By Ashley Henyan
Karen Britton is a community volunteer with the Red Cross of the National Capital & Greater Chesapeake region. She’s also a wife, mother, a friend and a blood donor. Karen first started giving blood after her husband underwent heart transplant surgery. She continues to donate as often as possible because her life-long friend Debbie has a daughter named Tyeler— and Tyeler spent most of her 17 years fighting sickle cell disease.
“Tyeler’s first pain crisis was at the age of 6-months,” said Debbie, about her daughter’s fight with sickle cell disease. “She was bedridden from pain at age 11 and in 2016 she missed 145 days of school.”
Sickle cell disease disproportionately impacts the Black community, and a single patient with sickle cell disease can require thousands of blood transfusions throughout their life. These frequent transfusions can cause patients with sickle cell disease to develop an immune response against blood from a donor that is not closely matched, and this can lead to serious complications. Because most individuals who are Black have unique protein structures in their red blood cells that are not often found in other donor populations, they often provide the most compatible blood type matches for patients with sickle cell disease.
“Tyeler has had numerous blood transfusions,” Debbie continued. “There were times when I was scared, fearful if the hospital was going to have enough blood.”
That’s why Debbie is grateful for blood donors like her friend, Karen.
“Donating blood has been a part of my whole life,” said, Karen. “I’m happy to donate to help hospital patients – those I know personally and those I’ve never met.”
In April of 2021, the Red Cross expanded its testing to include sickle cell trait screening on all donations from self-identified African American donors. This additional screening helps the Red Cross identify compatible blood types more quickly to help sickle cell patients and provides our Black donors an additional health insight during a time when health information has never been more important.
Karen plans to continue to give blood and Debbie continues to stress the importance that donors who are a close blood match to the thousands of patients fighting sickle cell disease, step up and give blood, too. But today, Black donors make up less than 4 percent of Red Cross blood donors — making it difficult to ensure the right blood product is available at the right time for patients.
“People are walking around in pain,” said Debbie. “I think it’s more urgent now than ever, that we get the word out about sickle cell and the need for blood.”
Thanks to a haplo-identical bone marrow transplant from Debbie, Tyeler is now pain and sickle cell free.
“But if it wasn’t for those blood transfusions,” Debbie continued. “We would’ve never made it through!”
On September 14, 2021 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.
Be like Karen and help patients like Tyeler. Schedule a blood donation appointment today by visiting RedCrossBlood.org, downloading the Blood Donor App or calling 1-800-RED CROSS. Blood donors can make a difference in the life of a sickle cell patient, individuals who experience complicated childbirths, people fighting cancer, accident victims being raced to emergency rooms, and many more.