It was a late evening in mid-September, and Conrad Gonzales Jr. lay in bed unable to sleep.
Earlier that day, the retired San Antonio firefighter was startled to find out that the blood supply in South Texas had reached critically low levels — declining to around half of what was needed to adequately serve patients throughout the region.
“I couldn’t go to sleep,” Gonzales recalled. “I was wracking my brain, trying to figure out what I could do to help.”
The next day, Gonzales reached out to Chris Steele, president of the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association, and asked if he could host a blood drive at the union’s banquet hall on the North Side. Steele said yes.
Gonzales, 65, also reached out to the South Texas Blood & Tissue Center, which supplies blood for more than 100 hospitals in 40 counties throughout South Texas. It too said yes.
And with that, the First Annual “Battle of the Badges” Blood Drive was born — a way for first responders to give back to the community and compete in a friendly competition at the same time.
After all, Gonzales said with a sly smile, “Saving lives is in our blood.”
In the end, around 35 donors gathered Saturday and Sunday for the blood drive. The drive brought out people from all walks of life — both retired and active first responders, in addition to family members, friends and community members.
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“It’s a good way for us to give back, and compete in a friendly competition,” Gonzales said.“But ultimately, the winner is the patient who receives the blood, platelets or convalescent plasma.”
Christy Cracraft, a supervisor at the Blood & Tissue Center who oversees donor recruitment, said it typically takes two or three months to plan a blood drive.
But Gonzales wanted to schedule something sooner rather than later to accommodate the busy schedule of first responders around the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.
Plus, there was the blood shortfall — which came at a time when collections are normally rising at the start of the school year. In a typical year, school-related blood drives provide up to a quarter of all donations throughout the community.
“A lot of our donations occur at blood drives on college and university campuses,” Cracraft said. “With the pandemic, the number of blood drives have dramatically decreased.”
Last year in October, the Blood & Tissue Center hosted around 220 blood drives. This year, the center anticipates it will have around 80 or 90 drives — which amounts to 3,661 fewer donations.
The projections for November and December are similarly dire.
Making matters worse, local hospitals treated four trauma patients and one transplant patient in the last week alone — almost completely exhausting the local supply of blood.
“That puts all patients at risk,” Cracraft said. “A lot of people think blood donations are only used for trauma patients. But all types of patients need blood donations, including transplant patients, cancer patients and mothers going through child birth.”
Joseph Munoz, 38, heard about the blood drive through the local fire union. The San Antonio firefighter of 13 years volunteered to help staff the event — even though he originally had no intentions of giving blood.
But on Sunday, as he helped greet donors and feed staff, he got roped into donating as well. It was the first time he’s ever donated blood.
“I had heard a lot of horror stories over the years,” Munoz said. “But it wasn’t bad at all. Now I’ve caught the bug. I’m definitely going to donate again.”
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