helping them and them helping you,” Whitley said. “It’s kind of hard to explain.
“It makes me feel good to know I’ve helped somebody,” he said. “That’s what life’s about, making a difference.”
Every chance he gets, Whitley shares the benefits of blood donation with others. He talked about it at his church, Robersonville First Baptist, after reaching his 100-pint goal and plans to say a few words again five years later.
“Everybody’s got a volunteer service,” he said. “I think I’ve found mine. I don’t know how long I’ll do it, but I hope I can continue to give.”
As long as Whitley’s health persists, Jay said there is no reason for him to stop. Seventy is not an exceptional age for blood donors; people have been known to continue to give past the age of 100.
While Whitley is decades shy of that, Jay finds him to be a wonderful example.
“To have someone like Mr. Whitley, I think it’s pretty remarkable,” she said. “It’s not something we come across every day.”
Contact Kim Grizzard at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 252-329-9578.