“There isn’t anything that will replace blood, so donors are required,” quipped Sandy Czaplewski, a retired RN who spent 45 years on staff with the Nebraska Community Blood Bank (NCBB).

Started by the Lancaster County Medical Society 50 years ago on Oct. 14, 1968, NCBB was the first community-based blood bank in Nebraska. It was founded to ensure a stable supply of blood for local hospitals and to support Bryan Hospital’s new open-heart surgery program.

Up until its formation, each hospital operated its own blood collection and donor base. When blood was needed, donors would be called in to the hospital, and the blood was transfused soon after. A blood bank allowed for large quantities of blood to be collected, tested and stored so hospitals could provide more services to the community.

As one of NCBB’s original employees, Czaplewski helped build a donor list and persuade donors to give for the good of the community. Over time, Lincoln and Seward hospitals decided it would be more cost-effective to have all blood collected and tested in one place, so they discontinued their own programs. Today, Bryan Health is the blood bank’s longest hospital partner, and NCBB remains the only community blood bank in the area, providing blood to 11 area hospitals.

Czaplewski recalled when she was one of only two nurses on staff and had to collect blood after hours from a male donor. Although he wasn’t thrilled about being called in on a Husker game day, she said he later wrote her a letter saying that it wasn’t so bad after observing her four well-behaved children waiting patiently nearby.

The petite nurse was a donor herself, giving only a half pint at a time as needed because she didn’t meet the weight requirement. Czaplewski believes she may be the only donor to get a Half Gallon award instead of the coveted Gallon Award.

There were no blood drives or blood mobiles early on, just nurses calling donors to come in three to four times a year, she said. Now NCBB hosts more than 500 blood drives a year in addition to operating three donation centers. It celebrated its 50th blood drive for 2018 at Nebraska Wesleyan University as part of its 50-year celebration events and recognized the Nebraska Air National Guard last month for hosting its 50th blood drive.

A busy day at the donor center where Czaplewski worked in the 1960s entailed collecting about six units of blood. By the time RN and current Director of Donor Services Cheryl Warholoski came along in 1993, there were approximately 13 RNs on staff and about 50 units a day being collected over the course of four days.

“Now we need 800 to 1,000 units per week,” Warholoski said.

The blood collection process has changed significantly since NCBB’s inception. Blood collection duties are now handled by phlebotomists, with a charge nurse overseeing everything on location. More extensive medical histories and blood testing help ensure a safe blood supply.

NCBB has diversified into other blood products besides whole blood, too.

“We were the first blood center in the nation to be 100 percent leuko-reduced,” Warholoski shared. The special blood product helps reduce the number of transfusion reactions.

Over the years, donor centers have been relocated to better meet donor needs. Currently, NCBB has locations at 4900 N. 26th St., 1631 Pine Lake Road and one at 100 N. 84th St. that also serves as the lab and storage facility for all blood collected. Eighty employees keep the centers running five to six days a week.

NCBB has grown its donors and its business. In 2011, blood donations reached an all-time high of 50,000 units from 17,000 volunteer donors. In 2012, NCBB merged with Memorial Blood Centers and became Innovative Blood Resources, a new 501(c)(3) charitable organization.

The original donor recognition membership program that guaranteed donors a free unit of blood for a family member in need for every unit donated has been replaced. Current-day recognitions include T-shirts for four-time donors, a Gallon Club membership list, pins for meeting milestones and NCBB-branded prizes.

President Ellen DiSalvo said blood usage has decreased as hospitals have been forced to be more careful with spending and to find ways to use less blood. NCBB relies on the 38 percent of the population that is eligible to donate, of which only 10 percent actually does (Central Blood Bank statistic).

NCBB’s most loyal and frequent donors are Baby Boomers, DiSalvo said. As that generation ages, NCBB needs to secure a new generation of committed donors, she added. “We have an influx of new donors, but not as many as we would like.”

KFOR News Director Dale Johnson is one of those Baby Boomer donors, but his journey to becoming one was a bit different. “It just wasn’t on my ‘To Do’ list,” he shared.

That view changed dramatically following Johnson’s March 20, 2016 motorcycle accident that nearly claimed his life. Paramedics used a tourniquet to stop the bleeding from his injured left leg, which was later amputated at the knee. Johnson required 16 units of blood and several units of other blood products during his hospitalization.

As soon as he was clear to donate, Johnson made an appointment with NCBB. “I’ve been donating on a regular basis since then (2017),” he said.

Now he promotes the life-saving act. “I try to encourage people, not to shame them, but to empower them to donate,” Johnson said.

Johnson believes making it relatable is the key. For many, it’s emphasizing how little time it really takes – about 10 minutes from needle in to needle out, he shared.

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L Magazine editor

Mark Schwaninger is L magazine and Neighborhood Extra editor.

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