A Phoenix man sets donation records to honor his late wife.

Thicker Than Blood

Written by Nicole Tyau Category: People Issue: December 2016
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James Van Dyne served in the united states air force for more than 20 years and carries himself as such. He speaks matter-of-factly about testing pilot machinery and flight simulators, reminiscing about his time in Okinawa, Saudi Arabia and South Korea. But when he talks about his late wife, Mary Lou, his stoicism cracks, his eyes flood and the brusque military man becomes a loving husband who lost his wife too soon.

When Mary Lou was diagnosed with cancer in 1985, he decided he would honor her by donating blood to patients in need.

“I said, ‘Well, honey, I promise I’ll try and do 500 for you,’” he says, emotion cracking his voice. He didn’t have a lot to give, but he wanted to do something to help people and leave a legacy for Mary Lou. “I don’t have a lot of extra to donate money to charities,” Van Dyne says. “But I could donate time.”

Mary Lou had a tumor in her right sinus passage and eventually lost her hearing in that ear. Van Dyne spent one day a week going to Luke Air Force Base to check in and the other six doting on Mary Lou: nourishing her through a feeding tube for 12 hours each day and accepting her decision to discontinue chemotherapy and radiation treatments. “She was a lady of about 130 pounds normally,” Van Dyne says. “She got down to about 72 pounds.”

Van Dyne, stationed at Luke Air Force Base, met Mary Lou in 1969 while on leave in Rochester, New York, where she lived next to his aunt. A year and a half after they met, the pair married. They moved to Phoenix in 1970, where their eldest daughter Julie was born. After moving from Japan to Louisiana and the birth of their other two children, they bought a house in Phoenix in 1978, where Van Dyne still lives. Their lives were full of their family and their passions; Van Dyne had the military, and Mary Lou volunteered at their children’s school. 

Van Dyne’s youngest daughter Christina was entering her freshman year of high school when her mother passed away. “Being a child, I was a little bit buffered from it all... but obviously it’s hard,” she says. “It’s hard and horrible and it forces you to grow up so fast, which wasn’t fun.”

Every two weeks, Van Dyne donates his platelets to United Blood Services (UBS). This September, Van Dyne hit his 600th blood donation. On his birthday, October 6, he reached No. 602. Through UBS, Van Dyne has helped save, at a minimum, an estimated 1,200 lives through his donations. “There are patients in 64 Arizona hospitals who are depending on 500 blood donors to give every single day,” says Sue Thew, a UBS representative. “It’s amazing how huge the need is, but in particular, the platelets that James gives are what some people call liquid gold.”

Most donors give what is called “whole blood”: red blood cells, plasma and platelets. The process takes about 45 minutes. According to UBS, only 5 percent of the population donates even just once a year. Van Dyne elects to go through a longer process called platelet apheresis that isolates and separates his platelets. It takes twice as long, but it’s time he’s willing to give.

The primary need for platelets lies with cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. The chemicals and radiation destroy not only the malignant cancer cells but the other components of blood as well. UBS chief medical officer Dr. Robin Cusick says platelets are fundamental to blood flow. “They go through a lot of vigorous therapy in an effort to treat their cancer, but it can also cause their bone marrow to not produce enough platelets,” she says, emphasizing that platelet donations are vital. 

Platelets only have a five-day shelf life. The first two days are spent processing and testing the platelets before they are administered to patients; that leaves only three days for medical professionals to find a match, transport them to the patient and begin the transfusion. Van Dyne’s donation contains 6-10 times more platelets than whole blood donations because the platelets are being separated from the other blood components. Because the platelet count in apheresis is so concentrated, a single donation can be split to help more than one patient. In Van Dyne’s case, his donation is split to serve two patients. 

“It feels warming to me that hopefully I’ve been able to help that many and more,” Van Dyne says of the 1,200 people he’s estimated to have helped. “It feels good that I’m helping somebody even if I don’t know them.” His family says this spirit of selflessness is Van Dyne’s fundamental nature.

“He’d give anyone the shirt off his back, if they needed it,” Christina attests. “He clearly has a problem with... saying ‘no.’ It’s ‘yes, yes, yes’ to everything, but it’s good because it’s giving your time and your resources and your generosity and things that are priceless – like your blood.”

Thew knows it’s a gift to have someone donate their time and blood to strangers in need. On the day of Van Dyne’s 602nd donation, Thew’s brother received a platelet transfusion. Unfortunately, he later died.

“It gave him a chance to save his life,” she says. “That’s how [James] honors his late wife, and that’s the legacy that he leaves behind: All the lives that he can touch and has touched and will continue to do so as long as he’s healthy enough to give a little bit of his time to help families like mine.”

He doesn’t do it, he says, for the recognition or to get yet another “James Van Dyne Day” (because who really needs a third honorary day when you already have two – September 8, 2016, and October 23, 2014?). He does it because he knows there’s a need, he has the resources and it makes him feel good. Though he hit 500 donations years ago, there’s no end in sight for Van Dyne.

“At the 600 donation mark, they told me, ‘You’re one of the top 10 in the U.S. for platelet numbers.’ So I thought, ‘Oh man, there’s nine out there that have more than me! I’ll have to find them and knock them off,’” he laughs, acknowledging the good-natured competition between serial donors. “I’ve got nine other people I have to catch.”

In a few years, Van Dyne hopes to hit donation No. 700. He keeps his lifelong love and his inspiration, his Mary Lou, alive with his legacy of giving. In the meantime, he spends his time with three of his grandchildren, Christina’s kids, twice a week in her North Phoenix home. Van Dyne says his best friend is KC, their overweight golden lab with a perpetual smile on his face. They play tug of war in the backyard and Van Dyne sneaks KC an extra treat now and then.

“My goal is to help somebody here and there,” he says. “As long as I’m healthy and can keep on doing it, I will.”