Ol’ Betsy’s made her last trip carrying pints of blood collected at a national park, community center or high school in the central San Joaquin Valley.
The Central California Blood Center’s 23-year-old blood mobile — named Ol’ Betsy by its first driver and officially called Bus One for her status as the first in the center’s fleet of seven — has been retired from service with 130,000 pints of donated blood to her record.
“I hate to see Ol’ Betsy go,” says driver Raoul Leyva. “It was a good bus; it’s still a good bus.”
The goodbye is harder still for Rosalie Alvarez, 69, who started as a mobile nurse at the same time Bus One was bought in 1991.
“We grew up together,” she says.
But Leyva and Alvarez needn’t worry. Bus One’s wheels will be turning again soon.
The blood center is donating the 40-foot bus equipped with six beds for blood collection to the University of Uyo Teaching Hospital in Nigeria. In the next few days the bus should be on a flatbed truck for a ride to a Texas port and then placed aboard a ship bound for Nigeria to become the first blood mobile in the African country.
The blood center teamed with Rotary International’s Safe Blood Africa Project to donate the bus and contributed $5,000 to help pay for it to be trucked and shipped, which will cost about $14,300.
The bus should see many miles of service in Nigeria, says Warren Kaufman, a Rotary Club of Carmel member who set events into motion for the blood mobile donation.
The blood mobile will be stationed at the teaching hospital in Uyo, which has a blood bank that Rotary International helped establish about a decade ago, Kaufman says. Until then, when a patient needed a transfusion, a relative was sent outside to find someone willing to sell their blood. Blood typing was inadequate and too often the sellers had hepatitis or AIDS, he says.
Two years ago, Kaufman helped coordinate blood donation drives at the hospital that proved successful. “Nigerians will give blood as generously as anyone else if they’re asked professionally to do that.”
In February 2013, he arranged for Uyo hospital staff to come to Northern California to be trained on how to use a blood mobile. The only thing that has been missing since is a vehicle.
Fortunately, Central California Blood Center has Bus One.
Its odometer reads 192,110 miles, but it has been well-maintained and likely could have had several more years of blood drives ahead in the Valley. But new California emission laws for commercial trucks and buses that take effect Jan. 1 forced a decision. The center has a new bus on order — a three-bed blood mobile — that is costing about $250,000.
Blood center President and CEO Dean Eller says he learned Rotary International was looking for a blood mobile and approached the blood center’s board of directors about donating Bus One. “They thought it was a super idea,” he said. “We benefit here in Central California from the generosity of our blood donors and monetary donors. What better way to pay it back or pay it forward.”
Bus One rolled its way into a lot of hearts in 23 years and she’ll be sent off to Nigeria with love, Eller said.
Eller’s daughter, Jenny, had just been diagnosed with leukemia when Bus One started its rounds in the Valley and the young woman used to ride in the bus and wave from it during the Clovis Rodeo Parade. “Her fingerprints are all over that bus,” he says. Jenny Eller died in October 1995 after a four-year fight. The donor center is named in her honor.
The donation also continues a tradition. The Junior League of Fresno donated $50,000 toward Bus One’s purchase and other community supporters came through with donations for the Central California Blood Center to buy the bus, which at the time cost about $150,000. A new six-bed bus would cost $350,000 to $400,000, Eller estimates.
Rita Gladding, a past president of the Junior League and a blood center emeritus director, headed the drive to get Bus One beginning in 1989. Now she says: ”What a thrill to think a vehicle can travel halfway across the world and still be used to save lives.”
Ol’ Betsy has done her duty, says Leyva, recalling 9/11 when donors swarmed the bus to donate blood after the attack on the World Trade Centers. “We had a projection for 40 people ... and we had 80 and we had to turn away another 40 to 50 people.”
Alvarez says there are too many memories on the bus for her to pick one out.
Bus One carried her from Los Banos to Porterville and to Yosemite “oftentimes in harsh conditions like fog, rain and snow,” she says. “I like to think of the bus as sort of ‘Noah’s Ark’ with us out there battling the elements in this old vessel trying to save lives.”
She made friends over the years with donors in Tranquillity, Huron and other rural communities. “We made it easy for them to donate and we let them be a part of our dream,” she says.
Now she wishes she could be in Nigeria when the bus arrives there. “I hope they have as much fun on it as we did.”