Giving blood
Photo: Stephen Lewis
Albert Fischer started donating pints of his O-positive when Truman was president, and has continued to do so every 56 days—for 58 years.
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.

Ask him why he keeps on donating, and Fischer will shrug and say simply, "Look—I want to help people. And it doesn't hurt me. When I was a salesman, driving the whole metropolitan area, I'd come home and say, 'I've had a terrible day, but you know, I gave blood, and that perks me up.' People are living because I gave blood." At a rate of three people per pint, he's helped about 1,000 people over the years.

He cheerfully allows that he's always been competitive. Years ago, he recalls, "feeling very expansive, I said to the phlebotomist, 'What's the record around here? I've got 80 pints!' She called over a little old lady and said, 'Mary, how many pints have you given?' She says, 'This is my 136th.' It made me feel so small…."

As if his regular service weren't enough, Fischer learned his O-positive blood is Code 96. That means it lacks a particular combination of antigens, which makes it especially useful for specialized cases: transplants, people who have been transfused so often that they reject regular blood, and fragile babies.

When Ronald Reagan was shot, Fischer arranged for two receipts to go to him. Was there a thank-you note? Nope, but never mind. Still, he gets a kick out of what he calls "the notoriety," the blizzard of citations, certificates, and plaques, and he proudly mentions that he was named one of President George H.W. Bush's Points of Light.

You'd think by now that Fischer would have made it into the Guinness World Records, but he's behind the current recordholder, Englishman Anthony Davis, and Maurice Wood in St. Louis, who is just a few pints ahead. He and Wood have talked; neither one is about to give up. Fischer's keeping an eye on Wood, who recently moved into an assisted living residence, so who knows?

On this bright morning at the country club, the technicians fuss over Fischer as the TV cameras roll and a spry jazz combo plays. The other donors smile at him as they leave with their gifts—small pots of chrysanthemums, Glen Campbell CDs. None of the local politicians he's been hoping for have shown up, but Fischer seems content, telling stories and savoring the moment. How much longer will he keep on giving? "Until I drop." He adds wryly, "After this, no more big events. Fifty gallons? Do the math…."

For now, he's planning to take the rest of the day off, maybe do some chores for his wife. He'll be back when it's time.

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Helen Rogan has written for many publications, including The New York Times. She lives in Brooklyn.


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