Thirteen-year-old Dreylan Holmes may not describe himself as very talkative, yet he’s got an abundance of energy that fuels his love of sports. But that energy quickly vanished when Dreylan became riddled with excruciating, life-threatening pain in the fall of 2021. His hemoglobin dropped and his platelet count plummeted. That’s when doctors raised the flag that he needed blood—immediately.
But the one item that could help both reduce the pain and restore the bounce in his step was unavailable.
His situation is reminiscent of what many patients are going through now, as the Red Cross has seen a concerning drop in blood donations in recent months. The impacts of an active disaster season, busy travel season and back-to-school have caused numerous canceled blood drives, resulting in tens of thousands of blood donations going uncollected.
Uncertainty filled every minute. “Over the course of those two days [waiting for blood], he got progressively worse,” said his mother, Vesha Jamison, who works as a blood donor recruitment manager for the Red Cross and was keenly aware of the low national blood inventory levels.
Dreylan is one of more than 100,000 people across the U.S. living with the disease, which distorts round, healthy red blood cells into crescent-shaped ones, making it difficult for them to flow through the bloodstream and carry oxygen to the body. This often leads to severe pain, tissue and organ damage, anemia and strokes.
Finding compatible blood types for sickle cell patients like Dreylan isn’t easy. An estimated 62% of the U.S. population is eligible to donate blood, but only about 3% donate each year. One in three African American blood donors are a match for people with sickle cell disease, the most common genetic blood disorder in the country affecting mostly those of African descent.
Dreylan’s chronic pain crises still continue today and sometimes require blood transfusions. He’s had more than a dozen so far in his lifetime.
“Typically as moms, we put on our capes and we come to our children's rescue. And this is the one thing that I cannot not fix,” Vesha recalled.
Teenage Life, Interrupted
September is Sickle Cell Awareness Month, a time to acknowledge and support those living with the disease who navigate its challenges year-round. For Dreylan, flare-ups of extreme pain—known as sickle cell crises—often keep him from participating in common activities that make up everyday teen life. He’s had to miss roughly half of the entire school year, relying on help from a homebound teacher’s aide. He lights up when playing basketball, but can’t always participate alongside his friends. “It’s like getting hit with a baseball bat,” he said of the pain that leaves him unable to get out of bed sometimes.
Dreylan knows firsthand that misconceptions of sickle cell disease are abundant. “Sometimes, kids at school look at me funny, like they can catch it [sickle cell disease] or something,” he said. But the condition is genetic and can be inherited if both parents carry the sickle cell trait. Many people also remain unaware if they carry the trait, as sickle cell trait testing at birth was not widely provided in the U.S. until 2006. That’s exactly how Vesha found out about her son’s diagnosis.
“It was heartbreaking,” Vesha said. “I felt very guilty . . . like I had given him the worst part of me. I knew all my life that I had the [sickle cell] trait, but not the full extent of what that meant.
Hope at Last
Eventually, after a harrowing two-day wait, blood finally arrived for Dreylan thanks to a generous blood donor.
“I say a little prayer for whoever donated that blood when the bag is being hung by Dreylan’s bedside,” Vesha said, teary-eyed. “It’s my family today, but it could be yours tomorrow.”
People with life-threatening conditions are relying on blood donors now more than ever. 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.