Winter Parkers flood blood bank
Inside the walls of Winter Park’s OneBlood donation Center on Monday, it was a game of numbers. Fifty-seven Central Floridians walked in the front door, and out with a bandage circling the crook of their arm. In between entrance and exit, they waited an average of five hours.
Six cases of donated water bottles lined the lobby, while dozens more were stacked in the back. A truckload of snacks – six trays of muffins, five gallons of juice, four packages of chocolate chip cookies, two boxes of doughnuts – overflowed the front counter. Three restaurants dropped of meals. Planet Smoothie two-doors down offered free smoothies to anyone who donated. Two Winter Park firemen spent the morning doing anything they could to help, ready to be of service if someone had an adverse reaction while donating. One nurse, who worked 22 hours at the blood bank downtown on Sunday, was back in her scrubs – this time in Winter Park – running on less than four hours of sleep.
All because one man with two guns killed 49 people and injured 53 at Pulse nightclub in Orlando the day before.
Seven hours after the rampage began, as daylight broke on Sunday, the first urgent calls for blood donations to aid victims went out.
News coverage of the shooting played on repeat in the OneBlood lobby. “What happened now?” asked Lisa Chandler, number 24 in line, bewildered as “breaking news” flashed across the screen identifying more victims. Interviews with loved ones of people unaccounted for after the shooting aired, before an anchor followed up with news that a loved one had been found, but not alive.
Sighs echoed through the lobby.
When Erica Morse arrived at the Winter Park OneBlood donation center on Aloma Avenue just before 8 a.m. Monday morning, the line to donate blood already stretched out the front door and onto the sidewalk.
The center hadn't officially opened yet, but the OneBlood staff got to work early, filing patients one-by-one. They took three walk-ins before realizing the rush outnumbered their capacity, switching to only accepting those with donation appointments. Those who arrived for 10:30 a.m. appointments were still waiting at 3:30 p.m., a half hour before the closing time listed on the door.
Morse arrived early to drop off supplies, her truck bed packed with essentials. She'd done the same at the Michigan Street location downtown and at blood drives in Oviedo and Altamonte. But this time, she didn't leave once her truck was empty.
“She just showed up this morning and said, 'Is there anything I can do?'” said OneBlood Donor Service Director Mary McCarthy.
Morse couldn't donate blood; she'd done so two weeks earlier. So instead, she set up a command center at the location's front desk. She greeted everyone who walked in the door. She took questions, gave answers when she could, and found others to answer those she couldn't. “I don't actually work here,” she said with a small smile, as she ruffled through her piles of checklists, Post-It notes and patient forms.
“I had to do something, I can't just sit at home and do nothing,” the Winter Parker said.
“...I'm a doer. I'm a fiddler. I like to help.”
So she did. By noon she'd created a system. Each donor got a number, and if they had to leave for any reason, she'd take down their phone number to call them when their number got close. Sometimes, that was up to five hours after their original appointment time. When people wanting to walk in and donate came through, she handed them one of her handwritten notecards with the OneBlood phone number on it for them to call and make an appointment for later in the week. The need for blood donations, she told them, won’t go away for the victims in the next week days, weeks or even months.
“And mainly,” she said, “I'm making sure everyone is eating and drinking and taking care of themselves.”
Donations of food and drinks arrived steadily throughout the day from other Central Floridians looking to do something. Sonny's BBQ dropped off lunch. Gator's Dockside brought wings. Sandwiches came from Orlando City Soccer, and water from Trader Joe's. Local residents filled in the gaps, with snacks stacked a foot high on the lobby's front table. The donations overflowed into the hallway, with cases of water bottles doubling as chairs for those waiting their turn to give blood.
“There are ICEE pops in the fridge,” Morse tells a new arrival to the crowd, holding one of the donated frozen treats in her hand. “This is like my third one!”
“I've eaten every artificial color under the rainbow while I've been sitting here,” said Chandler with a laugh. She made it halfway through a can of Coke, before realizing the caffeine might raise her heart rate above the acceptable level for a blood donor. Her nerves, she said, as a first-time donor with a fear of both needles and blood, were enough to keep her heart pounding on its own. For three hours she'd sat so far in the donation center, the small waiting room filled equal parts with people and food. Per Morse's system, she was number 24. Chandler had arrived at noon, and at 3:45 p.m. 10 numbers still stood between her and the front of the line.
But it was the OneBlood staff that the waiting room crowd was most concerned with keeping fed.
“It's the staff that is going continuously, we really just have to sit here,” said Winter Parker Tris Skirvin, number 17.
“We cornered [one of the nurses] in the front room and made her eat,” added number 11, Mary Myers, with a laugh.
Myers, also of Winter Park, joked that the women crowded into the lobby had created a subculture, each of them known only by their number.
“It was a pleasure meeting you, number 9,” Myers said, as the woman two numbers ahead of her exited the donation room, and she replaced her on the oversized cushioned recliner.
“The chairs are still warm since the people just left,” she said.
“We've all been making each other laugh, so it's been going really fast,” Skirvin said, five hours into her wait. She'd parked herself in a foldout chair in the hallway between the donation room and the lobby. The chair – and the one sat in beside her by number 28, Baldwin Parker Kate Alexander – were part of the load of supplies dropped off my Morse.
Alexander tried to donate blood the day before, but was met at the Waterford Lakes Big Red Bus location with an estimated seven-hour wait. So instead she made a 1 p.m. appointment in Winter Park for today.
“And then you got here and it's another seven hour wait,” Myers said with a laugh.
Alexander was the latest arrival of the bunch, just two hours spent waiting so far, but, she said, “Now, if I just left, it would be a waste of the day.” No matter what, she said, she just had to do something.
“At this point we're all committed,” Chandler said with a smile. “...I feel like I've known you all for five days.”
Inside the glass-walled donation room, Winter Parker Dan Whitney assumed the position he’s taken every four months like clockwork for going on 40 years. He had a standing appointment to donate double red blood cells on Monday, scheduled months before Sunday’s tragedy, and the subsequent emergency call for blood donations.
“People need blood, and if I can help anybody in any way I will,” he said.
He’s used to the one or two days it usually takes him to recover from his donation. Not-so familiar was the five-hour wait between his 10:45 a.m. appointment time and 3:45 p.m. when he finally found himself in the donation chair.
“It’s just amazing how many people came forward to help in this crisis situation,” he said. “…And to take four or five hours out of their day off maybe just to donate.”
According to the hours posted on the center’s front glass door, when the clock struck 4 p.m., the center should have closed. But six women waiting to donate still sat camped out in the lobby.
“We’re just going until everyone is done,” Morse said. “Could you imagine if I just said, alright, it’s 4 o’clock, we’re closed, get out!”
There’d be mutiny, the women agreed as laughter filled the lobby.
“It’s been a pleasure,” Myers said, as she walked out of the donation room past the women she’d spent the day getting to know, her bandage affixed like a badge around her elbow.
“It’s been an adventure,” Skirvin replied.
“Hopefully we’ll never have an event that will have us all here again,” Myers said, with a wave before exiting out into the afternoon sun.
One more number down, six more to go – at least until the whole process started again on Tuesday.
“Do you need me again tomorrow?” Morse asked McCarthy, the OneBlood donor services manager.
“Really?” McCarthy asked, caught off guard. “Uh, yeah,” she continued, as if the answer was obvious.
“8 o’clock?” Morse confirmed.
“See you then!”
Morse still doesn’t work there, but now she has a system. And tomorrow, the list will start again with number 1.