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Robert Verbeck donates platelets to Stony Brook University Hospital almost once a month. Photo from Cassandra Huneke

Because so many are in need of life-saving blood cells, a local teacher is doing all he can to help a hospital’s supply match its demand.

Almost once a month for the past few years, Miller Avenue Elementary School fifth-grade teacher Robert Verbeck has traveled to Stony Brook University Hospital to donate his platelets. Last Thursday marked his 114th time.

Though not quite squeamish, Verbeck said he feels almost wrong for talking about it, saying he doesn’t see much nobility in sacrificing a small amount of time to help save lives.

“It might feel self-aggrandizing if I say I’m out there saving people’s lives every couple of weeks, but people can die when they don’t have enough platelets.”

— Robert Verbeck

“I almost feel guilty, though at the same time, you know you’re saving somebody’s life,”the Shoreham-Wading River school district teacher said. “It might feel self-aggrandizing if I say I’m out there saving people’s lives every couple of weeks, but people can die when they don’t have enough platelets.”

Verbeck’s stepfather and retired NYPD officer John Eaton had also been a prolific platelet donor before he passed away in May 2008. Eaton donated approximately 24 times a year, close to the maximum a person can donate in 12 months, according to Verbeck.

“He just wanted to help people — that’s why he became a cop in the first place,” Verbeck said. “He just kind of kept donating. In a weird way, I don’t want to say it’s addictive, but you get a really good feeling from doing it. You keep coming back.”

Platelets, tiny cells in the blood that form clots and stop bleeding, are essential to surviving and fighting cancer, chronic diseases and traumatic injuries. Every 30 seconds a patient is in need of platelets and more than 1 million platelet transfusions are given to patients each year in the U.S. Once a donation is given, the platelets must be used within five days.

“Stony Brook University Hospital never has enough donated platelets to satisfy our demand, therefore, we have to purchase the from other larger blood products facilities,”  said Linda Pugliese, a blood bank recruiter at Stony Brook. She said most of the hospital’s platelets are purchased from Red Cross. Over 10 years, Eaton donated more than 100 times, according to Pugliese.

“I understand people have their lives, they have their problems and not everyone can sacrifice their time, but If everybody donated a few times a year, we wouldn’t be so tight.”

— Dennis Galanakis

“Without them we couldn’t function,” said Dr. Dennis Galanakis, director of transfusion medicine at Stony Brook Hospital. “The problem with platelets is they have to be stored in a special way. They have to have all the tests that are required for safety. They only have a five-day shelf life, and it takes two days to do all the tests, so in practice, the shelf life is about three days.”

Verbeck was an efficient blood donator before he heard about platelets, and while at first he said he was skeptical, that changed when a friend of his was diagnosed with cancer.

“I started doing it, and just like my dad, I felt it was a good thing to do,” he said. “I was doing it five or six times a year. After my dad died, it was a loss, and not just my personal loss, but it was a loss with their supply — it was one less person donating. So that gave me the impetus.”

The entire platelet donation process takes about two hours. Machines take half cup of blood through one vein and processes it to remove platelets before returning the blood through another vein.

April is National Donate Life Month, so to join Verbeck in his quest to feed the blood banks, potential givers can call Stony Brook Hospital at 631-444-3662 or find out more online at stonybrookmedecine.edu and to schedule an appointment.

“Only a small number of people donate at any given time,” Galanakis said. “I understand people have their lives, they have their problems and not everyone can sacrifice their time, but If everybody donated a few times a year, we wouldn’t be so tight.”

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The news is in my blood. If you don’t believe me, check the name of the person who writes the column on the same page and who started this business 40 years ago — go Mom!

And yet there’s far too much blood in the news these days. It’s not enough that storms and natural disasters kill: People are murdering each other in stomach-churning numbers.

It’s heart-wrenching to read about the losses in our country and around the world. Far too often, headlines about senseless violence fill the news.

News organizations shouldn’t ignore these horrific acts, because we want to know what’s going on in the world, what we need to do to stay safe and what other people are doing and thinking.

It seems to me that there are things we can do. We can give blood. Why? We might save someone’s life, we might give someone a vital supply of something we can’t grow in a field, pull from a river or manufacture in a laboratory.

Recently, I met a woman who had been donating blood to her father for two years. He was sick and he needed blood on a regular basis. After he died, she continued to give blood. She said her father received blood from other people besides her during his illness, and she wanted to give back to a system that improved and extended his life.

Do we read about her? No, generally, we don’t, because it’s a small act of kindness and social awareness that doesn’t get politicians angry and doesn’t cause people to write messages to each other over the Internet. It’s not an opportunity to resort to name calling: It’s just a chance to save lives.

We can also volunteer to make our communities better places. We can be a big brother or big sister, or we can find a charitable organization that provides caring and support for families that have children with special needs. My Aunt Maxine had Down syndrome and gave so much more than she ever took.

Sure, she dominated the airwaves with her husky voice and, yes, she sometimes said and did things that made us roll our eyes, but, more often than not, she displayed the kind of unreserved love and affection that jaded and vulnerable adults find difficult to display. When Maxine laughed or did something extraordinarily funny, like sharing a malapropism, she laughed so hard that she cried. Nowadays, after she died, we find ourselves sharing tears of joy when we think of how much she contributed to our lives and to the room.

When the big things seem to be going in the wrong direction, we the people can commit random acts of kindness. Yes, we can and should pray for each other. It certainly can’t hurt, regardless of whether we’re Christian, Jewish, Muslim or any other religion.

