Michael Zapata Jr. seemed more comfortable with a needle in his arm than with an award in his hand.
The 74-year-old stood silently next to a platelet-collecting machine with his arms by his side as more than a dozen people encircled him and clapped. Zapata had traveled from his Cary home to the Red Cross Blood Donation Center in Durham to give platelets, as he’s done for many years.
The trip, which he makes every two weeks, usually requires him to take four buses over the course of two hours. To him, the trek is a pleasure. The benefits to those in need greatly outweigh any minor inconveniences in his personal life, he says.
But to others, including state Sen. Josh Stein of Raleigh and state Rep. Skip Stam of Apex, it’s admirable – if not remarkable – considering Zapata is a diabetic who has trouble walking.
That’s why Stein drove Zapata to his donation appointment on Friday and presented him with the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, one of the highest honors given to a North Carolina resident by the governor.
Stein said he and Stam nominated Zapata for the award because they “were moved” by his story.
“He is here with unbelievable dedication and commitment. He comes every two weeks, rain or shine. ... and he does it because of a simple creed: he wants to do what he can to help other people,” Stein said.
“He’s a perfect example of somebody worthy of the Order of the Long Leaf pine.”
It was the second time in less than a year that Zapata was recognized for his efforts.
In November, he was one of 15 people nationwide inducted into the Donation Hall of Fame, sponsored by Fenwal, a medical technology company. The hall of fame recognizes people who show an extraordinary commitment to donating blood, plasma and platelets.
Zapata said he can’t count the number of years he’s donated 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. He then donated on and off throughout the years, picking the habit back up consistently several years ago.
And his determination intensified as his physical obstacles mounted.
These days, Zapata 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.
On Friday, the New York native downplayed the commute and said he felt humbled by the award.
“I feel like it’s out of my league, like it’s for people who have made more large-scale sacrifices,” he said. “I just come here, get some snacks, watch a DVD and give some platelets.”
He also brings fruits and chocolates for Red Cross employees, including Rossitza Todorova, a team supervisor who nominated Zapata for the donor hall of fame. She said Zapata’s laugh is contagious, and that his dedication has inspired others.
“He has definitely helped get the word out,” about blood donation, she said.
Before Friday, Zapata hadn’t donated platelets since January because he wasn’t allowed to. He had donated a year’s worth of platelets and plasma in 10 months.
Todorova said Zapata called her earlier this week to make sure he could still donate platelets if, for some reason, the award presentation was canceled or delayed.
“It was hard to say which he was more happy about: the award or donating again,” she said.