Sickle Cell Patients Need Blood Donors’ Help

August 24, 2011

ATLANTA – The summer is always a challenging time to collect enough blood to meet patients’ needs.  Hundreds of donors in this community responded to the appeal for blood issued in July.  However, the need still remains as the blood supply is not yet back up to adequate levels, and blood products continue to go to area hospitals just as quickly as they are coming in.

Many patients that receive blood need a one-time transfusion, but patients who battle sickle cell disease, like 19-year-old Marquita Gaines, face a lifetime of blood transfusions.  Sickle cell disease is an inherited blood disorder that affects approximately one in 600 African-Americans.  Patients with sickle cell disease have red blood cells that contain an abnormal type of hemoglobin, which can cause these cells to become sickle-shaped.  When this occurs, red blood cells have difficulty passing through small blood vessels, which restricts blood from reaching various parts of the body and can cause terrible pain known as “crisis,” as well as organ and tissue damage, stroke or anemia.

Marquita’s battle with sickle cell disease began at a very young age with early symptoms being similar to asthma.  Then, at just 5-years-old, a fall off her bicycle resulted in acute chest syndrome – one of the most common causes of death among sickle cell patients – leaving her in a medically induced coma.  After several weeks in intensive care, Marquita had to learn to walk, talk and feed herself all over again.

She said that she had her first pain crisis in sixth grade and was hospitalized 14 times in just a five month span that year.  Over the next six years, she would try multiple treatments to manage the pain resulting from the disease and was hospitalized many more times, with her mother and aunt taking turns spending time at the hospital with her.

Then, as a senior in high school, she had her first red blood cell exchange transfusion.  Blood transfusion has been proven effective to treat some severe complications from sickle cell disease.  Transfusions increase the number of normal red blood cells in the body, helping to deliver oxygen throughout the body and unblock blood vessels.  Some sickle cell patients may require red blood cell exchange transfusions, where the patient’s blood is removed and replaced with blood from a donor. 

“It was like night and day,” she said of her first exchange transfusion.  “Before the exchanges, I was tired all the time and couldn’t be that active.  After that first blood exchange, I had energy throughout the day and could even run a mile in PE.  I never could have done that before.”

Because of the need for ongoing transfusion, blood that is given to sickle cell patients must be matched very closely.  Red blood cells carry markers called antigens on their surface that determine one’s blood type.  Certain blood types are unique to specific racial and ethnic groups, and blood from a donor with a similar ethnic background to that of the patient is less likely to be rejected or cause complications or illness. 

It is estimated that at least 10,000 blood donors with the appropriate, unique blood types are needed each year to support the transfusion needs of all patients with sickle cell disease in the state of Georgia.  African-American blood donors provide the best match for patients who must have repeated transfusions for sickle cell anemia and other similar diseases.  However, African-Americans have been historically underrepresented in the blood donor population, making it more challenging for the Red Cross to find the unique donor matches needed to treat patients in our Region.  In the Southern Region, only about 13 percent of all blood donations are from African-American donors.

“If your doctor recommends an exchange or transfusion for your sickle cell, I think you should consider it,” said Marquita, who is now a sophomore at Howard University and still receives scheduled exchange transfusions.  “The exchanges have helped me a lot.  With treatments like this and a strong support system, like I have with my mom, there’s no excuse not to succeed with this disease.  Don’t let the disease hold you back from your dreams.’

The Red Cross Southern Blood Services Region provides lifesaving blood to more than 120 hospitals and must have 1,200 people give blood and platelets each weekday to meet hospital demand. Accident victims, as well as patients with cancer, sickle cell disease, blood disorders and other illnesses receive lifesaving transfusions every day. There is no substitute for blood and volunteer donors are the only source.

Most individuals who are 17 years of age (16 with parental permission in Georgia), meet weight and height requirements (110 pounds or more, depending on their height) and are in generally good health may be eligible to give blood.  Despite what some believe, you can donate blood even if you have high blood pressure that is controlled with medication and within guidelines on the day of the donation, diabetes that is controlled with medication, or sickle cell trait.  Please bring your Red Cross blood donor card or other form of positive ID when you come to donate. 

Eligible blood donors are asked to please call 1-800-RED CROSS (1-800-733-2767) or visit to find a blood drive and to make an appointment.