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Paying it forward with a blood drive named for her son

Photo of Gina Bellavia

Gina Bellavia vowed to replenish the blood product that saved her son's life. Photo by Doug Levere

“It just shows what you’re capable of when you team up with an agency like the Red Cross.”
Gina Bellavia
Blood donor and blood drive coordinator

After a transfusion of immunoglobulin and two units of platelets saved the life of Gina Bellavia’s 5-year-old son Theo, who had been diagnosed with idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura (ITP), she vowed to replenish the blood needed to make the products by recruiting blood donors.

“We wanted to replace what had benefitted Theo,” says Bellavia, a research assistant in the UB School of Nursing. “It takes at least 1,000 blood donations to make one dose of immunoglobulin. “We added one to ‘pay it forward.’”

But after three months, Bellavia had only three donations.

That’s when she turned to the Red Cross for help with her mission.

On April 22, 2013, the Red Cross worked with Bellavia to launch “Theo’s 1003 Campaign,” a series of blood drives to replace the blood that had brought about Theo’s cure. Bellavia says the Red Cross has the resources and community connections to take blood donation drives to the next level, particularly where specialized blood products are involved.

In one week, with three blood drives, the Red Cross was able to recruit 325 individuals to donate blood.

When Theo first got sick, Bellavia remembers watching helplessly as doctors tried to determine the cause of his diminishing platelets. It took five days to diagnose ITP.

Gina, who was a blood-type match for Theo, wanted to donate blood immediately.

“But I was told that when a family member has to have a blood or blood product transfusion, it may already be too late to donate. In an emergency, the blood has to be on the shelf, processed and ready to go,” says Bellavia.

Bellavia and her mother, brother and two brothers-in-law donated to Theo’s campaign. Her husband gave more than anyone else: four times.

“I think more people would donate blood if they realized that with one donation, which only takes about an hour, you can save up to three lives,” says Bellavia.

On Sept. 4, 2013, Bellavia watched as the 1,003rd blood donor to the campaign signed an autograph for Theo, who was wearing his “Super Hero Blood Donor” T-shirt.

“It just shows what you’re capable of when you team up with an agency like the Red Cross,” she says.