A debt in blood

When World War ll vet Tony Yurkew was wounded in action and blood transfusions to save his life, he vowed to pay it back if he lived.
Yurkew was shot in the jaw during action in Okinawa on April 26, 1945.
“I was shooting uphill at the enemy, ran out of shells and bent down for more. That’s when I got hit,” he says. “I asked for help and someone said, ‘Can you walk?’ I said, ‘Yes,’ and I ran.”
“You’ve got the million-dollar wound and you’ll never see action again,” someone told him.
In the field hospital, he was given a pint of blood before being transferred to Guam.
He was aboard the U.S.S. Comfort on the way to Guam, when the Japanese attacked the hospital ship.
“At 9:30 p.m. I heard planes go over again and again. They hit the Red Cross symbol on the ship, and 39 people were killed — doctors, nurses and patients. The ship was nearly sunk because the sailors mistakenly pumped water in instead of out. But the other ships in the area quickly surrounded us in case we had to evacuate. I was lucky,” he recalled.
 From Guam, he was shipped to Hawaii, Texas and finally, Colorado, where he spent over seven months in the hospital and doctors wired up his jaw.
“It was a pretty good deal — I could have malted milk shakes, ice cream and ground-up food,” he said, half joking, “ At one point, the doctors were digging out bits of shattered bone, teeth and bullet fragments twice a week. He was still in the hospital when the war ended on Sept. 2, 1945.
“When I was in the jaw ward, I saw one guy who had his face nearly all rebuilt — it’s fantastic what the doctors can do. ...
“There are a few (soldiers) at the Minnesota VA Hospital now from Iraq but most of them go to Bethesda in Washington, D.C. ... I understand the injuries from Iraq are worse than ever with lots of head injuries,” he says.
There’s still a piece of bullet in his jaw, so he sometimes suffers pain or numbness but is glad to be alive. “I thanked God that the bullet missed my tongue and throat,” Yurkew says. “I swore after that I’d replace all the blood in my body.”
And so he did. Over the years, he donated 16 pints himself — replacing the blood in his body  — before his first heart attack in 1970. Today, he still encourages hundreds of others to donate.

The blood guy
Now age 83, Yurkew has been responsible for organizing donations of 8,000 pints of blood to the Minneapolis blood bank and Veterans Administration Hospital since 1959. He has chaired blood drives for the Fraternal Order of Eagles in Minneapolis and for the Tri-City American Legion in New Brighton.
In 1959 as a member of the Eagles, Yurkew suggested the lodge hold a blood drive and volunteered to organize it. The leadership told him it would never work. He proved them wrong by collecting 89 pints in their first attempt. The event was so successful they had to boost it to two drives. In his years as chair of the blood drive, the Eagles collected over 5,000 pints for the blood bank.
Word of his success got around. In 1982, the Tri-City American Legion in St. Anthony asked him to head its blood drive after the post only collected 20 pints on its own. After he signed on as a volunteer, the number of donations kept doubling, with 500 pints of blood collected one year.
Eventually, the post moved to 400 Old Highway 8 in New Brighton, where visitors can see a case filled with trophies showing the Legion placed first in blood drives year after year, raising a total of 3,000 pints for the VA Hospital.
Yurkew, who lives in Minneapolis, did all this while working full time at the Burlington Northern and Northern Pacific railroad for 35 1/2 years.

No excuses
“Tony has done a spectacular job of getting people to donate blood and has been blood chairman off and on since 1988 at the New Brighton post,” says Ross Metzger of New Brighton, one of the donors and post members. His wife, Lita, is also a donor.
To encourage people to donate blood for the VA, Yurkew sends out at least 40 postcard reminders a month and letters two or three times a year to over 100 members qualified to donate. He has someone at the post make follow-up calls and then he drives a van of people to the hospital to make the donations.
He also set up an incentive system where donors can receive $10 from gambling revenues — he received approval from the state gambling commission — or for eight pints of blood, a donor jacket with a red patch in the shape of a drop of blood and then stripes to represent additional blood donations.
“People have every excuse in the world not to donate — their mother or grandmother had a baby — so the calls remind them to go either on their own or on Legion day, the first Tuesday of the month,” Yurkew says with a smile.
“A lot of my people are getting old and dying, but you can donate blood at any age if you’re healthy,” Yurkew says. “You can donate up to eight pints a year — and you don’t have to be a vet or a Legion member to do it.”
Adds Tri-City Legion Commander Norb Stachowski, “When people get older, it gets harder to find their veins so we’re trying to get more young people. Still, we have one 90-year-old who is still donating.”
“I’ve been associated with blood drives since 1959, and I got a little tired of doing it a couple of years ago,” Yurkew says with a chuckle. “but Norb went out and bought me a new donor jacket and said to keep on collecting.”
“Tony likes to get things done and organizes the blood van down to the hospital to make sure people get there,” Norb says. “And Tony’s always had a heart as big as he is — he’s always a  caring person for others when they’re down.”
Ellen Ziemke, coordinator of the VA blood donor center, says, “Most years Tony’s post takes first place. Tony works so hard. He keeps after people until they donate, and he doesn’t let them off the hook. Tony is unique in that he even drives people into the center to donate.”

Blood is life
Besides doing the blood drives, Yurkew works part-time as a security guard at U.S. Bank, answering questions. “It’s something to keep me out of my wife’s hair,” he says with a chuckle, adding that Agnes is a “darn good gal.”
But he is dedicated to collecting blood and has plugged along in spite of grieving over the deaths of three of his four children and one granddaughter, and suffering through two heart attacks and a stroke himself.
“Sometimes when I’m at the hospital, I see vets without an arm or leg and they need blood,” he says. “We see people who have received five to 10 pints of blood. It means a lot to them — it means their life,” he says.
Yurkew adds that the main reason he promotes the blood drives is to get more donations for veterans. The VA is short on blood and must pay processing fees for an additional 100 pints a month from the blood bank.
Ziemke says the need for blood is constant. If everyone who was eligible would donate once or twice a year, there wouldn’t be a shortage, but only 5 percent do.
The VA Hospital in Minneapolis accepts donations on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays from 1 to 7:30 p.m. and on Fridays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Yurkew drives his van down Tuesdays. For more information, call Yurkew at (612) 725-2275  or 1 (800) GIVELIFE and mention Legion Post No. 513.

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