Photo: Stephen Lewis
On a sunny fall morning, a clutch of TV camera crews and reporters stands chatting at the door of a country club in Woodbury, Long Island. They're all waiting for Albert Fischer, the man of the hour, to drive up in his car with the license plate O BLOOD. Fischer is being celebrated today for an extraordinary feat: The pint that he's about to donate will bring his lifetime total to 40 gallons of whole blood.
Fischer walks slowly through the door and into the throng. At "75 plus," as he likes to say, he's stooped and stiff from years of back problems. But, smiling in his neat slacks and dark blue American Legion shirt and patiently answering the reporters' questions, he is clearly eager to get on with the routine he's undertaken about six times a year for 58 years. Asked how he's feeling, he says, with a sidelong grin, "I'm overwhelmed! But I'm glad to get to this part of my blood-donating life."
Centuries ago, sick people were bled, deliberately, in the belief that it might save their lives. These days we know better: The need for blood is limitless. Every two seconds, someone in the United States requires it; more than 38,000 donations are needed every day of the year. Since blood cannot be made synthetically, it has to come from people's generosity. Processed into its components—red cells, platelets, and plasma—one pint can help as many as three people. But the shelf life is limited: for regular red blood cells, it's just 42 days. And only 5 percent of those who are eligible donate.
Sitting and drinking coffee in a diner the week before the big event, Fischer told his story. "When I started, I wasn't going for a record," he said. While working and attending textile school in South Carolina, he decided to participate in a blood drive at the First Baptist Church in Union. He liked the feeling of doing something good, so he gave blood a second time. That got him hooked. Since then, he has given every 56 days—except for one disappointing New Year's Day many years ago. "I was so mad because they were closed!" In the old days, before records were computerized, he could even get away with sneaking in a few extra donations.
Fischer is not the type to sit around. He served in the Coast Guard during the Korean War; on a blind date at the Brooklyn Navy Yard Officers' Club, he met a pretty young woman named Myrna. He proposed that very evening. Married, with a young child, Fischer was in constant motion. He became a successful textile salesman, spent, by his estimation, "300 nights a year" betting on horses at the track, and played a lot of golf. On weekends he was a lifeguard and took his wife to parties at the American Legion. "I had a busy schedule," he says, letting out a raspy chuckle. He started working as a printer, going to work for the police department, and it wasn't until his wife became disabled after an operation 17 years ago that he slowed down.
He's still happily working—in a print shop—but now he goes home after work and catches Jeopardy! with his wife. On weekends they might sit at the shore watching the boats or check out the tee-off at a golf tournament. He still bets on the horses, but over the phone, and goes by the American Legion from time to time "for the comradeship." And then there's the blood, every 56 days without fail.