In honor of World Sickle Cell Day on June 19, celebrated artist and activist Nikkolas Smith has revealed exclusive artwork illustrating the important role blood donations play for people living with sickle cell disease, the most common genetic blood disorder in the U.S., which predominantly affects those in the Black community.
The digital portrait commissioned by the American Red Cross, entitled “Transfusion,” is a call to raise broader awareness about sickle cell disease and the important role donors who are Black play in providing a compatible blood match. One in three African Americans are a match for people with sickle cell disease.
Smith sat down with four sickle cell warriors of various ages — Tiereny Bell, Dr. Rubin Beaufort, Dreylan Holmes and Erica Hunter — to capture and represent their lived experiences in “Transfusion”. From 12-year-old Dreylan Holmes’ misunderstood experience at school leaving him isolated from friends to Tiereny Bell’s excruciating pain impacting her work as an epidemiologist, warriors’ experiences are vast and common, yet widely still underrepresented in everyday conversation.
“People will sometimes say to me, you don’t look sick,” said Tiereny. “And I respond, well, what does sick look like?”
WHY SICKLE CELL DISEASE?
An estimated 100,000 people across the U.S. — the majority of whom are of African descent — have sickle cell disease and may require regular blood transfusions to help manage their disease. Blood transfusions are essential in managing the very real pain and long-term health of those with sickle cell disease, which distorts soft and round red blood cells and turns them hard and crescent-shaped, both of which are depicted in Smith’s artwork. As a result, blood has difficulty flowing smoothly and carrying oxygen to the rest of the body, which may lead to severe pain, tissue and organ damage, anemia, and even strokes.
“What stood out to me the most when speaking with these incredibly brave sickle cell warriors is how much constant pain they endure due to the malfunctioning cells in their body, but also the level of determination they have to maintain in order to push through until their next blood transfusion,” Nikkolas said.
HOW BLOOD DONORS HELP
Unfortunately, frequent transfusions can make finding compatible blood types more difficult when patients develop an immune response against blood from donors that is not closely matched to the blood of the recipient.
“Sickle cell disease can be inherited by anyone of any race and ethnicity, but in the U.S., the great majority of individuals who have the disease are of African descent,” said Dr. Yvette Miller, executive medical director of the American Red Cross. “Nikkolas’ art reinforces that donating blood helps sickle cell warriors stay in the fight, while inspiring each of us to roll up a sleeve so they don’t have to fight alone.”
Dr. Rubin Beaufort, a retired mechanical engineer, has received more than 240 blood transfusions to date and still endures high levels of pain regularly. “We’re facing this every single day, not just once in a while,” he shared, emphasizing the ongoing need for blood. Forty-one-year-old microbiologist Erica Hunter, who was forced to retire from her job early due to complications of the disease, has received more than 50 blood transfusions to date.
“I was so moved to learn how [sickle cell warriors’] health greatly improves after every generous blood donation and transfusion,” Nikkolas reflected. “My hope is that we can exponentially increase the number of lifesaving blood donations and transfusions this year.”
Nikkolas’ art is part of the Red Cross Sickle Cell Initiative, which seeks to address health disparities associated with sickle cell disease by increasing much-needed blood donations from individuals who are Black through community partnerships and helping to ensure closely matched blood products are available for patients.
Donating blood is simple, and summer months can be a challenging time to maintain a sufficient blood supply. Individuals of all blood types are urged to make an appointment now by using the Red Cross Blood Donor App, visiting RedCrossBlood.org/OurBlood or calling 1-800-RED CROSS (1-800-733-2767).