Jennifer Joseph wondered why the woman across the room was crying. They were at the American Red Cross office-or-clinic for the first day of training to become phlebotomists – and as they watched a training video about a woman who needed a lifesaving blood transfusion, the other trainee began to cry. McKenzie later explained that her own mother had needed transfusions, although they had failed, in the end, to save her life. That was why McKenzie wanted to be a phlebotomist. Three years later, the one-time strangers are the best of friends, down to their matching blimp tattoos.
Blood Donors Awareness
Every two seconds in America someone needs a blood transfusion and most people do not know what they could save three lives with just one donation. Only four percent of America’s population gives blood and of that, one percent is African American.
The American Red Cross Greater New York blood center on West 49th Street provides access for Long Island, Westchester, and greater New York with an emphasis on diversity, from the staff to the donors.
Brianna McKenzie, from Queens, New York has been working at the Red Cross for as a phlebotomist ever since she started that training program. She is a tall, vibrant black woman with a short lilac and blonde Afro, silver hoop earrings, and a big smile outlined in red lipstick, whose personal story and passion for work are aligned. She was a blood donor for her mother, who died a month before her fifty-second birthday of leukemia, a cancer of the blood that hinders the body’s ability to fight infection.
“My mother passed away because she did not have enough blood,” said McKenzie. Her mother was in need of both blood and bone marrow during her treatments. McKenzie donated blood to her mother regularly and her aunt was a bone marrow match — but she could not receive a sufficient amount of transfusions because of the low number of donors who were a match.
Jennifer Joseph, her tattoo-mate, is a young black woman with locked hair, whose arms are covered with sleeve tattoos, including a favorite of her two-year-old niece Joanne, who was born prematurely by four months and needed blood transfusions.
“My niece lived in the hospital for four months and needed blood transfusions so I know how important this is,” said Joseph. “When I found out that Brianna and I had these experiences we became close friends.”
Public Health Issue
While there are 318.9 million people in America, only four percent of the eligible sixty percent of the population donates blood, according to the American Red Cross. Of that group, African American people account for one percent of all giving at an estimated number of 76,536.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in every 365 African Americans is born with sickle cell disease and 1 in 13 African Americans are born with the sickle cell trait. People born with the trait are at higher risk of later developing sickle cell anemia.
If black people do not donate it makes it more difficult for people who are suffering from sickle cell anemia to receive transfusions because of the rare antigens found in African American people’s blood. People living with the disease need transfusion therapy to prevent progressive organ damage every two to four weeks.
Seventy one percent of African Americans have Type O or B blood and U-negative and Duffy-negative blood types that are unique to their ethnic group. Black people with sickle cell anemia have the U-negative and Duffy-negative types and need blood transfusions from donors from that group.
Blood transfusions are also needed during cancer treatments, after major surgeries and car accidents.
“Blood sees no color,” said McKenzie. There is a constant need for donors from every background, but it is imperative that African Americans donate, have access to drives and are educated on the benefits of giving.
Prospective donors are greeted by volunteers like Maureen Miller who has been a volunteer with the Red Cross since the late nineties. Mrs. Miller checks ID cards, signs people in, goes over preparatory information with donors and chats with them as they wait.
Soft rock, R&B and old school hip-hop play in the background as phlebotomists and donors talk about their holiday plans. Four people are lying on medical beds, some already donating while others wait their turn. Donating a pint of blood on average takes 15 minutes unless you give a Double Red Blood Cell “double red” donation which can take up to 40 minutes – it’s a donation of two pints of blood, with plasma and platelets returned to the donor. The Red Cross, which handles 40 percent of all blood donations in the U.S. has regulations for height, weight and blood time for prospective donors, and requires a 56 day wait period between donations to allow blood cells to regenerate.
Jaime Milner, 29, chose to take selfies while donating, so that she could upload them on the American Red Cross blood donor app, as her girlfriend Erica, who was also donating, directed her, “Get the Red Cross sign in the back, baby.”
“Sir, get out of my selfie,” said Milner to one of the coordinators in the room, causing everyone to laugh.
Milner, a young African American woman who has the universal blood type, O-, says that it should be common sense for people to donate, because most people are going to need it at some point in life. “I learned at an early age the importance of giving blood,” which she does every six weeks. Milner’s mother is a nurse and spoke about the importance of donating.
There are four blood types in the ABO blood system: A, B, AB and O. The absence or presence of antigens in the cell determines the type and rarity.
“One way the Red Cross can help meet the unique needs of patients is for blood and platelet donors to indicate their race at the time of donation,” said the external communications manager of biomedical field marketing and Communications at the American Red Cross.
“By selecting their race, donors help the Red Cross better search for rare blood types to best meet the needs of patients of all backgrounds.”
Communities of color in the New York-Penn region are creating initiatives to educate potential donors.
“The Red Cross offers a variety of tools to educate the public about the importance of giving blood. Red Cross employees create presentations for individual organizations/groups to explain the blood donation process, benefits and reasons why there is a constant need for blood donors. The Red Cross also educates students in elementary, middle and high schools about the importance of becoming a blood donor through specialized initiatives, including Future Blood Donor and Pint-Sized Heroes programs,” said the Red Cross manager.
In October 2015, there were 150 new rare donors on Long Island, where McKenzie and Joseph conduct drives.
“This is the first time the Red Cross Blood Services has a presence here in the city. We go to high schools that are filled with kids of color and they donate. They want to know how to volunteer. We go to predominantly Black neighborhoods,” said Joseph.
McKenzie and Joseph both encourage friends, family members and donors to continue to give the gift of life.
“All we need is your time and you’ll legitimately save someone’s life,” said McKenzie.
To find out more about how you can become a donor and save lives visit www.redcrossblood.org.