Lee County has lost about 900 units of blood that patients need due to blood drive cancellations. There are blood drives set Sunday, March 22, 2020 and during the coming week.

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Before Sunday, Larry Antonucci, president and CEO of Lee Health, had never donated blood.

As media, staff and Paul Hiltz, president and CEO of NCH Healthcare System watched, Orelbys Lara, a Lee Health phlebotomy tech, inserted the blood-donor needle into Antonucci’s arm.

Antonucci, himself a doctor, didn’t even flinch.

“Piece of cake,” he said after. “Easy. The staff is incredible. And they even gave me a snack.”

Antonucci and Hiltz were the first two blood donors Sunday in a green Lee Health donation bus on the second day of a special blood donor drive at the American Red Cross, South Florida Region, Florida’s Southern Gulf Chapter office at 7051 Cypress Terrace. The two-day event was to help the hospital system recoup some of the blood supply depressed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The system is down about 900 to 1,000 units, said Susie Nystrom, director of Blood Center Services at Lee Health.

“Businesses are closed and schools and colleges are closed,” she said. “Those were our big draws.”


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She said that some things have been done at the hospital system to alleviate the depressed blood supply. One of those things happens Monday morning when elective surgeries are put on hold.

“That’s a step for conservation,” Nystrom said. “The blood supply will now be directed solely to non-scheduled areas such as trauma, medical and oncology.”

The blood donor event Saturday and Sunday was designed to help pump up the slack supply chain.

“We had about 60-61 Saturday,” said Jeremy Puckett, Blood Center supervisor. “We capped it at 50 when we started giving out numbers and we had about 10 before that.”

Sunday, it was the same, about 50 slots were available for first-come, first-drawn donors.

Throughout the coming week and beyond, blood draws will be scheduled around Lee County and at Lee Health hospital blood donor centers. Those interested in donating at one of the big green blood donor buses can call 239-343-2333 daily and find it where the units will be.

Sunday’s donor event started filling up even before the bus arrived at 11:30 a.m.

Janet and Ennio Fulgoni, of Cape Coral, just missed donating Saturday, arriving shortly after the cutoff for the day.

They were first in line to donate Sunday.

“It’s the right thing to do,” Janet Fulgoni said when asked why the couple ventured out in the pandemic-besotted environment. “You need to help.”

She said she had not donated for a long time, since moving here a few years ago from Boston. She said nobody in her family had the virus.

“When people help out, we are much better off,” she said.

Lindy Gonzalez, of Cape Coral, said the fact that Lee Health and the American Red Cross were running the show put her health concerns at ease.

“It is important in situations like this that the community comes together,” she said as she waited her turn to give.

Antonucci and Hiltz both cited leading by example for why they were the first two aboard the donation bus.

“We are stronger together,” Antonucci said. “Not just Lee Health and NCH. I want the entire community to see if we all participate we’ll get through this.”

All together, he said, the community will be better.

“It’s going to send a message,” Hiltz added. “We’re in a time when all communities work together.”

Both remarked about the capabilities of the blood donation staff and how easy and relatively pain-free the process was.

“It was fine,” Hiltz said. “It’s very safe and will help our community.”

Lara, who was busy prepping people, sanitizing donation couches between draws and a hundred other things inside the big green bus, said giving blood helps the donor as well as those possibly getting the blood.

“Don’t just think about the lives,” he said. “It’s good for yourself. You get a physical, your blood pressure is taken. It’s always a good thing and it will help your own health down the road. And, it takes only five to 10 minutes.”

Connect with breaking news reporter Michael Braun: MichaelBraunNP (Facebook)@MichaelBraunNP (Twitter) or [email protected]

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