By Ashley Henyan
Jennifer Boateng is a college student at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. She plans to work in global communications and – through narrative story telling – help change the world. But Jennifer is not your average college student. In fact, instead of hitting the beach or joining friends for brunch, she spent her 25th birthday in a hospital room. This wasn’t her first time being hospitalized and, unfortunately, it might not be her last. This is because Jennifer has had sickle cell disease since she was diagnosed before birth, while still in her mother’s womb.
“My life is not full of suffering,” Jennifer said – removing her mask, temporarily, to re-adjust the oxygen tube extending from a portable tank and into her nostrils. “In my opinion I have lived a beautiful life. There has been tears. But there has also been dancing.”
After receiving over 20 blood transfusions as a child, Jennifer developed an immune response against blood from donors that were not a very close match. With this medical complication, it is now unsafe for her to receive a blood transfusion to treat pain or other symptoms related to her sickle cell disease.
Giving blood is vitally important – especially in and for Black communities. More than 90 percent of patients who have sickle cell disease are African American or Black and often require frequent blood transfusions to help manage their disease. It’s critical that patients receive blood from a donor with the same racial background to help avoid serious complications. While it does not typically matter the race of the donors and the recipient as long as their blood types are compatible, Black individuals (including African American or other individuals of African descent) have some unique protein structures on their red blood cells that can make it difficult to find a compatible unit of blood in other donor populations.
“If you are Black and considering making a blood donation, just go for it,” Jennifer said. “You have no idea who your blood could be helping. Maybe a stranger. Maybe someone you know. Maybe someone like me.”
Jennifer is determined to continue to share her own story – to help spread the word about why blood transfused to sickle cell patients must be closely matched and to help raise public awareness about the disease she lives with – every single day.
“When you think of a hero you think of a firefighter, or a soldier. But there are also other everyday heroes walking around, and those are blood donors!”
On September 14th, the American Red Cross launched a public sickle cell initiative to increase the number of Black individuals giving blood to help patients with sickle cell disease and support the health of our communities. To learn more, including how you can donate blood or how your organization can host a blood drive, visit RedCrossBlood.org.