A good friend who works for the American Red Cross once told Pastor Troy Brand, "When blood is needed, only blood will do."
Those words resonated with Brand, but he has since added his own twist on the saying: "When Black blood is needed, only Black blood will do," because the vast majority of patients with the blood disorder known as sickle cell disease are of African descent.
Sickle cell disease causes red blood cells to become hard and "sickle shaped," making it harder for blood to flow. Frequent blood transfusions are one of the most important treatments to manage the range of complications that can come with the disease.
For those patients, it's crucial the blood they receive has matching antigens, and often, the most compatible blood comes from donors of the same race or similar ethnicity.
Dr. Avery Mixon, who specializes in treating blood disorders at Children's Hospital at Erlanger, said it typically takes about an hour or two to find compatible blood for the average hospital patient needing a transfusion. But for sickle cell patients who have received numerous transfusions, finding the right blood can take up to 24 hours or more, he said.
"After these kids have received several transfusions, their immune system starts to recognize that the blood that we're giving them is not theirs," he said. "So sometimes, it's really hard to find compatible blood to transfuse somebody."
Routine blood transfusions are needed to help prevent and treat stroke in sickle cell patients, he said. In addition, many patients experience acute pain and frequently need transfusions as part of their therapy, and there's a range of other sickle cell complications that benefit from transfusion.
"Definitely, we're very dependent on blood donors," Mixson said, adding that having to wait on blood can prolong painful symptoms or cause further complications.
Brand said he's been trying to educate and raise awareness among his members at Orchard Park Seventh-day Adventist Church about the need for blood donors. On Thursday, the church hosted its fourth blood drive since April 2020, but Brand said he's frustrated by the lack of enthusiasm and response.
"It's hard to get Black people to donate," he said. "That's unfortunate because the need is still there."
Nearly 14% of the U.S. population is Black, but less than 3% of blood donors are African American, according to data from the American Red Cross.
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Pastor A.J. Holman Sr. at nearby Bethel A.M.E. Church is also working to improve blood donor disparities. The church will host a blood drive from 1-5 p.m. Jan. 7 at its location, 2000 Walker Ave., in Chattanooga. Donors can visit bloodassurance.org/bethel to register.
Jan. 7 will be the church's third blood drive in a year, and although the first two drives went smoothly, attendance was low, Holman said.
"People are not really understanding the seriousness of the need for blood because of sickle cell anemia and other issues," he said.
In an effort to encourage more donors, Holman said he tells people about not only sickle cell but reminds them about community violence and a need for blood at area trauma centers.
"A lot of times, I'll also deal with the spiritual end of it -- Jesus gave his blood for us," Holman said.
Michael Logan was one of the donors who attended Thursday's blood drive at Orchard Park Seventh-day Adventist Church. He said he's donated blood regularly since high school, with Thursday being his fourth time this year.
Logan thinks skepticism and fear keep people from donating blood, but for him, he said prior experience donating and his relationship with God help combat those feelings.
"It's a positive experience, and it's something that's needed," he said. "It's helping other people, and we all could do more."
Thursday was Jordyn McLean's second time giving blood. She said she was motivated to start donating after she saw a video of a mother whose child has sickle cell disease expressing gratitude for donors.
"A lot of times, when people want you to give, it's money, but that's hard because I'm a college student -- so this is just one way I can help out," McLean said. "This is something practical we can do, and the only cost is a little time."
Contact Elizabeth Fite at email@example.com or 423-757-6673. Follow her on Twitter @ecfite.