By Mike Tierney, Red Cross LA Volunteer
Gerald Thomas acknowledges that one motivating factor with donating blood for the first time might have been the opportunity to slip out of a high school class in Augusta, GA. But a more serious issue moved him as well.
His uncle Harrison, who was 10 months older and like a big brother, had been diagnosed as an infant with sickle cell disease. “That started a journey of regular blood transfusions every six weeks or so, him navigating terrible pain crises,” Thomas remembered in a phone conversation.
Thomas learned early on the importance of the Black community donating blood that is a match for those in need such as Harrison, who navigated his condition to become a sheriff’s deputy. He died at age 42.
Thomas recalls the words of Harrison’s aunt and his own father. “They said that, wherever he went, the blood was always there [for him]. That was particularly moving for me.”
From that initial pint as a teen, Thomas has been a semi-regular donor, even while serving as an infantry officer in the Marine Corps for 21 years thanks to drives by the Armed Services Blood Program. (Well, through most of his military career. He did lead Marines in combat theaters. “Going to war kinda interrupted it,” he said of donating.)
Nowadays, Thomas can lead efforts to increase such contributions for sickle cell sufferers by more than example. He is the chief operating officer for the American Red Cross Los Angeles Region, bearing responsibility for the operations of staff and volunteers, and gives a pint as often as possible.
“Gerald is a great example of a Red Crosser seeing a need and stepping in to fill that need,” said Jenni Gasbarro, the organization’s product development and implementation director, whose duties include overseeing the campaign to promote sickle cell-related donations.
According to the Red Cross, African Americans comprise 13% of the nation’s population but fewer than three percent of blood donors. Blood that is most compatible with that of sickle cell sufferers most likely comes from a person of the same race or similar ethnic background.
Sickle cell, an incurable condition that affects primarily Black people, is the most common genetic blood disease inflicting the nation. Complications include organ and tissue damage, strokes and harsh pain. About 100,000 U.S. residents deal with the disease, with one out of 365 Black people being impacted at birth.
It was the death of George Floyd in May 2020 and other racial injustices, along with observations expressed by Red Cross employees and volunteers, that prompted the organization to launch initiatives related to sickle cell and other matters.
“We should have been doing this all along,” Gasbarro said while acknowledging that rounding up compatible units is a challenge. She noted that the blood of just one of three Black donors is a specific match for the type needed by those coping with sickle cell.
By summertime that year, the Red Cross began preparing for a promotional push. Partnering with a communications company in Chicago with expertise in marketing toward an African American audience, the organization identified four times on the calendar each year to heighten efforts, primarily via radio and blog posts.
The Sickle Cell Initiative, a seven-year plan, officially began on New Year’s Day 2021. In the first fiscal year (July 1 to June 30), the number of first-time Black donors shot up 60%, Gasbarro said.
Since the first sickle cell trait screening for self-identified African American donors in April 2021 under the initiative, more than 82,000 have been provided.
“Progress has been great. We’ve seen really good growth,” Gasbarro said. “We still have a big hill to climb. Our goal is to triple our African American donor base over the next seven years. We are on that path.
“The Red Cross ideally wants our blood supply to reflect the diversity of our population. We are doing a great job with that.”
Thomas can attest from first-hand observation how transfusions benefit recipients.
Sitting with his uncle in the hospital after fresh blood was circulating in his veins, “It was like night and day,” Thomas said. “He felt so much better. The pain in his joints and all over his body would be horrendous. He would feel like a new person.”
Thomas, who has been spared the sickle cell trait, is delighted at the Red Cross’ concerted efforts toward magnifying awareness regarding sickle cell. He cited the organization hiring sickle cell account managers as evidence of the endeavor.
Despite his high-ranking status, Thomas goes about his donating process the same as everyone else. Set an appointment. Prepare properly. Show up early.
“I make sure I’m a good patient,” he said.
Thomas enlisted as a Red Cross volunteer in 2015 following the completion of his military service. A year later, he came aboard full-time as a manager.
He does not hesitate to use his megaphone to tout the need for blood for sickle cell patients, who require up to 100 units annually.
“Please give because it definitely makes a difference in the lives of those who receive it,” he said. “It can extend a life. Save a life. It was life-changing for my family, and I’m sure it’s life-changing for all those who receive it.”
February is Black History Month — a time to honor the significant achievements of Black Americans. With the theme “Black Excellence Is in Our Blood,” the American Red Cross commemorates the vibrant legacies of history makers whose contributions continue to advance our communities and lifesaving mission – like Gerald Thomas.
Join Gerald in the fight to help patients who have sickle cell disease and other needs by rolling up a sleeve to give blood during Black History Month. Use the Red Cross Blood DonorApp, visit RedCrossBlood.org/OurBlood or call 1-800-RED CROSS (1-800-733-2767) to schedule an appointment today.
About the American Red Cross:
The American Red Cross shelters, feeds and provides comfort to victims of disasters; supplies about 40% of the nation's blood; teaches skills that save lives; distributes international humanitarian aid; and supports veterans, military members and their families. The Red Cross is a nonprofit organization that depends on volunteers and the generosity of the American public to deliver its mission. For more information, please visit redcross.org or cruzrojaamericana.org, or visit us on Twitter at @RedCross.
Support all the urgent humanitarian needs of the American Red Cross.
Find a drive and schedule a blood donation appointment today.
Take a class and be ready to respond if an emergency strikes.