Transfusion medicine

Angela Scott has heard many reasons why she shouldn’t donate blood. Friends and family wonder what might really be done with it. They worry that someone might inject her with something. You can’t always trust the medical establishment, she is told. Still, Scott, who is black, donates blood whenever she can, knowing how important it is for those receiving it. Patients with sickle cell disease, in particular, develop fewer reactions when given blood from donors of similar racial backgrounds.

Similar racial backgrounds

But her friends’ and family’s anxiety isn’t unfounded. America has a long, ugly history of experimenting on African American patients without their consent and treating them unethically. Notorious cases like the Tuskegee syphilis study, in which black men with the disease went untreated for years, have fueled a deep mistrust of the medical establishment that persists today among some African Americans.

The fear has “been passed down from generation to generation;” said Scott, 47, of Calumet City. That wariness may be one reason why African Americans are underrepresented among blood donors, along with a lack of access to blood drives. In Cook County, less than 7% of all American Red Cross blood donations came from black donors last year; though African Americans made up 24% of the population.

Blood donations

It’s a statistic that Dr. A. Kyle Mack; a pediatric hematologist at Lurie Children’s Hospital, is working to boost. Mack worked with the Red Cross and Lurie to start an initiative in Chicago in which black donors can have blue tags attached to their blood donations; so their blood can possibly be given to patients with sickle cell at Lurie. The project mirrors a similar effort in Philadelphia.

He also spreads his message at churches on the South Side and at community group events, encouraging people to visit blood drives. “There are so many sickle cell patients present in Chicago; given that we have a large African American community;” Mack said. “It’s about offering them the same opportunity to get blood transfusions without complications.”

Blood transfusions

Just ask 17-year-old Adrian Walton Jr. He needs blood transfusions every couple of months to treat acute anemia caused by the disease. In healthy people; therefore red blood cells are round; but in people with sickle cell disease they can be shaped like crescents; or sickles. When the cells become sickle-shaped; they can get stuck in blood vessels causing pain and depriving tissues and organs of oxygen. The cells also break down more easily; which can lead to anemia.
The disease is inherited and affects about 100,000 Americans; most of whom are black, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On a recent day; a nurse ducked into Walton’s room at Lurie to ask him how much pain he was feeling, on a scale of one to 10. The Rogers Park teen calmly told her it was at about a six or seven. He’s had to visit the hospital every few weeks this winter because of the pain. Because He said he usually feels better within a few minutes of getting a transfusion; which can help with the fatigue caused by anemia.