By J.D. Brink, American Red Cross volunteer
I first gave blood because my father had given.
He gave because my sister had leukemia.
He may have given blood before that, but I was too young to know. On Labor Day 1986, my sister Ashley was diagnosed with leukemia at St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Toledo. She was three years old at the time. I was not quite ten.
Leukemia is a cancer of the bone marrow. Since the bone marrow is where blood cells are manufactured, patients with leukemia have a severe lack of them. Red blood cells deliver oxygen throughout the body. White blood cells fight infections. Platelets stick together to form blood clots so we don’t bleed to death. For those with leukemia, these are all in tragically short supply.
I don’t remember a lot from that time. But I do remember her smile, her dancing, her wonderful personality. I think most of my mental images of Ashley come from pictures and home movies. And in the vast majority of them, Ashley is bald. A smiling, beautiful, three- and four-year old girl with no hair. Her hair loss was caused by the chemotherapy used to treat her cancer. Not only did it take hair, it killed her blood cells too. Because of this, Ashley received many blood transfusions. My dad’s blood was not compatible, so he gave so that others could get what they needed.
I have retained some memories of my own from that time. The handmade sign that hung in our mudroom, just inside the backdoor, warning of every one of Ashley’s low cell counts, asking them to take their shoes off and minimize germs coming into the house. Another was a big handwritten list of rules for my brother and I from Grandma Brink, taped to the closet door. Guidance when Ashley and our mom spent weeks or months at a children’s hospital in Wisconsin. I remember my Uncle Pork (not the name on his birth certificate) staying with us when both parents were there. And I remember all of us staying at the Milwaukee Ronald McDonald House, which is a wonderful charity that supplies a place for families to live while their children are hospitalized away from home. We even spent a Christmas there.
Ashley had a bone marrow transplant on Halloween, 1987. Since all the nurses were in costume, she insisted on dressing as a witch that day, too.
She passed away January 15, 1988. She was only four years old. Her light shined amazingly bright for someone so young with so much pain in her life.
I’ve had a good cry writing this article, reliving memories that had long been forgotten. It feels good.
My father, David Brink, passed away September 20, 2021. Cancer was a factor. My grandma’s list of rules was still on the closet door when we cleared out his house. In his lifetime, he’d donated gallons of blood. I think it was nine gallons. Maybe twelve? (We know how unreliable my memory is.) He signed up to be a bone marrow donor, too, but was never matched for it. But he would have done it, gladly.
I started donating blood as soon as I was legally able, at 18. My first time was in the high school gym, during my school day.
I give because of everything you’ve just read. So did my dad. I hope my son will someday, too.
If you’d like to make an appointment to donate blood or platelets, please visit redcrossblood.org or call 800-RED CROSS.
Posted by Ryan Lang, Red Cross board member and volunteer