The 70-GALLON DONOR
BY ELLEN GILLETTE
Bob Lilley was 9, living in Elmira, New York — right on the border with Pennsylvania — when his 5-year-old brother, Wayne, was stricken with leukemia. “In 1956, there was nothing they could do,” he says. Lilley’s Italian mother, a strong woman of faith, would come home from sitting with Wayne at the hospital, upset not only that her child was in pain but also that he was too young to understand what was happening.
Thirty years later, by then living in Palm Beach County, Lilley had a friend whose sister was about to give birth. Doctors anticipated a hard delivery. “She had O-positive blood, I have O-positive blood,” says Lilley. “I said I’d give blood to have on hand in case she needed it.” It was the first of what has become a lifetime’s worth of donations.
Whole blood donors can donate about every eight weeks. Lilley was a regular. He noticed that there were special small bags on hand when he was there and asked why. Most adults have been exposed to flu-like cytomegalovirus (CMV), he was told. While not a problem for adults, blood with the virus can be fatal to infants. Because Lilley’s blood is CMV-negative, his blood is acceptable for newborns in need and was collected in the smaller bags for that purpose.
“Then they started talking to me about donating platelets, a longer process and more frequent. I could donate whole blood for newborns or platelets for many other people,” says Lilley. Platelets represented the greater need. “I thought about my brother, what he’d been through at age 5 — a needle stick and two hours was nothing compared to that.”
With platelet or plasma donation — also called apheresis — products that are vital to people suffering from various diseases are removed from the donor’s blood, and then the blood is re-introduced into his or her bloodstream. Lilley’s platelet count is unusually high, he says, making it possible for him to donate as much as three “normal” people.
About 30 years later, Lilley has donated a whopping 70 gallons. Living in Port St. Lucie, he is a regular donor at OneBlood’s branch in Prima Vista Crossing plaza. He watches Netflix while he goes through the process. “I love nature, so I look for Blue Planet or documentaries.”
Lilley’s love of nature shows on a weekly basis. “My grandson, Harlem, needed volunteer hours at Treasure Coast High School and my son took him to Oxbow Eco-Center. He said to me, ‘You’re retired, why don’t you come too?’ That was two years ago.”
Lilley was at Oxbow so often, he decided to start working there. He works 16 hours a week, and he volunteers another six to eight hours doing whatever is needed, such as checking the trail or helping with classes. His granddaughter, Annmarie McDearmont, whose goal is to be a veterinarian, volunteers at Oxbow, too. Lilley’s wife, Sandra, has also started helping with accounting and other clerical duties.
Apparently, the family that volunteers together, stays together. The Lilleys moved to Port St. Lucie in 2003 to be close to their children and grandchildren. “Friday and Sunday nights, we have family dinners,” says Lilley. “We’re real close. And we love it here — I’ve seen a lot of progress since we moved.”
Except for one letter, the Lilleys would’ve shared the same profession: Bob retired from baking, while Sandra’s professional background is banking. The two met while he was in the army. “I knew his friends, he knew mine,” says Sandra. “We all went out one night and that was it. We were 19 and 20 — people said it wouldn’t last.” The couple has been married 51 years.
Not long after the wedding, Bob Lilley was stationed in Korea. “I’d gone to one year of college to play basketball, but my grades weren’t high. Two buddies talked me into enlisting with them but they both failed their physicals! I was sent to Fort Dix in New Jersey alone — it didn’t seem fair at the time,” he says, adding, “But, I have no regrets. That’s how I met my wife.”
Lilley’s father was a baker who encouraged his son to find another profession. But after getting laid off at one job, Lilley applied at his father’s company, eventually becoming his father’s supervisor. “I was hired solely on the basis of his strong work ethic,” Lilley says. “He’d say, ‘When the boss man’s paying you, always do the best you can.’ It rubbed off on me.”
Whether spending time with family, helping out at Oxbow, taking part in church services at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton or rolling up his sleeve to donate blood platelets, Lilley quietly continues to do the best he can for family and community.
Some men strive to bench press their weight as a show of strength. Next year, Lilley hopes to reach his age mark in platelet donations: 72 gallons. That’s a special kind of strength.
ROBERT LILLEY SR.
Lives in: Port St. Lucie
Family: Wife, Sandra, two children and five grandchildren
Education: Associate degree in land surveying; also studied baking science and technology
Who inspires me: “My parents. My father had such a strong work ethic. He died at 50. My mother lost two children and her husband and had to have a liver transplant, but she never gave up.”
Something most people don’t know about me: “My grandkids inspire me to do better. They probably don’t know how much I appreciate them and love watching them grow.”