Keith Mills will always remember the first time he helped save a life.
It was America’s bicentennial birthday — July 4, 1976 — and the Washougal veteran was standing watch on top of his submarine, the USS Francis Scott Key, in Rota, Spain, when the call came in.
A sailor from Mills’ base had been involved in a motorcycle accident and was in need of blood transfusions, but a power outage had destroyed the base’s blood supply, so other sailors were being asked to give their own blood to save another’s life.
“I got onto a bus with seven or eight other sailors from around the base,” Mills recalled. “And they asked us if anyone objected to giving blood.”
None of the sailors — who all had the “universal blood donor” type O-negative (O-) blood that can be given to all blood types — objected.
“We gave one unit, were fed lunch, and then gave a second unit,” Mills said.
He had never donated blood before this, but the ease of giving something that could potentially save a life piqued Mills’ interest.
“I started to donate regularly after that,” Mills said.
Years later, Mills would discover that his already in-demand O- “universal donor” blood was even more in demand because it does not contain antibodies for the common Cytomegalovirus and can be used in infant blood transfusions.
“Babies in need cannot receive that antibody, so my blood is termed, ‘Babies’ Blood,'” Mills said. “It is my personal call to donate as often as I can to help those in need.”
Now a retired engineer and volunteer for the American Red Cross’ local blood drives, Mills estimates he has given blood about 160 times since that emergency situation on a Naval base in Spain 45 years ago.
Mills also volunteers his time helping to set up blood donation centers around the Vancouver metro area, and often volunteers with his wife at the St. Vincent de Paul food pantry in Vancouver, where those in need can shop for free groceries and fresh produce and where people who are unhoused can pick up to-go lunches.
A veteran and devout Catholic who has spent his life giving back to others, Mills considers it his duty to volunteer his time — and blood — to help others, but is not someone who would call out his volunteer work as anything special.
“I just hope it inspires others to donate blood or to volunteer,” Mill said.
The veteran’s story inspired Camas resident Cathi Simmons to reach out to the media last month, after she met Mills at a blood donation event at the Camas Public Library.
“We were talking and he mentioned that he’d donated blood 120 times (for the American Red Cross), and he told me about his first time donating blood in Spain on the Bicentennial, and I thought he was such a great guy,” Simmons said.
And if anyone knows how wonderful the gift of giving blood is, it is Simmons.
When Simmons’ husband, John, was dying of leukemia in 2015, it was blood transfusions that allowed John to fulfill one of his final wishes — taking a trip in an RV to the Oregon coast with his wife and son — and let him live a few months longer than expected.
Simmons said she has been donating her own blood ever since.
And when she met Mills, Simmons thought others should know how many times the Washougal veteran has donated his own blood and time to help his community.
“He was such a lovely and humble man, and I thought people needed to know about him,” Simmons said of Mills.
Blood donation organizations like the American Red Cross and Bloodworks Northwest have said the need for donated blood is at an all-time high.
“As the nation returns to in-person workplaces and schools amid a surge in COVID-19 cases, the American Red Cross faces an emergency blood and platelet shortage,” the American Red Cross stated in a September 2021 news release. “Donor turnout has reached the lowest levels of the year, decreasing by about 10% since August. Those who are eligible to donate are urged to do so now to help overcome this current shortage.”
Chris Hrouda, president of Red Cross Biomedical Services, said in September that the Red Cross’ blood supply “has dropped to the lowest it has been at this time of year since 2015” thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We recognize that this is a trying time for our country as we balance the new demands of returning to former routines with the ongoing pandemic, but lifesaving blood donations remains essential for hospitals patients in need of emergency and medical care that can’t wait,” Hrouda stated in the September news release. “The Red Cross is working around the clock to meet the blood needs of hospitals and patients – but we can’t do it alone.”
Mills said the Red Cross has a helpful blood-donation app that lets you sign up for donation sites, track your donations and even see where your blood ends up. Mills has seen his life-saving “babies’ blood” go to hospitals and trauma centers throughout the country, with a recent donation helping three people at a hospital in Virginia.
There are several blood donation events coming up in Clark County, including an event from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Dec. 16, at Bethel Community Church, at 1438 “B” St., in Washougal; regular blood drives at the Vancouver Blood Donation Center at 5109 N.E. 82nd Ave., Vancouver; a blood drive from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. at Chuck’s Produce, 2302 N.E. 117th St., Vancouver; and multiple events at the Bloodworks Vancouver Donor Center at the Vancouver Mall, 9320 N.E. Vancouver Mall Blvd., Ste. 100, Vancouver.
For more information about donating blood in the Camas-Washougal area, visit redcrossblood.org or bloodworksnw.org, call 800-733-2767 to reach the American Red Cross’ Vancouver Blood Center or 800-398-7888 to reach Bloodworks Northwest or email schedule@bloodw orksnw.org.