For the second consecutive year, the American Red Cross is joining with the Urban League of Greater Madison and Morgridge Center for Public Service to help raise awareness about the need for a diverse blood supply. Community members are encouraged to donate blood at one of two upcoming Sickle Cell Awareness Blood Drives that will be held at the Urban League and at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Memorial Union.
Sickle cell disease (SCD) is a serious blood disorder that causes acute pain, severe anemia, infections, and vascular blockages that can lead to widespread organ damage and death. It is a genetic disease and the most common inherited blood disorder in the United States where it occurs most often in African Americans and Hispanics. Until the past few decades, most people with SCD did not live beyond young adulthood, but advances in treatment have improved and lengthened the lives of patients who have access to good medical care.
“I think, initially, that we wanted to do this annually, but when our team realized that we are the only sickle cell drive in Madison, we moved to a biannual basis so we do one in the spring and we do one in the fall now,” says Shawnika Hull, an assistant professor at the School of Journalism & Mass Communication at University of Wisconsin-Madison who, along with Mary Rouse, is helping to organize the event. “We’re very happy about this.”
African Americans make up nearly 13 percent of the U.S. population but represent less than 1 percent of blood donors. Having more black blood donors could help people with sickle cell, which causes red blood cells to become sickle-shaped and impedes the delivery of oxygen through the body. The disease can be deadly, but medical improvements have enabled many patients to live into their 40s and beyond.
The sickle cell blood drive team is asking the African American community in the Madison area to come forward and help those who suffer from the disease live longer, healthier, higher quality lives by donating blood. The event at the Urban League this Friday will feature an appearance by UW cheerleaders and Ron Dayne, the former Badger football star and Heisman Trophy winner. If his health permits, Hull says, they may also see an appearance from last year’s co-chair, Isaiah Darden-Roey, a nine-year-old who gets monthly blood transfusions to manage pain, pneumonia, and other complications of his sickle cell disease.
“I know Isaiah and I’ve seen what he’s experienced. The effects are very painful and long term,” Hull says. “The only way to handle the effects for Isaiah is to get blood transfusions and he gets them pretty regularly. The problem that he is facing is that sickle cell affects the African American community predominantly and you’re more likely to get a match if a person is similar to you demographically. We have somewhat of a deficit of donation in the black community. We need more donations.”
The drives are a push to make up ground on some of those disparities in donations. “If we can promote donation in the black community, we’re more likely to get matches for people like Isaiah,” Hull says.
While they are focusing very heavily on the African American community, Hull stresses that these blood drives are for everybody.
“We encourage the entire community to come out. That’s why we’re hosting one on campus, too,” she says. “We realize that other donors could also make a match. We want to develop that habitual nature — getting college students to start donating while they are young and creating that habit while they are starting to solidify their professional habits is a great idea.”
The whole donation time will probably only take 15-30 minutes. Hull stresses that the Sickle Cell Blood Drive team tries to make the whole process as easy and painless as possible. Still, many people have traditionally stayed away from blood drives because of fear.
“The major barrier that we’ve been experiencing is that people don’t like the idea of needles,” Hull says. “I respect that. But I think that we in the community have something important to do here. Our fears are legitimate and very rational, but I think that we’re coming to a point where I’m seeing people say, ‘I don’t like needles, but I’m going to do this anyways.’ People are finding strategies to get around those fears.
“We’re trying to create a social movement of getting over those fears for the sake of the greater good,” she adds.
Sickle cell disease affects about 70,000 people in the U.S., roughly 98 percent of whom are people of African descent. While there is no cure for sickle cell disease, its symptoms are often managed through regular blood transfusions and it is important that blood donors reflect the ethnic diversity of the patients who receive their blood. Patients with sickle cell disease — primarily in the black community — are less likely to have complications from blood donated by black donors.
“It’s my understanding that each pint of blood [donated] can save up to three lives,” Hull says. “Our ultimate goal with the two drives is to save over 200 lives. That would be so wonderful.
“Ultimately, what we want to do is to save lives,” she adds. “We don’t want Isaiah to have to worry whether there is going to be enough blood for his next transfusion. We want to set the standard for the Midwest when it comes to sickle cell blood donation.”
Hull hopes that the drives can get more information out to the community, too And, hopefully, they will get people donating blood on a regular basis — especially people of color.
“I think that we need to make donation a habit. When I was growing up my father donated from the day he was eligible every time he was eligible — and it was just part of his routine and part of what he did,” Hull remembers. “As soon as he gave blood, he set up his next appointment. It was the responsibility to his community that he feels very strongly about. For him, making it routine and habitual makes it that much easier to remember to do it and to actually go and do it.”
If you are willing to donate, you can make an appointment at www.redcrossblood.org. The sponsor code is: Madison Sickle Cell. This first drive will take place Friday, Feb. 22, noon-6 p.m. at the Urban League of Greater Madison, 2222 Park St.
Walk-ins are also welcome.