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'I'm a helper.' A Clearwater man just donated his 100th gallon of blood

Tony Mann, 58, of Clearwater, was recognized recently for donating 100 gallons of blood over the decades. Mann said he was inspired to donate by his father, Eugene Mann (in picture, at right), who died from a heart attack at 55. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]
Published Jul. 3

CLEARWATER — Tony Mann was teaching at an elementary school in 1989 when he got a phone call he would never forget.

Something was wrong with his father, who had suffered from polycythemia for years, a condition that caused his blood to get too thick.

"Tony, get over here right away," his mother urged.

When he arrived, his father, Eugene, couldn't speak. His blood had gotten too thick, causing something like a mini stroke that prevented him from speaking. But five minutes after being treated with blood thinners, he could speak again.

Because of his father's condition, Mann had already been giving blood for nearly a decade. Eugene had to dump a pint of his blood every six weeks, so Mann gave blood as often as he could — every eight weeks. And after his father died in 1991, he kept giving blood in his honor.

On June 18, Mann gave his 100th gallon of blood and blood platelets, making him one of fewer than 200 people in Florida to do so, according to OneBlood, a nonprofit that delivers blood products to hospitals across Florida.

That's enough to save the lives of up to roughly 2,000 people who need blood and blood platelets for everything from cancer to car wrecks, according to estimates by the American Red Cross.

"Now, it's like how can I not (keep giving blood)," Mann said. "I've got to keep going."

As an elementary school physical education teacher for 14 years, he saw many students with health issues that required surgeries for which they needed blood — which inspired him to keep giving.

For a couple of years, he taught a class for physically impaired students and also saw another student who had leukemia. The student needed a bone marrow donation, so he put himself on the registry, although he wasn't a match.

Mann now holds a position at Nielsen, the measurement and data analytics company, in which he does a lot of support, answering questions in a way that is similar to teaching, he says.

"It's helping people. I'm a helper," he said. "That's what I like. That's why I give blood."

Blood donations are "essential for surgeries, cancer treatment, chronic illnesses, and traumatic injuries," according to the American Red Cross.

Retired Hillsborough County school teacher Kathy Jones said that after being diagnosed in 2003 with aplastic anemia, a disease that affects bone marrow, she had no chance of living without blood platelet donors. She received the platelets for about a year to sustain her with the hope that her immune system would be revitalized.

"It is the most incredibly priceless gift," Jones said. "I'm not the only one who wells up after all these years thinking about this generosity."

Then it became clear that only a stem cell transplant could save her life — and her sister donated. The transplant cured her.

Blood donations also helped Tarpon Springs resident and three-time cancer survivor Kristine Flemister, who became dependent on blood transfusions for two years in 2009 after being diagnosed with pure red cell aplasia. She now no longer needs transfusions and is "doing great."

"When your counts are so low, you have no energy," Flemister said. "It puts risk to your heart and other organs. I'm very, very thankful and attribute receiving that blood to saving my life."

Flemister attended Mann's 100-gallon celebration recently at OneBlood's donor center in Clearwater, along with family. Also at the gathering were other mega-donors, including 155-gallon donor Frank Knight and Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos, a 60-gallon donor.

"Everybody who donates blood is a hero," Cretekos said. "But when you donate 100 gallons, you're a superhero."

Mann says it is all about consistency — not having super powers.

"The way you build to 100 gallons is just doing it consistently," Mann said. "I've just been consistent in my desire to help other people."

The July Fourth holiday is the deadliest day of the year for traffic deaths, a time when blood transfusions may be crucial. Yet blood donations tend to drop off around holidays, Cretekos said.

"If you can donate, it doesn't take a lot of time. A half hour, max," Creketos said. "Someday, you may need it."

Contact Ben Leonard at bleonard@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8421. Follow Ben on Twitter @Ben_Leonard.

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