Russell gives gift of life

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By April Wright, Reporter

Guy Russell gave his first pint of blood 52 years ago, when his uncle suffered injuries from a car accident.

Soon after, the Galax resident made a wonderful habit and legacy of donating blood.

When Russell worked at a local factory, he recalls that his boss would come to each person and ask them to give blood for the American Red Cross — all on the company’s time.

“[My friends and I] figured that if we gave blood on company time, we could get out of work,” said Russell with a laugh. “And when we would go to give blood, we would ask people in line in if they wanted to go in front of us to waste more time.”

Russell also admits that giving blood became a way to get a free checkup, since nurses check blood pressure and hemoglobin levels, he joked.

However, for Russell, donating blood became more than a way to get out of work and get a free examination.

Now 70 years old, it has taken Russell most of a lifetime to donate 26 gallons of blood, or 208 pints, to the Red Cross. And when Russell attends the blood drive named in his honor tomorrow, Saturday, at First Christian Church, that will make 209 pints.

“This is just unheard of and is remarkable for anyone to achieve that record,” said Ed Burcham, chair of the local Red Cross blood drive and member of the Galax Masonic Lodge, which sponsors the bloodmobile.

Burcham, who has been a part of the drive for 39 years, said there have been several donors in the area that have given several gallons of blood, but no one to this extent.

He noted that Glenn Williams, who passed away last year, had given 21 gallons. A blood drive was also named in his memory.

When donors reach 15 gallons, that achievement is as rare and as outstanding as achieving an Eagle Scout rank.

“We wanted to honor Guy by naming this drive in honor of him because of his dedication, and he has just reached such a milestone,” Burcham said.

“After getting up to a certain level, seven or eight gallons, it kept me motivated,” said Russell, of why he stuck to it.

The strict rules of the Red Cross only allow blood donors to give one pint every 56 days. But Russell stayed dedicated, attending almost every local bloodmobile and averaging a gallon every two years.

“It just makes me feel good to know that I’m helping others,” he said.

The Red Cross estimates that a pint of blood can save as many as four people. In Russell’s case, it’s possible he has saved as many as 832 lives.

One unit of blood has multiple purposes and has more than 20 components that can be used in many ways, said Burcham. For example, blood can be given to someone with a deficiency of red blood cells or white blood cells. 

Seventeen gallons ago, Russell set a goal to give 25 gallons, and he surpassed that. Russell now has a handful of 26 American Red Cross pins and certificates — one for each gallon given — to show for his generosity.

“Donating blood is the only thing I made and A in, and that’s a negative,” he said, kidding about his blood type.

The local Red Cross chapter tries to meet a goal of 40 pints of blood for each drive, which is held every two months, and they usually come close to that.

Out of about 60 percent eligible in the population, only 5 percent donate blood.

“Blood is urgently needed,” said Sandy Myers, senior account manager of the American Red Cross for the Appalachian region. “We’re in need of all blood types.”

There always seems to be a shortage of blood supply during the summer. That’s because of the short supply of donors, since high schools and colleges account for 25 percent of donations.

When the schools are out for the season, the Red Cross depends heavily on sponsors and donors, she said.

Also, as people travel and participate in more activities during the summer, more injuries occur, said Myers. The blood supply is used for surgeries and at least 18 percent of the blood supply is used for the treatment of cancer.

“It creates a backwash,” she said. “Guy Russell creates an opportunity to encourage people to donate by hearing his story. There are other Guy Russells out there, and we’re proud of out multi-gallon donors.”

“I’ve been blessed to stay healthy to be able to give blood,” said Russell, who has owned the Galax and Hillsville H&R Block franchise with his wife Marie for 41 years.

“It’s never affected the way I feel, and as long as I’m healthy, I’ve decided to keep giving.”

Donors must be at least 17 years old, weigh at least 110 pounds and be in good health. Donors need to pass physical and health history reviews prior to donating.

• For more information about donating blood, visit givelife.org or call 800-GIVE-LIFE.