Written by: Tim Healy, Northwest Region Volunteer
Lisa Gardner knows about trying to communicate complex messages to the public. As Director of Communications for the Spokane City Council, she is used to making difficult, even contentious, political issues understandable.
There is more. Lisa has suffered her entire life from a rare, genetic blood disorder that affects mostly African-Americans like herself called Sickle Cell Disease. She has become a spokesperson for a blood drive in Spokane that aims to break new ground in a community that isn’t, on the surface at least, naturally inclined to internalize the message. Spokane has an African-American population of about 2 percent, and Lisa guesses that she is perhaps one of five or so Sickle Cell sufferers in the city.
She understands that there is value in getting increased blood donations from the Black community. Sickle Cell Disease is characterized by red blood cells, normally soft and round, becoming hard and crescent-, or sickle-, shaped. The malformed red blood cells do a poor job of carrying oxygen around the body of a sufferer, which can result in a wide range of symptoms including anemia, severe pain, damaged organs, blood clots, and stroke.
Traditionally, the solution to these problems is blood transfusion, which at least temporarily provides relief to the sufferer. How often a Sickle Cell patient needs transfusions varies greatly. Lisa, now in her 40s, considers herself lucky to have only needed five transfusions in her life. More severe cases can require transfusions monthly or even weekly.
Dr. Edward Ivy, the vice-chief Medical Officer for the Sickle Cell Disease Association of America and himself a Sickle Cell Disease patient, says that the increased need for transfusions matters because it makes Sickle Cell patients more sensitive to blood donations that do not match their own blood closely.
“Red blood cells have antigens,” says Dr. Ivy. “You’ve probably heard of Type A, or B, or AB. And you have type O, which is the absence of antigens. But there are also minor antigens that you hear about less often. And you have the RH factor, plus or minus." This all to say you need to match many factors the more transfusions you get.
“It is not impossible to have a close, useful blood match between an African-American and someone of a different ethnicity, it just becomes more rare,” he explains.
Which brings us back to Lisa Gardner. She acknowledges that she learned only in the last year about the advantages to having more Black donors for Sickle Cell patients, and she can understand why there has been a push to have more blood drives targeting African-American communities. Statistically, while African-Americans make up about 13 percent of the population in the United States, Blacks represent only about 3 percent of blood donations, according to the Red Cross. “I don’t know why that is,” says Lisa. "But it’s obvious that it will need to take a marketing expert and funding to change that.”
The Red Cross agrees. Abby Walker, Red Cross Northwest Region Communications Manager says, “The American Red Cross is working with partners in the African-American community to grow the number of blood donors who are Black. Together, we launched the Sickle Cell Initiative in 2021 to inspire support for patients. In the initiative’s first year, the number of first-time African-American blood donors who gave with the Red Cross increased by 60 percent."
In addition to a new marketing direction, Dr. Ivy cites new developments in gene therapy that may have a major impact. He explains that historically, an alternative to blood transfusions has been a bone marrow transplant, which essentially resets the blood of a Sickle Cell patient permanently. However, such transplants are typically risky and prone to rejection by the recipient. With gene editing, Dr. Ivy explains, the DNA of a Sickle Cell patient’s own marrow is edited to remove the offending trait. “So now you don't have to worry about rejection because it's the person's own bone marrow.” Dr. Ivy says this technology is coming closer to being widely available.
In the meantime, you can help the American Red Cross build a blood supply as diverse as the patients who depend on lifesaving donations. When you donate blood, your gift of life helps ensure that blood is there for anyone who needs it – for surgeries, treatment of blood disorders, cancer treatments and emergencies. Make your appointment today at rcblood.org/appt.