They’re called the “6AM-ers” because many come into Children’s Hospital Los Angeles (CHLA) first thing in the morning. But really, these amazing volunteers come in at all hours to consistently, persistently, donate blood and platelets for kids who can’t survive without them.
These 6AM-ers have donated thousands of gallons of blood and platelets — the cell fragments crucial to promote clotting. Some, like Steve Mirkin, have given for decades.
Donating didn’t come easy for Steve, a self-proclaimed “selfish bastard” who was also afraid of needles (and when he first started giving platelets, the process required putting two needles in his arm). Platelet donation also requires a two-hour commitment — much longer than the 15 minutes needed to donate blood. Steve wanted to squirm the entire time and he avoided looking at the needles. “I felt like a prisoner held captive,” he said.
Steve first donated platelets specifically for his daughter. She was born with thrombocytopenia-absent radius (TAR) syndrome, which gave her shortened forearms and left her low on blood-clotting platelets. She got her first surgery for her arms at CHLA in 1992.
There, Steve met Kathy, a recruiter who kept asking him to give for others. Steve says Kathy wore him down. “I started going once a quarter, once a month.”
After Steve reached his first milestone — donating a gallon — and receiving a pin to commemorate it, he was driven by competition. He wanted to get his name on a plaque in the donation center, which required hitting 7 gallons.
Others in the 6AM-ers have their own reasons to donate. Larry Darr was inspired to give when his friend’s daughter was undergoing chemotherapy. Robert Glaus gives to honor his son, who passed away from leukemia at the age of 5. Kathleen Dechellis started donating when a student at the school where she taught needed transfusions during a cancer treatment.
The gallons upon gallons of life-saving donations from the 6AM-ers have helped an estimated 1,275 sick children — often children they will never meet.
Steve says he did have one opportunity to donate for a specific patient who was a close match to Steve’s blood type. For nearly two years, Steve gave for that young boy.
Then the boy passed away.
Steve still chokes up when he talks about this. He says he felt like he lost his own son. “I talked to the staff and told them I felt like I failed [him]. They said, ‘Are you kidding? You didn’t fail him. You gave him two more years of life.’”
“I used to think donating was for the competition of getting my name on the plaque. [He] taught me that it’s not about where I am in the ranks,” said Steve.
Now, rows and rows of gallon pins — representing the 74 gallons he’s donated since he started in 1992 — line a hat he wears when he goes to donate, and he cherishes what every single one represents. But Steve’s first gallon pin went to his daughter, the reason he first joined the 6AM-ers.
Steve’s daughter is now a healthy adult — her years of treatment and surgeries were successful. But when she was younger, she once asked her dad, “‘Why was I born this way?’ I told her if it wasn’t for her, we never would have learned about CHLA, and I never would have donated. So all of those kids that got my platelets — it’s all her fault.”
Steve says it was wonderful to donate for his daughter. But most of his platelets go to kids he doesn’t know, and who don’t know him. And he thanks Kathy, the recruiter that encouraged him to start, for giving him the strength to help the lives of so many children he may never meet.