On World Sickle Cell Day, June 19, the American Red Cross recognizes the need to raise further awareness about the disease as many individuals with sickle cell disease still face health disparities.
Unlike similar diseases, there has been limited research and few treatments to date to help those suffering from sickle cell crisis, a troubling legacy of neglect for diseases that primarily affect individuals who are Black. Today, blood transfusions for patients with sickle cell are one of the few treatments to help alleviate the pain of this disease.
For the last year, while many of us we were worried about critically ill COVID-19 patients, there were also people in the hospital that needed treatment for other reasons, including those affected by sickle cell disease.
Jalen Matthews was diagnosed with sickle cell anemia at birth. At 11 years old, she suffered a stroke due to sickle cell complications which caused blood clots on the base of her spine and left her with paralysis in her left arm. Since then, Jalen has received red blood cell exchanges, a non-surgical therapy every four to six weeks that removes five units of abnormal red blood cells and replaces them with five units of healthy red blood cells obtained from blood donors.
“Without red cell exchanges, I wouldn’t be able to go to school because I would be in constant pain,” said Jalen.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Jalen was contacted by her medical provider and informed that she might not be able to receive her scheduled transfusion due to an unprecedented number of blood drive cancellations. “This would have been the first blood transfusion I have ever missed, and I was really worried about that,” said Jalen. “But they called the week before the red cell exchange and said ‘we have blood. Come on in.’”
Thanks to the many who gave blood during the pandemic, Jalen was able to receive her red blood cell exchanges.
Unfortunately, the nation is experiencing a severe blood shortage now already causing some delays in patient care. The Red Cross is working around the clock to meet the needs of hospitals and their patients but can’t do it alone.
The Red Cross urges eligible individuals who are feeling well to please make an appointment today to give by using the Red Cross Blood Donor App, visiting RedCrossBlood.org or calling 800-RED-CROSS.
To those who may be hesitant to give blood, Jalen added, “It’s a rewarding experience to know you have helped save someone’s life. With COVID-19, this might be one of the times people like me need blood the most. If we can’t get the blood we need, we may have further complications.”
People with sickle cell disease have red blood cells that are stiff and distorted in shape, sometimes blocking blood flow. For many living with sickle cell disease, regular blood transfusions provide relief from the pain. “Thanks to donors, I have been able to receive regular blood transfusions and live a fairly normal life and I’m grateful for that,” said Jalen.
Sickle cell is an inherited blood disorder that affects up to 100,000 people in the U.S., most of which are of African descent. One in 12 African Americans carries a sickle cell gene. A person with sickle cell disease may need up to 100 pints of blood a year. Since the best blood match for a patient receiving ongoing transfusions comes from donors of the same genetic background, the Red Cross encourages people of all ethnicities to give blood and help increase the number of diverse donors so we can find the best match for all patients.
In addition, the Red Cross provides sickle cell trait testing for all self-identified Black/African-American donors. Sickle cell trait is inherited and means that an individual received a sickle cell gene from one
parent but does not have sickle cell disease. Many individuals are unaware they carry this
trait. Health experts recommend that individuals with sickle cell trait be aware of their status and
consult their medical provider on what it means for them. It is estimated that about 1 in 13 Black or African American babies in the U.S. is born with sickle cell trait. Individuals without the trait may be able to help a patient facing a sickle cell crisis by donating blood.
Blood and platelet donors of all types are needed this month to help ensure blood products are available for patients now and into the summer. In thanks for making it a summer full of life, those who come to give June 14-30 will receive a $5 Amazon.com Gift Card by email.