It was one hundred years ago this year that Chicago physician Dr. James B. Herrick first described the strangely shaped red blood cells on the blood film of a medical student from Grenada. He gave a name to a condition that today still haunts tens of thousands of patients across the nation – sickle cell disease.

Unlike many historic milestones, however, that day is hardly one of celebration or excitement for people like Daniel Wallace, 2, Jasmen Hill, 13, Octavia Holt, 18, or Elisa Hogate, 24, all Washington-area sickle cell disease sufferers who depend on frequent blood transfusions to stay alive.

For them and the more than 80,000 Americans with the disease, Herrick’s discovery just gave a name to their pain – the unceasing need for blood transfusions, the agonizing crisis, organs that fail and early death.

But they are hoping for a gift on this 100th anniversary – the gift of blood. They are hoping that hundreds will continuously donate blood and register as a bone marrow donor on Tuesday, Feb. 23, in front of Howard University Hospital. Bone marrow transplant is the only procedure that can potentially cure this disease.

“There are thousands of Washington-area residents who suffer from this disease and they need our help,” said Cynthia Gipson, family advocate, of Howard University DC Greater Access to Pediatric Sickle Cell Disease Services (DC GAPS) and Center for Sickle Cell Disease. “This is a chance for all of us to give to our neighbors and loved ones the gift of life.”

Gipson should know. Her son, Christopher, suffered from the disease. In just 13 years, he received over 525 units of blood. He died of complications from sickle cell disease last year.

HU DC GAPS and CSCD is partnering with the American Red Cross, Be A Match Registry Bone Marrow Program, the National Minority Organ Tissue Transplant Education Program (MOTTEP) and the Howard University College of Pharmacy to collect blood and to register bone marrow donors from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 23, at Howard hospital at 2041 Georgia Ave. NW.

The Red Cross will collect blood, and the Marrow Program will register people who want to be placed on the list of potential donors. It takes only a swab of the cheek to be added to the marrow registry.

“At some point in our lives, almost all of us will need a blood transfusion – for surgery, emergency treatment or other medical reasons,” said Barbara Harrison, genetic counselor with HU DC GAPS and the Sickle Cell Center. “So, there is a selfish reason that we should give, if only to make sure there’s blood there when we need it.”

“But it has also been proven that each blood donation saves at least three lives, which places our giving into a higher calling.”

MOTTEP will provide health-related material and donor cards to those who want to sign up to become an organ or tissue donor.

“There are over 113,000 patients in the U.S. who are waiting for life saving transplants,” said Norman Brooks, project director of MOTTEP. “Each day, 18 of those people die because of lack of a donor. That is a statistic that we can change.”

But no one can speak to the importance of blood transfusion like those who so desperately need them.

“I get one unit of blood regularly,” Jasmen said. “Sometimes after the transfusion, I feel good. Sometimes I don’t because I get sick. Even though I get sick, it is so important to get the transfusions so I can get well and it prevents more serious complications.”

Octavia said unfortunately so many people just don’t understand the importance of giving blood.

“Without blood transfusions, I wouldn’t be here today,” she said. “For sickle cell patients, the main source of sustaining life is a blood transfusion because our blood cells do not last as long as regular blood cells,”

For more information, please call: 202-865-4443.

Facts about Sickle Cell Disease:

Sickle cell disease is a serious, inherited disorder mostly affecting those of African, Caribbean, Indian, Asian, Mediterranean, Greek and Italian decent. Many sickle cell patients depend on blood transfusion to maintain their health.

In sickle cell disease, the body makes red blood cells that can easily become sickle-shaped. “Sickle-shaped” means that the red blood cells are shaped like a “C.”

Normal red blood cells are disc-shaped and look like doughnuts without holes in the center. They move easily through your blood vessels. Red blood cells contain the protein hemoglobin. This iron-rich protein gives blood its red color and carries oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body.

Sickle cells contain abnormal hemoglobin that causes the cells to have a sickle shape. Sickle-shaped cells don’t move easily through your blood vessels. They’re stiff and sticky and tend to form clumps and get stuck in the blood vessels. (Other cells also may play a role in this clumping process). The clumps of sickle cells block blood flow in the blood vessels that lead to the limbs and organs. Blocked blood vessels can cause pain, serious infections, and organ damage.

These misshapen cells are not able to efficiently transport oxygen to the body which in turn causes severe pain and could create life-long organ damage.

For more information please call: 202-865-4443


Angela Mason

Howard University News Service