By MADISON WILLIAMS
The Dallas Examiner
Faced with crippling pain, ninth grade student Tymia Green has not had the life of an average teenager. At birth, she was diagnosed with sickle cell disease, a painful, debilitating medical condition in which the red blood cells become hard, sticky and form a C-shape called a “sickle,” according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
Tymia said she has been interested in several activities but has not been able to participate. That’s because if she gets hurt it could trigger a sickle cell crisis. However, she still experiences pain on a daily basis. Some days she wakes up with pain in her feet or her back, according to her mother Susie Green.
“It’s hard to live like this because I see normal kids and sometimes, I can’t go to school, and I just want to be like them,” she said.
To date, she has undergone over 80 blood transfusions to maintain adequate blood levels and reduce the likelihood of obstructed blood vessels, which causes severe pain among other complications.
“When the pain gets bad, we have to go straight to the emergency room,” she said. “It hurts so much I can’t even let anything touch me – not a blanket, not my mom, not even the seat belt. I just lay in the back seat and pray we make it to the hospital to get the blood I need to feel better.”
Finding blood for Tymia’s transfusions can be especially hard because her blood type is extremely rare among African Americans.
She described one of her scariest moments of being rushed to the hospital in dire need of a transfusion. That day, when they arrived at the hospital her mother was informed that the blood type she needed was not there. She became extremely ill, and she worried the blood wouldn’t come in time. Still, her mother encouraged her to keep fighting to survive until the blood arrived.
“They came in finally and said, ‘Mom, we found it,’ and I cried. I had to go to the restroom and cry,” Susie Green recalled.
The gift of life
Blood donations mean a lot to patients with sickle cell and can make a huge difference in their lives. Some patients can go several months and sometimes years without blood transfusions but in most cases, frequent blood transfusions are required to keep complications at bay. A scarcity in blood supply can be a matter of life or death for some.
Sickle cell disease is the most common genetic blood disease in the U.S. and affects African Americans the most, according to the Red Cross. The disease affects 1 out of every 365 Black births.
The complications of sickle cell include pain crisis, stroke and organ damage. To combat those complications, patients with sickle cell may rely on blood transfusions throughout their lives. A single sickle cell patient may require up to 100 units of blood per year for treatment.
Patients are more likely to be compatible with matches from donors of the same race or similar ethnicity, yet there are frequent shortages of the correct blood type to meet the need of the patients. Especially in cases like Tymia’s, with a uncommon blood type.
Sickle cell patients count on blood from the American Red Cross every day, but the Red Cross depends on community members to donate blood for a sufficient blood supply.
Since the onset of the pandemic, the number of African Americans donating blood with the Red Cross has dropped more than 50%, primarily due to the efforts made to combat the virus by canceling blood drive events at local churches, schools and businesses.
However, the need for blood among patients with sickle cell has remained the same.
Right now, the Red Cross needs community members who are willing to host blood drives or donate blood to address the critical need for African American blood donors to support patients battling sickle cell.
When a Red Cross blood drive is hosted, donors are given a free health screening to check their temperature, blood pressure, pulse rate and hemoglobin levels before making their donation. All African American donors will be tested to see if a sickle cell trait is present, which may be important because sickle cell can only be inherited if both parents of a newborn have the trait.
Donors automatically receive $10 Amazon gift cards and blood program leaders will receive a $100 Amazon gift card when the blood drive reaches a minimum of 40 donors.
“Red Cross has always been encouraging a diverse blood supply because we know that people with sickle cell respond better to blood with the same ethnic properties,” said Krystal Smith, Red Cross regional communications director.
The Red Cross push for sickle cell awareness serves to bring attention to the disease and show how important it is for people of color to donate blood.
“By having a diverse blood supply, we can help supply a blood product that meets the specific needs of those patients,” Smith said.
The organization’s objective is to nearly triple their African American blood donor base to eliminate the gap in their ability to meet hospital demand and provide the most compatible units for patients with sickle cell disease. Furthermore, the most compatible unit of blood in helping these patients are other individuals of African descent.
“Blood transfused to patients with rare blood types, like those with sickle cell disease, must be matched very closely to reduce the risk of complications,” said Keith Rhodes, CEO of the American Red Cross North Texas Region.
“These patients are more likely to find a compatible blood match from a blood donor of the same race or similar ethnicity, which is why, to meet diverse patient needs, it’s essential to have the ongoing support of community organizations and businesses to host blood drives and all eligible donors to give blood.”
For the safety of the donor community, the Red Cross has updated its pandemic safety protocols in alignment with CDC and OSHA guidance to address COVID-19 safety concerns. Health assessments are also conducted prior to all blood drives for the safety of all staff and donors.
To be a part of this initiative and help sickle cell patients in the surrounding area, visit https://www.redcrossblood.org or call 1-800-REDCROSS to host a blood drive or schedule an appointment at the nearest blood drive.