We can also take the kind of actions that define who we are and that show our character. We are living in a world after the Brexit vote and after the failed coup attempt in Turkey. We may not know what to make of all that, but we can decide who we want to be.

We can’t stand on a platform, the way all the former Miss America contestants of bygone days used to, and wish for “world peace,” because that seems naive. And, yet, we can hope that small acts, committed in the name of counterbalancing all the negative news, echoed and amplified across the nation, can turn the tone.

We are fortunate enough to live in a place where we can shape the world in a way we’d like it to be, one community and one random act of kindness at a time.

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File photo

Winter weather has affected blood donations, and Port Jefferson’s John T. Mather Memorial Hospital, located at 75 N. Country Road, will hold a blood drive on Monday, March 7, to help.

According to the hospital, snow caused many blood drives to be canceled; so the community needs donors to help keep cancer and surgery patients, accident and burn victims, anemic patients, newborns and their mothers and AIDS patients alive.

The Mather event — which will run from 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. in Conference Rooms 3, 4 and 5 — is open to everyone and no appointment is necessary.

Free valet parking is available at the main entrance.

Donors will receive candy, McDonald’s certificates and a gift card to Panera or Target.

Eli Mollineaux, who was born with a rare condition called Pearson marrow-pancreas syndrome, smiles for a photo at Huntington High School after receiving a proclamation from the town for his positive attitude and high spirit despite his condition. Photo by Giselle Barkley

Rain or shine, 13-year-old Eli Mollineaux always has a smile on his face — even as he battles a rare mitochondrial disease known as Pearson marrow-pancreas syndrome.

On Wednesday, Suffolk County honored Eli for his sunny disposition despite his condition, with a proclamation. Now, the month of September is Mitochondrial Awareness month, and Suffolk County officials went a step further, calling the proclamation “Eli’s Law” in light of the Huntington native’s 14th birthday this Saturday, Oct. 3.

Eli’s birthday is yet another milestone for him, his family and their friends.

“The lifespan for kids with Pearson’s is around 3 to 4 years old,” said Alyssa Mancuso, a family friend of 10 years. “So the fact that Eli’s turning 14 is huge.”

Children with Pearson marrow-pancreas syndrome, an incurable multisystem disorder, have problems with the development of blood-forming cells in the bone marrow that have the potential to develop into different types of blood cells.

From left, Huntington School District Superintendent James Polansky, Principal Brenden Cusack, Legislator William “Doc” Spencer, Eli Mollineaux, his mother Ellen, younger brother Sam, older brother Josh and Eli’s aide Ilene Messina, pose for a photo at Huntington High School while Eli holds his proclamation. Photo by Giselle Barkley
From left, Huntington School District Superintendent James Polansky, Principal Brenden Cusack, Legislator William “Doc” Spencer, Eli Mollineaux, his mother Ellen, younger brother Sam, older brother Josh and Eli’s aide Ilene Messina, pose for a photo at Huntington High School while Eli holds his proclamation. Photo by Giselle Barkley

According to Eli’s mother, Ellen Mollineaux, the “mitochondria is [the] battery for cells and [Eli] is missing a big part of that battery.”

Mollineaux remembers her son’s condition developing when he was a infant, as he was often sick and didn’t act like a typical child.

“Cognitively, I knew he was there, but all of a sudden he was sleeping more and wasn’t playful,” Mollineaux said. “[He] always wanted to be held and hugged and I knew something was wrong.”

After taking Eli to his pediatrician, a blood test revealed Eli’s hemoglobin level was around 1.9 grams per deciliter, when the average 6-month to 2-year-old child’s level should be around 12, which means his body was running out of blood. Mollineaux said doctors rushed Eli to the North Shore Hospital in Manhasset for a blood transfusion.

“It was as if they filled his tank up with gas,” Mollineaux said. “He sat up and within minutes; all the skills he didn’t have, he had.”

Mollineaux received the transfusion in September of 2002. While Eli was doing well for a few years, his disorder has progressed in the last several months. According to his mother, his tremors are getting worse, making it difficult for him to eat — especially his favorite food, soup. Walking is also more difficult.

Principal Brenden Cusack, left, and Eli Mollineaux, right, perform Eli’s daily joke over the school intercom. Photo by Giselle Barkley
Principal Brenden Cusack and Eli Mollineaux perform Eli’s daily joke over the school intercom. Photo by Giselle Barkley

Despite this, Eli remains positive.

“He will lose his balance when he tries to walk and he doesn’t say ‘It sucks,’” Mollineaux said. “If the doctor asks him… ‘How you doing?’ Even though he can’t walk [properly, he says] ‘Great. Everything’s good.’”

During an interview with media, Eli’s older brother, Josh, also commented on his brother’s sunny disposition. He said his brother is a happy kid who is indifferent to his illness.

The only thing Eli doesn’t like, is having his blood drawn.

Regardless of his hardships, thinking about school and seeing his friends is what keeps Eli’s spirit up. During an interview, he said art was his favorite subject at school.

Legislator William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport), who was present at the press conference where Eli received his proclamation, said “Eli’s Law” will honor Eli’s courage, while bringing awareness to his condition. Spencer said that Eli and his spirit is inspiring, and gives hope to those who are battling their own adversities.

Although his current prognosis is not very good, Ellen Mollineaux said her family clings to their motto.

“Nobody knows their future,” she said. “That’s like our motto. No one knows what’s going to happen tomorrow. Horrible things happen every day and we just move on.”

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