Dr. Laventrice Ridgeway remembers everything up until that split-second frightening moment. A young boy at the time, he rushed outside to play football with his friends, bounding down the front stairs. Before the last step, he hit the ground. Then, everything went dark.
According to his grandmother, he lay unconscious for days in the hospital as doctors rushed to locate blood for a transfusion. But they struggled to find a match.
That was one of the first moments Laventrice realized sickle cell disease was serious, and that limitations on his life were a reality. Everything from stress to extreme cold and extreme heat can trigger a sickle cell crisis, sending the person quickly into an emergency state. For Laventrice, even running to play with friends was “pushing it.”
“I began to internalize it, like, I'm never going to be able to do anything,” he recalled of that stark realization. “Sickle cell was going to be it for me.”
A Turning Point
With a background in clinical mental health counseling, Laventrice, now 35 years old, surrounds himself with the next generation on purpose. He values intimate settings to authentically get to know someone, crediting his adolescence for the chance to experience mentorship up close and personal. In fact, the myriad of ways he gives back to youth experiencing challenges like sickle cell disease is what he calls “his calling.”
Sickle cell disease is the most common genetic blood disorder in the U.S. affecting more than 100,000 people nationwide, many of whom are in need of blood transfusions to manage their disease. Blood transfused to patients with rare blood types, like those with sickle cell disease, must be matched closely to reduce the risk of complications. One in three African American blood donors are a match for people with sickle cell disease, but many are unaware due to the limited research and few treatments available to help people currently suffering from sickle cell disease.
“I saw throughout my educational and professional career how [influential and impactful] being that person to give back and carry the torch was,” he said. “I've always known that I've had those skills and abilities in some respect throughout my life.”
Growing up, Laventrice’s medical care team was essential beyond providing treatment. They saw him for who he was as a wholistic person, rather than just a patient. When he was 18, his grandmother accompanied him into the adult clinic, where his new doctor promptly, yet kindly asked her to leave the room so the two of them could have a private conversation.
“He kept things real with me,” Laventrice remembers. “He was like, ‘hey, you're 18 now. Everything that happened in pediatrics –the kid world – they’re looking at you as an adult now.’ “That was a wake-up call for me because up until that point my grandmother had handled everything. But when I met with him, just the way that he positioned things, it was like, okay, now it's time for me to mature, take on these things myself and be able to maneuver in the world as I should.”
That doctor lives fondly in Laventrice’s mind and heart. He later became Laventrice’s fraternity brother when he joined Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. “[He was] a fellow Black man who had gone through the ranks of academia, hardships, all that comes with being part of a minority group,” Laventrice said. During his appointments, they’d take some time to go over his health needs, and the remainder of the time was spent discussing more. “He’d ask me, ‘How is life going? What are you doing? What’s your next goal?’ He was genuinely interested in me.”
Paying it Forward
It’s no wonder that Laventrice is a strong advocate now, too. He’s a speaker at the Sickle Cell Association’s Alabama chapter, which provides resources to middle and high schoolers as well as those transitioning to college. There, he hosts a session about transitioning to college with sickle cell, in which he is often asked “How do I manage it all?”
“Know what you can and cannot handle.”
Laventrice encourages his mentees to be transparent and create boundaries. To be realistic about what they can and cannot take on within their strength and abilities.
It’s wisdom he’s come intimately to terms with himself. He loves to go hard, pursue his passions. “My grandmother calls me a work horse because I know when to say no. But if I can do it, I'm going to do it,” he said with a stubborn grin spread across his face.
For Laventrice, being seen as a whole person has become infused in his blood deeper than any genetic disorder. When people discover that he has sickle cell, many respond with “Oh, I’m sorry.” “That,” he says, “reflects the idea that a person [is working] from a disabled mindset or [has] some sort of disability, some sort of handicap when that may not be true.”
“When I walk into the room, I walk in as Laventrice first. Sickle cell is probably ten things behind me. I like to say that I'm a person with sickle cell. Sickle cell doesn't have me.”
To schedule an appointment to give blood, visit RedCrossBlood.org/OurBlood or call 1-800-RED-CROSS (1-800-733-2767).
This month, the Red Cross is launching Joined By Blood and teaming up with partners in the Black community—such as 100 Black Men of America, Inc., Kier’s Hope Foundation, Inc. and others—to host blood drives and rally blood donors who are Black to support the blood transfusion needs of sickle cell patients. The initiative is a fall activation of the Red Cross Sickle Cell Initiative, representing the powerful connection between blood donors and patients.