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Helping save lives 'drives' this Blood Services volunteer

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We've absolutely got to get the right blood product to the right hospital at the right time.

Art Bruns hasn't been the type to let everyday challenges get in the way of him doing great work for the American Red Cross — for the past 20 years. He seems just too optimistic for that, possessing an inquisitive mind that is paired with a can-do attitude.

In fact, in and around the Silicon Valley Chapter of the American Red Cross, where Art has thrived as both an employee and a volunteer in Blood Services, his penchant for positive problem-solving has endeared him to work colleagues, blood donors, and the chapter's hospital partners.

It is only fitting, therefore, that Art was selected to receive the Clara Barton Award at the chapter's annual volunteer recognition event this past spring. The award, the highest the American Red Cross bestows on volunteers, recognizes meritorious service in volunteer leadership positions held over a period of years.

Before he became a volunteer, though, Art was hired by the Red Cross to be a part-time Apheresis Donor Recruiter. That was in 1997, and the uncommon word in his job title stemmed from his work responsibilities: to identify and encourage people to give life-saving platelets. Unknown to most blood donors, a single donation of these blood-clotting components can sometimes serve up to three patients.

"I pretty quickly decided that the best strategy in this new job was to literally go out on the regular blood drives and sit with people giving blood to see if they would allow us to take an extra tube of blood to measure their platelet count," he says. "If they agreed and the person's platelet count was high enough, then I'd try to get them to become a platelet donor."

How successful was Art in this new job? "It started out to be a part-time job," he says. "But it only took a couple of weeks of me filling the position before they decided to make it a full-time job. They saw that my approach to the job was working. I would get 15 to 20 platelet donors that way from a single blood drive."

In 2012, after 15 years in the position, Art decided it was time to retire. He was 70, after all, which seemed like a good age to step away from the Red Cross.

Or at least that was the plan.

"Maybe a month and a half before I retired, Tami Wethern [the volunteer coordinator at that time] asked me one day what I was going to do in retirement," he recalls. "I told her that I hadn't thought that much about it."

So Tami made her pitch: She asked Art if he wanted to become an "Elite Driver" for Blood Services.

"I love driving, and Tami told me that the position would entail driving blood and platelets to local hospitals," Art says. "That sounded like a good job for me."

But before accepting, Art figured he ought to ask Tami to define what she meant by elite. "I found out that it's the person who makes up the schedule for all of our Blood Services drivers in San Jose and fills in when we have a vacant shift," he says, trying to mask a slight chuckle.

Art and his fellow drivers fill four-hour-long morning and afternoon time slots each and every weekday. They deliver blood products — either blood, platelets, or both — from the chapter's Blood Center to six hospitals in San Jose, two in Fremont, and to hospitals out of the Bay area as well. "We'll go wherever we're asked to go, really," Art says.

"Some days are like having a real job again, with lots of hours and lots of responsibility," he says. "But it's fun, and it has given me something legitimate to do."

Now 76, Art is showing no signs of slowing down. Outside of the Red Cross, his schedule includes umpiring youth baseball and square dancing with his wife. But he continues to treat his Blood Services work, overseeing a team delivering lifesaving products to area hospitals, as a top priority.

"I make one thing very clear to everyone on our Red Cross team," he says. "When we get a request, we've absolutely got to get the right blood product to the right hospital at the right time. People's lives depend on it."

And, completely in character, Art continues to look for ways to do that more effectively and efficiently. "One day, when I was stuck in freeway traffic trying to get to a hospital, I wondered why Red Cross vehicles carrying these lifesaving blood products to hospitals don't have access to the carpool lanes," he says. "So I asked about it, and someone must have passed the message along because now — by law — our drivers get to use those lanes."

Art's current Blood Services supervisor, Poonam Gupta, says their work group in San Jose would be lost without Art's volunteer support. "He is really, really helpful," she says. "We wouldn't survive without him."

Kind of like the many hospital patients who, day in and day out, rely on the can-do work of Art and his team of Red Cross drivers.

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Photo of Art Bruns by: Poonam Gupta