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Sunday, May 9, 2021

Bellingham resident completes 800th blood donation

By Carina Andrews

Most people spend their Saturday mornings sleeping in or watching television, but Robert Hungerschafer spends his Saturdays saving lives.

Donating blood has been a regular routine for Hungerschafer, a Bellingham local. Just about a week ago, he completed his 800th donation at Bloodworks Northwest in Bellingham.

Hungerschafer was inspired to start donating blood by a coworker in the 1970s. Hungerschafer hopes to donate 1,500 times in his lifetime and has around 700 more donations to go.

Photo courtesy of Robert A. Hungerschafer

He held the world record for most blood or platelet donations in 2003, but has since been beaten by a man in Texas. But for Hungerschafer, it’s not a competition or a race. Instead, he keeps his focus on saving as many lives as he can.

Hungerschafer said he continues to donate so often because it became a pattern when he was young. He hopes to get others to fall into this pattern as well.

Hungerschafer has even recruited his dog, Athena, and cat, Kitty, to donate. Athena and Kitty have just set their own world records for most cat and dog blood donations respectively. Athena has donated 36 units of blood and Kitty has donated 46.

People often tell Hungerschafer that they didn’t know pet owners could donate their animal’s blood.

“People don’t think about that until their dog or cat gets hit by a car and needs emergency services,” Hungerschafer said.

At Bloodworks Northwest, there is a tree known as the Tree of Life, with nameplates for people who have donated more than 100 times. Every time Hungerschafer passes another 100th milestone, he gets a new nameplate with his current donation count to replace his old one. He said he gives the old nameplates to his children to remember him by when he isn’t around anymore. 

“Donating blood is like going out for lunch, it takes just as much time. A meal is filling, but donating is fulfilling.”

Robert Hungerschafer

Valerie Brannen, a blood collection specialist at Bloodworks Northwest, said donors can donate platelets once a week and the average donation takes between 90 to 120 minutes.

However, it does not take everyone two hours to donate platelets.

“One of the girls that works at Bloodworks Northwest has a platelet count around 500 so she donates triples and it only takes her about 30 or 40 minutes, whereas me, I have a lower count, so it takes me a lot longer,” Hungerschafer said.

Blood platelets are cells that bind together when they recognize damaged blood vessels that prevent bleeding out. A normal platelet count is between 150,000 and 450,000 platelets per microliter of blood according to John Hopkins Medicine.

Robert Hungerschafer completed his 800th blood donation while at Bloodworks Northwest in Bellingham. // Photo by Carina Andrews

Donors can donate platelets 26 times a year and can donate in increments known as single, double and triple depending on their platelet count according to Hungerschafer.

“My platelet count is around 200 so I can donate a double and it takes me about two hours so I usually watch a movie.”

Hungerschafer said his arms aren’t what they used to be because of the amount of scar tissue from donating so many times, so donations takes longer.

Hungerschafer doesn’t mind the longer donation times because it gives him more time to relax and be pampered.

“They treat you like royalty. While you are lying there, they will bring you drinks and snack food. They talk with you and give you blankets and pillows and heating pads,” Hungerschafer said.

Hungerschafer said people donate more when they see a need for it, like a disaster or a family member needing an operation.

“They realize there is a need. Well, there is always a need, it just doesn’t hit that close to home every time,” Hungerschafer said.

The only time Hungerschafer has seen a line to donate was after the terrorist attack on 9/11. That day, he had an appointment to see if he was a match for someone who needed bone marrow.

“I can stay home and watch television or I can get out and help somebody,” Hungerschafer said.

Donating also gives him a chance to meet new people and gain more interesting experiences than sitting around his house.

Apheresis machines are used at Bloodworks Northwest to separate platelets from the blood, and many of the machines sit unused for long periods of time because of a lack of donors.

Robert and Tyler Hungerschafer. // Photo by Carina Andrews

 

“We are short on platelets right now, I know that. They want us to recruit people to donate platelets,” Brannen said.

Hungerschafer’s son, Tyler Hungerschafer, said he is proud of what his father has accomplished.

“I can’t do it, that’s why I like him donating so much to make up for me,” Tyler Hungerschafer said.

He has what his father calls vasovagal needle phobia, which causes Tyler Hungerschafer to faint at the sight of needles.

Hungerschafer wants to encourage people to donate blood because it is for a great cause, but also because it is a great experience.

Along with donating his blood, Hungerschafer and his family also donate their time to local charities. The family volunteers at the Bellingham Food Bank every Tuesday night and he volunteers for the Bellingham Family History Center on Wednesday nights. Hungerschafer has also volunteered at the crisis center, The Boys and Girls Club and the Health and Safety Committee for Whatcom County.

Hungerschafer enjoys donating his time and his blood as often as he can and getting as many people as he can to follow in his footsteps.

“Donating blood is like going out for lunch. It takes just as much time,” Hungerschafer laughed. “A meal is filling, but donating is fulfilling.”

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