By Kimberlee Walter – Special to the Navarro County Gazette

Rena Witherspoon, the Regional Sickle Cell Account Manager for the American Red Cross, sat down with me to discuss the importance of blood donation, especially in the Black Community. Rena has worked with the Red Cross for 24 years and has held her current position since January 2021.

Her main objective is to bring more awareness to blood donation in order to help those people battling sickle cell disease (SCD). The Red Cross is currently in a national crisis, and when you bring in a specific demographic, the situation is even more dire.

“Sickle cell disease is the number one genetic disease in the United States and it primarily impacts people of African descent. 1 in 365 births in the Black community result in someone with sickle cell disease. Mostly what we want to do is begin the conversation and start talking about it,” Witherspoon said.  

Instead of being round and smooth, the crescent moon shaped blood cell is rigid and can make passage through the blood stream difficult and extremely painful. When the blood vessels become clogged, the resulting pain crisis is sudden, intense and can last for several hours or even several weeks.  

The standard of care during a pain crisis is a blood transfusion. Besides the pain crisis, sufferers can experience acute anemia, strokes and even organ damage. Interestingly, some of the effects listed above can be caused by patients receiving frequent blood transfusions that are not made up of the most compatible blood.

That’s why the Red Cross is working with Black community organizations to host blood drives in local neighborhoods, like the East Side, that will bring in desperately needed donations. Rena makes it clear that the need for blood is not only limited to those with sickle cell disease. “In fact, cancer patients are some of our number one users of our blood products,” she states. 

Our Blood is Unique

Race and ethnicity play an important role in the makeup of our blood. Black people have specific antigens that aren’t found in other parts of the population. Unfortunately, many people within the Black community are simply not aware of the important impact their blood donation can have towards saving the lives of other Black people. When more Black people donate, the supply chain is replenished and those suffering through a crisis will have a shorter wait time to receive the most compatible blood. Currently there is not enough compatible blood within the supply chain which has created a health disparity. 

Rena finds that many people are truly shocked to find out about the specific need for Black blood donations. However, it’s very important that the blood supply matches the medical need. Did you know that less than half of the blood provided to sickle cell patients have compatible markers? Sixty percent of the time, the blood given during a transfusion is not an optimal match, which as we know can lead to even more severe consequences. Research shows that Black donors are three times more likely to have the most compatible markers needed to help those with sickle cell disease. 

In her 24 years of experience, Ms. Witherspoon has heard it all when it comes to why people don’t donate. Here is her Top Five of the Most Common Reasons Black People Don’t Donate Blood.

  1. Nobody asked me.
  2. I don’t know what to expect. It sounds scary.
  3. I’m afraid of needles.
  4. I have high blood pressure and/or diabetes.
  5. I’m worried about COVID safety.

Let’s dispel these myths and worries right now!

  1. Your Invitation: You are cordially invited to come donate blood. This is your official invitation. We are asking you. Seriously, come on down.
  2. The Process: The Red Cross asks that you give an hour for the donation process. The actual blood draw is only 5 mins.
  • 15 mins – Registration/Mini-questionnaire (Use the Rapid Pass before your appointment to save time: )
  • 15 mins – Mini-Health history
  • 5 mins – Finger prick to check iron levels/blood pressure taken
  • 15 mins – Time in the bed, 5 of which is the actual blood draw
  • 10 mins – Snack time! Rest and replenish before you continue with your day       
  1. Is it painful? If you have a tattoo or a piercing you won’t have any trouble with blood donation. The procedure is a minor inconvenience at worst. Plus, the rewards of saving a life far outweigh any possible pain you may experience.
  2. I have high blood pressure/diabetes. No problem, you can still donate! As long as you are taking your mediation and are within a healthy range, you are eligible to donate.
  3. Safety First: The Red Cross takes the safety of the blood supply and its donors very seriously. They follow a stringent sanitation process, practice social distancing and provide masks for those who don’t have one. Even in the middle of a pandemic, blood donation continues to be safe. 

Fun Facts!

  • Through the wonders of modern technology, you can now track where your blood ends up by downloading the “Blood Donor” app.  
  • The body has between 10-12 pints of blood. A donation is less than 1 pint and your body starts replenishing itself immediately. (Remember to eat and stay hydrated leading up to your donation.)
  • Your unit of blood can save up to 3 lives.   
  • You will receive a $20 Amazon gift card for showing up. Even if you are still unsure about donating, we invite you to come to the MLK center to see the process. The trained staff can answer any questions you may have, plus you’ll still get the gift card!

And who knows? Maybe you’ll end up staying and say, “I’m here. I’m healthy. I’m willing to help save a life today.”

You can watch this interview on YouTube.

For more information call 1-800 RED CROSS

Sickle Cell Awareness Blood Drive
9 a.m. – 2:30 p.m. – Saturday Feb. 19
Martin Luther King Center – 1114 E. Sixth Avenue

Red Cross Launches National initiative to reach more blood donors to help patients with sickle cell disease. (2021, September 14). Retrieved February 15, 2022

Kimberlee Walter





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