Volunteer Drivers Help Save Lives

A team of 65 volunteers drive all over delivering blood from the American Red Cross Donor Center to hospitals and other medical facilities in Upstate New York

By David Figura

Red Cross volunteer Dick Dembowski of East Syracuse crisscrosses CNY and beyond making deliveries of blood.

It’s 8 a.m. on a Wednesday and Red Cross volunteer Dick Dembowski is anxiously waiting for an assignment to deliver blood.

“I’m on the STAT team, meaning I make runs to medical facilities that need blood ASAP,” he said. “Wherever I’m going, I never stop unless I have to pee. I figure every trip is important and that I’m saving someone’s life by making my delivery.”

Dembowski, 76, of East Syracuse, a retired truck driver, is one of 65 dedicated volunteer blood transportation specialists, who work a wide variety of day and evening shifts out the Red Cross Donor Center in Liverpool.

The majority of the drivers are mostly retired men, ranging in age from college students to one retiree who’s 82.

The volunteers working out of Liverpool are in the Red Cross’s Eastern region and drive to hospitals and other medical facilities in an area ranging roughly from Binghamton up as far north as Messina, and as far east as New Hartford and Cooperstown and west to West Henrietta and Elmira.

Some drivers like Dembowski are on the STAT crew. Others have dedicated runs to local hospitals to help keep their available blood and other blood products at acceptable levels for surgeries, emergencies and other needs of patients.

Dick Dembowski hands off a box of blood to (from left) Malgorzata Jamer and Shannon Long, medical technicians at the Syracuse VA Medical Center in Syracuse.

Members of the STAT crew are required to live within a half hour of a donation center where the blood is stored, according to Rachel Elzufon Couch, who oversees the transportation of blood across the state. The STAT drivers strive to deliver the blood within 1½ hours after picking it up, she said.

“I can’t emphasize how wonderful all of these volunteers are, always looking to help beyond their shifts. We are so blessed,” said Connie Wheatley, transportation coordinator at the Liverpool office.

Nearly all the volunteers drive Red Cross-owned vehicles to and from their assignments.

An exception is Mike Bocketti, 76, of Chittenango, a wheelchair-bound, Vietnam War veteran who uses his own vehicle. Bocketti retired from the Syracuse Veterans Administration Hospital where he was a therapist specializing in post traumatic stress disorder.

“He’s been driving for us more than 15 years and averages 1,600 miles a month on the road,” Wheatley said. She added that Bocketti, who volunteers on Fridays and Sundays, during 2022 drove 19,462 miles and donated a total of 446.8 hours transporting blood.

The Liverpool volunteers include former truck drivers like Dembowski; a commercial airline pilot, teachers, military personnel, retired engineers and “a whole range of regular Joes,” Wheatley said.

This reporter accompanied Dembowski on one of his morning shifts as he delivered a box of blood to the VA hospital in Syracuse and soon afterward drove down to Wilson Medical Center in Johnson City with a box of platelets.

Dembowski chats with Connie Wheatley, transportation coordinator at the Liverpool Red Cross Blood Donation Center.

Dembowski, a truck driver for 32 years, retired at 62.

Since then, he has played a lot of golf while working part-time at Golf Galaxy in DeWitt, repairing golf clubs on a part-time basis. In addition, for nine years he was a volunteer driver for the Veterans Hospital in Syracuse, driving patients to and from appointments.

He stopped driving for the VA during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“My wife and I were talking about it, that I wasn’t volunteering any more at the VA. I wasn’t doing anything when the golf season ended. What was I going to do?” he said.

Dembowski said his mother-in-law worked for the Red Cross for years. He said he and his wife heard something on the news about the need for Red Cross volunteers. He said he didn’t want to sit and take blood from people. However, the idea of picking up blood and delivering it to different hospitals appealed to him.

He began volunteering as a blood transportation specialist more than seven months ago.

“Who am I helping? I never get told. I guess it’s none of my business,” he said. “However, I look upon it as a matter of life or death. It could be for a pregnant woman who had problems, maybe a baby, someone getting heart surgery or a liver transplant, someone who was in a car accident, someone fighting cancer.”

Since starting, Dembowski said he has driven through all sorts of weather, including intense snow and rain storms.

Boxes of blood ready for delivery at the American Red Cross Donation Center on Oswego Road (Route 57) in Liverpool.

He works from 8 a.m. to noon on Wednesdays. That’s the time frame for him to get delivery assignments, but often he ends up driving for several more hours outside of his shift, depending on the destination — particularly if he’s going to places like Potsdam or Messina.

On one trip to a medical facility in Herkimer on the other side of Utica, Dembowski said “as soon as they saw me drive in, there was a lady who came out to my van and got the blood. That’s how much of a hurry they were in.”

Wheatley, who oversees the scheduling and training of the volunteer drivers, said applicants need a clean driver’s license (no DWIs or other serious tickets) and a background check.

The training includes mandatory viewing of an online training video, instructions on following and filling out required paperwork, a test drive in one of the Red Cross vehicles and a ride-along with a seasoned driver on the shift you’re interested in filling.

The volunteers staff day and evening shifts. A paid courier is also available if no one is on hand or for third shift deliveries.

During a recent morning trip to Wilson Medical Center in Johnson City, the hospital staffer who took the box of platelets off Dembowski’s hands upon his arrival inside the building said simply, “Thanks. We have an individual who really needs this.”

Walking back to his Red Cross vehicle afterward, Dembowski said, “That really makes me feel good.”