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Bradenton friends are in select company as blood donors

BRADENTON -- John Van Berkel and Deborah Bauer have been acquaintances for as long as they can remember.

Maybe 20 years, they figure.

Their friendship began when they were parishioners at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Catholic Church in Whitfield and endured after the Van Berkels moved to west Bradenton.

Turns out they shared another important connection during that time, but were unaware of it.

Both are major blood platelet donors -- 100 gallons of platelets and plasma and more -- at Florida Blood Services, 216 Manatee Ave. E.

“Neither of us never knew the other was doing this,” said Van Berkel, 63.

“We never even talked about it,” said Bauer, 60.

Amazing, said Daniel Eberts, the FBS corporate communications manager in St. Petersburg.

“They’ve given pretty much every two weeks all that time and to not know it is surprising,” he said.

Yet understandable.

Platelet donors have a pre-arranged schedule for their sessions, which can take about two hours, Eberts said.

Van Berkel always gave on Sundays.

Bauer, Saturdays.

So they never bumped into each other.

Until last month.

Bauer, who works nights stocking shelves at Sam’s in Oneco, had just finished her regular bi-monthly session at FBS on the morning of Nov. 12, when she saw Van Berkel and some other platelet donors.

“I didn’t know he was going to be there, so I said, ‘Oh, hi. You’re here to donate, too?’” she recalled, “He said, ‘No, I’m here to help you celebrate.’”

Van Berkel and the others -- all members of the Century Donor Club -- were welcoming her to the elite group.

According to FBS statistics, more than 1 million blood donors have given in the Tampa Bay area since 1942.

Only 13 have donated more than 100 gallons in platelets.

Bauer is the 13th -- and feels welcome, indeed.

“It’s fun to find out somebody is doing the same thing as you,” she said. “I’m not rich and I can’t donate a lot of money. So I figure I can donate my blood and time to help the community.”

They can donate up to 24 times a year, according to medical guidelines, and earn credit for up to six gallons annually.

After donating blood for five years, Bauer switched to platelets the past 15.

“It’s a gift you hope nobody ever has to use, but it’s there if they need it,” she said.

That’s Van Berkel’s motivation as a blood donor, a role he’s played since 1979.

The former Manatee County Library employee has donated 120 gallons of platelets and plasma.

“It’s something I can do to help my fellow man and it doesn’t cost me anything, just a couple of hours every other week,” said Van Berkel, who works at a call center. “In the back of my mind I guess I believe in it because it helps cancer patients.”

His family, included.

Van Berkel lost grandparents to cancer and his sisters have battled breast cancer, too.

“Just the idea I can do something to help people far outweighs a needle stick,” he said.

Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 941-745-7055.