ROCHESTER, Minn. — Dave Johnson and Mark Korinek have been best friends for more than 30 years. Johnson, 58, who lives in Pine Island and works at IBM, and Korinek, 59, who lives in Rochester and is a Mayo Clinic researcher, share common interests such as homeschooling their kids, their strong religious faith and running.
The most unlikely commonality between the two, however, has been their passion for donating blood. This passion was fueled by their parents who suffered from cancer, and it's now led to them being Mayo Clinic's first-ever 400-time blood donors.
"It's really humbling to be where we're at, but it isn't about us. It's about the people (at Mayo Clinic), around the country," Korinek said.
Q: When was the first time each of you donated blood?
Mark Korinek: At 16, in high school, it was a health class. And they were talking about promoting blood donation, just talking about it. And the element that I keyed in on is no strenuous activity. So I did a blood drive with the entire basketball team, and we all donated that day. We show up to practice with our little markings, and we just told the coach, 'You can't run us.' He ran us harder, I think. But at 16, after I did my first blood drive, and that sort of started it.
Dave Johnson: My dad was a longtime donor, and I went along with him a couple of times. I don't remember why or how, but sitting in usually what was a church basement or something like that with the Red Cross. I remember thinking, 'OK, this is just normal.' And so when the opportunity came along in high school for a blood drive, and then college, I was like 'Yeah, let's talk this up.' So it seemed natural.
Q: When did you two first meet?
Korinek: We started getting connected through our kids. We both were homeschooling kids, and there was a worldview discussion. I didn't really know him that well and we met. The parents got together, the kids were doing this, and we started talking and running came up. And he had just completed a marathon and that was kind of on my bucket list, to run a marathon. So with him being the grizzled veteran of running and I was wanting to do that. So we ran for a couple years. We talked before we were running, and blood donation came up. We started talking about numbers, and we were then like, within 10 of each other. I think it was around 150. It was just kind of odd that we would be this close.
Q: When was the first time you both realized the effect you were having on people and what was that feeling was like when you first experienced it?
Korinek: For me, it was the first time I got a call. While other than seeing my dad hooked up (to an IV). That was pretty powerful. But certainly here, when I got a call once that some patient in the hospital reacted positively to my blood. They wanted me to donate specifically for this person. I didn't meet them. When I first started donating, the person you were donating for was in the next bed. It's like an organ donor type of situation, but this one had to be called in. It was like, 'This is not just cookies,' you know, getting cookies afterward. And it brought it home that mine was going somewhere other than to a big refrigerator.
Johnson: Ditto. As part of your checkup, they'll take a sample of blood and run lots of analysis on it to make sure that it's OK for patients to receive. Part of that process is also checking out for matches with patients. And so like Mark said, occasionally you'll get a call. And typically it's maybe they'll have 15, 20, 30 people that are a close match for a patient. And then they'll go to that pool of patients and try and get them to donate as often as they can for that patient. Leading up to when we hit the 400 mark, I got that call and found out that I was one of only five people on this particular patient's list. And that was the most recent for me thing that just brought it home real fast. It's like there's somebody here who's a grandpa, a dad, a mom, whatever, that is being helped by this blood. It gets real personal real fast when you know, my product, once it gets checked out, it's gonna go directly to this person that's very intentional. That's pretty cool.
Q: How have you seen your two's friendship grow and develop over the years through your blood donations?
Johnson: My father passed away in 2015 and Mark came to the funeral. And he knew the journey. He knew he had lung cancer and what had been going on and what we were doing to help him and going through hospice and all of that. So you know, that's based on our friendship. At the funeral, I'm an only kid, so I'm doing the eulogy for my dad, and it's like, I can't talk anymore. And I warned him at a time I expected that. And I said, 'Oh, I'm gonna signal you if I need help.' And I did, and he came up, and kept reading till I could regain enough composure to finish it myself. And so it's, it's that sort of a friendship that knowing you can really count on someone.
Korinek: Through the struggles and challenges with our lives, our kids, and to know there's somebody in a foxhole with you that would take a bullet for you; that's where we've gotten to at this point. Having a best friend — and it's not 700 best friends or we're Facebook friends — but somebody who would do that is, that's priceless.
Q: You both have mentioned how your shared faith has impacted your friendship, but how has your two's faith affected your perception of donating blood?
Johnson: I guess two aspects come to mind for me. One is our friendship is predominantly based on our faith in God. So we normally get together on Fridays at noon and go for a long run. We run separately but that's our long run and I call it 'long run Friday.' And it's a chance to talk about things, much of which is faith, and what our faith causes us to do and how to live our lives.
So in last Sunday's sermon, Pastor Brian said something, and it was kind of interesting. It was, 'what good are you doing in the world? And for whom?' And I think that's a good question. We can all ask 'what good are you doing?' Clearly, donating blood to save other people is a good thing ... Hopefully, we're doing it, and people who do other kinds of good things are doing it to benefit those people.
Korinek: And exactly what Dave said. This is sort of reiterating how we are uniquely blessed. We have decent veins. And recognizing that it is a gift that we can give to other people. I'm not a surgeon, I can't save lives in certain ways, but I can do it this way.
Q: What has it meant to you two on a personal level donating blood all these years?
Johnson: For me, it's every time I go in to donate, it causes a reset. You may have had a horrible week, a tough day, whatever. And you think, 'I'm coming in and I'm going to get a little checkup' and usually they'll tell you everything's OK, you're in great shape. That you have super great blood pressure, your pulse is wonderful, your hemoglobin is great. And it causes me to just really stop and be thankful. It's like there's a lot of people who aren't able to do this and aren't in that position.
Korinek: Dave works at IBM and I work here and there are times when I have a busy day and I'll walk through the subway to the Gonda-Mayo building and some days it just hits me. When you just look around and everybody who's walking past you can tell because of the people that are wearing the badge. Their lives are in horrible shape. And sometimes it is just overwhelming just to walk through. Rarely do I walk through there and not look at someone's eyes. Their lives are destroyed right now, there's something happening. I get that whole feeling of "what can I do? What can I do as an engineer in a medical imaging research lab?" But maybe one of these people that's hooked up to an IV, they get my blood. And instead, it's become a kind of a responsibility to do with what we're given.