By the time a plastic tube begins pulling blood from his right arm, Michael Zapata Jr. already has given more than most would expect.
It’s 10:45 in the morning, and the 74-year-old has been up for hours. He woke before 6 a.m. to make a two-hour trip on four buses from his Cary apartment to the American Red Cross donation center in Durham.
It’s a trip he’s been making for years.
Zapata doesn’t own a car. He has back problems, trouble walking and diabetes. Diabetics can only donate platelets, so every other Friday, he makes the 20-mile journey to the only Red Cross center in the Triangle that collects platelets.
He usually pushes his walker through the front door a little after 9 a.m. He always arrives early, before his appointment. A blue Trader Joe’s tote bag often hangs from the handles, carrying fruit and chocolates for the women in white lab coats who greet Zapata by name.
Zapata, born Sept. 11, 1940, to Spanish immigrants on the lower east side of Manhattan, says he won’t let his ailments prevent him from helping people in such a simple way.
“God probably wants me to do something more significant than sit around and try to find the best combination of beer and pizza,” he said.
His efforts were rewarded earlier this month when he was one of 15 people inducted into the Donation Hall of Fame, sponsored by Fenwal, a medical technology company. The hall of fame recognizes people across the country who show an extraordinary commitment to donating blood, plasma and platelets.
Donors aren’t paid for donations. By law, all blood collected for transfusions in the United States must be from volunteer donors.
Raleigh resident Dan Dye, a Red Cross volunteer who has donated blood and platelets for more than 30 years, also was inducted. Their stories will be shared in a Fenwal calendar.
“We have some people we see once every few months and others once a year. Then you have Mr. Zapata and Dan, who max out the total donations they can do in a year’s time,” said Heather Welliver, a collections supervisor. “Both always give three units (enough to help three people) ... and they’ve been doing it for years.”
The journey begins
Zapata’s biweekly journey to Durham requires taking buses on several different transit systems, a mosaic of schedules and logistics that now have become routine. It begins when a door-to-door bus service, whose driver calls Zapata ahead of the bus’s arrival, picks him up at his apartment in central Cary and takes him to the Cary Depot on North Harrison Avenue.
From the depot, he takes a Triangle Transit Authority bus to a transit center on Slater Road near Research Triangle Park. He then boards a bus bound for the intersection of Chapel Hill and Pettigrew streets in Durham.
From there, a Durham Area Transit Authority bus takes him to the Red Cross donation center on University Drive. Zapata says the whole trip costs about $7, including senior discounts.
The hardest part might be staying awake, Zapata said. He regularly lifts weights, rides an exercise bike and occasionally does yoga to stay fit.
“One time I fell asleep and ended up in Chapel Hill,” he said.
Zapata, who acknowledges his memory isn’t what it used to be, doesn’t know how many years he’s been donating blood and platelets. He says he first donated blood in the late 1950s as part of a drive hosted by his service fraternity, Alpha Phi Omega, at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn.
“It just seems like such a simple way to help people medically,” he said. “I’ve tried to donate a kidney, but my doctor wouldn’t let me.”
The retired hardware and software developer came to the Triangle in 1967 by way of IBM. IBM hired him after he spent three years as an engineer in the Navy during the Vietnam War. Zapata said he retired in the late 1980s, and had lots of time to do things such as dine out and go to the theater.
The Red Cross reports Zapata has donated platelets for at least 20 years. Platelets are small, colorless cell fragments in the blood that act as a coagulant. They’re needed most by cancer patients, hemophiliacs and people who undergo major surgery, according to the Red Cross.
While blood has a shelf life of 42 days, platelets are always in demand because they have a shelf life of only five days. An individual can donate blood every 56 days and platelets once every seven days, up to 24 times a year. Zapata schedules appointments every two weeks.
A patient himself
Zapata has benefited from donated platelets twice in the last 10 years, first when doctors removed part of his intestine and again after heart bypass surgery. He doesn’t mind the lengthy process of donating.
“For me, it’s not a sacrifice. The worst part might be if I pick a DVD I’ve already seen,” he said, referring to the Durham Red Cross center’s collection of movies that donors can watch while donating.
In fact, the specialists at the center couldn’t think of much that would keep Zapata away.
“If the buses are running, he’s here,” said Laura King, a collections specialist.
Last year, Zapata called the donation center the morning after a bad ice storm. He didn’t have an appointment scheduled for that day, King recalled, but he wanted to know if he could donate anyway “because he knew people would need it.”
Zapata arrived minutes after getting the OK.
“Turns out, he had already gotten up early and rode to Durham,” King said.
Another time, Zapata showed up with both of his knees scraped and bloodied. He had fallen somewhere along his commute to Durham.
“People were rushing over to tend to him,” said Gregory Sain, another collections specialist. “His first words were ‘I can still donate, right?’ ”
Zapata would be easy to spot in the donation center, even if he wasn’t 6 feet, 2 inches tall and 300 pounds.
Donors were bundled up in blankets on a recent Friday when the temperatures were in the 40s. Zapata wore shorts and compression socks.
As most donors slept, read or watched television to pass the time, Zapata joked with Red Cross employees.
He suggested he should be allowed to skip a routine predonation survey because he donates so often. He placed a barcode sticker on his forehead and offered to wear it so the specialists could simply scan him each time he donates.
“You know all my answers,” he said with a laugh.
Once the procedure started, Zapata passed the time by telling stories.
He wasn’t joking when he said he was a hardened “aspiring mobster” in his youth, but some still found it hard to believe Zapata, who is a member of Triangle Church of Christ in Chapel Hill.
But they seemed to believe him when he said he once thrived on nightlife – dancing, drinking and entertaining women.
Whenever the specialists ask Zapata if they can make his experience more comfortable, “I always say, ‘Yes, peppermint schnapps,’ ” he said. “But they never give it to me.”
The return trip home
Nearly two hours after the procedure started, specialists unhooked Zapata from the machine. Most donations last between 90 minutes and two hours.
Zapata had been standing up for less than a minute after his session when collection specialist Janice Welch hurried over to give him a big hug.
“Thank you very much,” she said of the chocolates. “I loved it.”
Zapata had brought Ghirardelli and Ferrero Rocher chocolates.
“A lot of ladies like the Ghirardelli chocolate with the raspberry stuff inside, some like them with caramel, and some like the peppermint patties,” he said.
Zapata said his goodbyes, pulled a blue blazer over his purple shirt and shuffled out the door. The now-empty Trader Joe’s tote bag hung off the front of his walker as he headed back to the bus stop about 100 yards away.
The return trip to Cary typically takes longer than two hours if Zapata doesn’t catch the bus by 2:30 p.m., he said. At the bus stop, he promptly sat on his walker and pulled a transit card out of his jacket pocket.
The father of four wanted to get home and rest before celebrating his granddaughter’s birthday later that night. He was tired, but he couldn’t wait.
In two weeks, he’ll do it all over again, and for the indefinite future.
He said he’ll donate platelets “as long as I’m on this side of the grass.”