By: Maribel Flores
Rena Witherspoon, pronounced ‘Renee’, is passionate. Serving as the American Red Cross’s North Texas Sickle Cell Account Manager, Rena is fully aware of the direct life-giving impact her work has when she shares her blood, time, and efforts in the Red Cross’s Sickle Cell initiative. The Army veteran has been with the Red Cross up and down the Midwest, starting in 1997 in Omaha, Nebraska all the way down to Dallas since 2014.
Every day, Rena connects with volunteer and community members in her mission to educate, bring awareness and increase sickle cell blood-compatible donations, particularly in the Black community in North Texas.
“I’m very proud, you know with anything. I’m a numbers person. I’m a doer. I like having numbers to let me know how I’m doing. So, I’m very proud. That’s almost double.” Rena said, referring to the number of Black donors almost doubling in the year since she took on her role, going from 835 people to 1,566 people. This is significant, as nationwide weekly sickle cell donors dropped from 4,000 to 1,200 people during the pandemic. For perspective, 1 in 12 people of African descent carry the sickle cell trait, while actually impacting 1 in 365 births nationwide. For some sickle cell patients, this means receiving up to 120 blood transfers per year. As with all blood supply, sickle cell blood supply has been at critical levels since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic that has disproportionally affected Black communities across the country.
Sickle Cell disease is not easy. For patients, it means routine acute pain crisis’, organ damage, anemia, strokes, and organ failure. With sickle cell disease, there are not enough healthy red blood cells to carry oxygen throughout the body. These cells are often described as sticky, rigid, and crescent moon shaped. Unfortunately, there is currently no cure for sickle cell disease, but blood transfusion treatments can help. That’s where Rena and the Red Cross comes in.
Rena has partnered with a few organizations that are focused on alleviating the sickle cell blood crisis, including the Divine Nine sorority and fraternity chapters like Alpha Phi Alpha, non-profits such as Butterflies Second Chances, Carol’s Promise Foundation, 100 Black Men, local Black churches, and students in high school and college. For Rena, getting individuals connected in the community is a huge factor in engaging more donors, but what really matters here is education.
“Our Blood Saves Lives”, Rena mentions.
There are many misconceptions about sickle cell disease within the Black community that prevent many people from donating, like high blood pressure or diabetes diagnosis. There can also be hesitation with medical treatment in general and questions about the use of donated blood. Many community members simply did not grow up donating blood as a regular part of everyday life. Still, Rena is proud of the Black community and how they are stepping up to offer their assistance and support in this initiative.
“I love hearing their stories because that’s where my passion comes from. I cry with them sometimes, these families. I have the opportunity to get close to them. So, it’s that type of connection that you get from what you do that brings so much meaning and value”, Rena shares.
Rena was recently awarded a certificate from the FBI for her efforts for the FBI’s Dallas Black History Month program in recognition of her service to the Black community. After recently donating, she received notice that her own donated blood was used to help a sickle cell patient in Temple, Texas. Even her brother has benefitted from life-saving blood donations after his double lung and heart transplant.
Rena also recently received the 2022 President’s Award of Merit – Outstanding Individual award from the South Central Association of Blood Banks’ (SCABB) Awards committee. This is a high honor by SCABB recognizing Rena’s commitment and dedication to blood banking.
Her focus on increasing recruitment and retention of African American blood donors, and her countless hours spent on education and awareness in the local African American community led to the honor. Rena relentlessly stresses the importance of blood donation by African American donors to help meet the needs of certain people living with sickle cell disease.
Since finding out she has sickle cell compatible blood, Rena makes sure to donate blood every 56 days to give her body proper time to replenish. “In 56 days, somebody else is out there at the hospital looking for my blood. And so that’s why I’m donating because when I say we, I mean WE can eliminate this health disparity. That’s me too.”