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Inova and Wizards, Tackle Sickle Cell Disease

Elton Hayes | 4/14/2011, 12:02 a.m.
LaTonia Davis attends the Wizards-Inova Blood Drive at the Verizon Center in Northwest to bring attention to Sickle Cell Disease and to encourage African Americans to donate blood. Photo by John E. DeFreitas  

Local Fans Offer Life-saving Donations

The Verizon Center bustled with energy Saturday morning, more than 10 hours before the Wizards' home game against the Atlanta Hawks. Individuals arrived at the arena as early as 7 a.m. and the flow remained steady well into the early afternoon.

Free Wizards t-shirts and game tickets appeared to be the attraction, but it was the Wizards' partnership with Inova Blood Donor Ser-vices that made the difference. The event, held on Sat., April 9, aimed to raise awareness of the need for blood donations among African Americans in the Washington Metro area.

"Currently only about 9 percent of the donor pool is made up of African Americans. It is very important that we draw blood from Afri-can Americans, specifically for our Sickle Cell population," said Terri Craddock, director of Inova Blood Donor Services, based in Sterling, Va.

LaTonia and Xavier Davis, of Woodbridge, Va., attended Saturday's event at the Verizon Center not only to donate, but to personally encourage African Americans to donate blood.

LaTonia Davis, 33, said that she was first diagnosed with Sickle Cell Disease at just 10-months-old after becoming seriously ill.

"My parents [initially] thought they had a healthy baby," LaTonia Davis, joked,

According to the Center for Disease Control, Sickle Cell Disease, a red blood cell disorder, affects nearly 1 in 500 African Americans in the United States. Symptoms of the disease range from stroke and bone pain to delayed growth and rapid heart rate. In certain circum-stances, the disease can be fatal.

While the disease has caused her pain and weeklong hospital stays, she is now focused on delivering her own healthy baby girl. She and husband, Xavier, 35, are expecting their first child in June.

"Now that I'm pregnant, I have more sickle cells which can cause more pain. In order to be healthy for the baby, so she can grow prop-erly, my doctor decided to give me blood transfusions every four to six weeks," LaTonia Davis said.

Every month, she receives a blood transfusion which requires 4-6 units of blood. LaTonia Davis said the lack of blood from African-American donors makes it difficult for her to receive the necessary type and amount required for her transfusions.

"It's critical that I get type-specific blood, especially now that I'm carrying a baby. We don't know what her blood type is. In order to be as safe as possible, [the transfused blood] must be type-specific. To do that, you have to find [a donor] with the same ethnic background," she said.

The lack of African-American donors not only affects LaTonia Davis, but Inova's many other African-American recipients as well.

"Most of our [red cell exchange] patients are teenagers who start having complications at an early age. We have one set of twin brothers [who] come regularly. It's so disheartening that we cannot find the blood products [we need] from the African-American community to give to our patients," said Dr. Grace Sese, 54, Inova Blood Donor Services medical director.

Sese and Craddock emphasized how important it is to find compatible blood for those in need, which in this case is the African-American community. "It's really important that we grow [the African-American] donor base right now," Craddock said.

An estimated 220 people rolled up their sleeves and donated blood during the event. Among the donors, Xavier Davis, with wife LaTo-nia by his side, donated for the first time.

"I figured that it was a good time. I've been there the times [LaTonia] received her blood exchanges. She also told me how important it is for African Americans to donate blood for people with Sickle Cell. Today was the perfect day to start," Xavier Davis said.

Historically, African American blood donor levels have been low. The fear of contaminated needles and the uncertainty of pain have continued to keep potential life-saving donors from giving blood.

Although Inova sees thousands of donors each month, only about 250 are African American.

"Of those 250, only about 20 are usable units that doctors can transfuse. With the patient volume that we're seeing, we need to have 30-50 [African American donor] units at a minimum every month," said Melanie Allen, 26, Inova Blood Donor Services marketing manager.

Inova representatives said that the Washington Metro area happens to be home to one of the nation's largest African-American popula-tions. More of an effort must be made to raise awareness of the critical need for blood donations. Misconceptions in the community con-cerning the donation process must be corrected and more efforts to educate African Americans on how they can help those in need, like LaTonia Davis, must be made.

"The Inova-Wizards relationship has proven to be a productive one. It's been good for the Wizards, it's been good for Inova, and most importantly, it's been good for the community," said Greg Bibb, Wizards executive vice-president of Business Operations.

"The blood drives are just one example of how teaming up with each other can bring positive change to the community in which we work, live, and play," he said.

For further information about donating blood, contact Inova at 1-866-256-6372.

LaTonia Davis attends the Wizards-Inova Blood Drive at the Verizon Center in Northwest to bring attention to Sickle Cell Disease and to encourage African Americans to donate blood. Photo by John E. DeFreitas