The 100 or so students attending a recent freshman orientation session at North Carolina Central University stir restlessly in their seats. They’ve been sitting for an hour and still have one more presentation to go. But the squirming stops soon after Ted Parrish, head of the university’s health-education program, steps to the podium and begins speaking.
“You are looking at a man,” he says softly, “who is alive today because some good people donated blood. I want you to listen carefully so you can better understand the growing need for more African Americans to donate blood regularly.”
Students now sit engrossed as the 67-year-old professor describes the quadruple-bypass surgery he underwent last year and the 10 pints of donated blood that helped save his life. “My experience drove home more completely than ever before why we as a people must donate blood,” he says.
Even before his surgery, Parrish was championing efforts to increase blood donations by blacks. According to the American Red Cross, only about 5 percent of people who are eligible donate blood nationwide. Among African Americans, the proportion is less than 1 percent.
A decade ago, students at N.C. Central and residents of the predominantly African-American neighborhoods surrounding the campus were part of the problem. The local Red Cross collected fewer than 50 pints of blood there each year–so little that the Durham chapter had considered dropping the school as a blood collection site, says Kirsten Kruhm, the chapter’s blood services director.
Today, thanks largely to the efforts of Parrish’s students, N.C. Central collects 800 pints from five campus blood drives, and the school has become a model for blood drives at other historically black colleges and universities.
“We’re very proud of NCCU and what its students, faculty and staff have done to turn this picture around,” Kruhm says.
Turning things around hasn’t been easy, Parrish says, because many African Americans are uneasy about becoming blood donors. The reluctance stems from history (the Red Cross used to keep blood from black and white donors separate) and a lack of information about how blood drives can benefit black communities.
Comments from Parrish’s students reflect some of those barriers. Senior Kristal Jones says donating blood “just wasn’t part of my family’s culture. Maybe because of our experiences with hospitals and doctors.”
Her classmate, Tanica Hester, says religious beliefs can also prevent people from donating blood. “I’ve heard some people say they don’t give blood for religious reasons,” she says. “Some of them say to give blood is the same as selling your soul to the devil.”
Red Cross leaders say one of the most persistent myths discouraging blood donations among African Americans is the belief that Dr. Charles Drew, a black doctor and founder of the American Red Cross blood bank program, died because he failed to receive blood transfusions at a North Carolina hospital. (See “Tall Tale” sidebar.)
“Dr. Drew’s descendants have tried to dispel that myth,” says Renita Hayes-Carter, associate director of chapter blood services with the Durham Red Cross, and an N.C. Central graduate. “But belief in it continues to be rather widespread.”
Though fears and legends persist, it was grim reality that helped change attitudes at N.C. Central. In October 1998, a popular former student government president, Sekou Gargonnu, nearly died from gunshot wounds. Gargonnu was leaving a local diner after a late-night meal when shots rang out across the parking lot. A bullet struck his abdomen and pierced his liver. Gargonnu survived, but remained hospitalized for several weeks due to complications from surgery.
“We had to replace his blood volume three times,” one of the attending surgeons says in a videotape the Red Cross produced about N.C. Central’s blood drives. “Without blood to replace what he lost, he would have died.”
Parrish says the near tragedy sparked more interest in giving blood among students. “The reality is that every 17 seconds in this country someone needs a blood transfusion,” he says. “That was a concrete example of really being able to help someone.”
Besides the need to expand blood donations generally among African Americans, experts say there are particular reasons why blacks should donate blood.
The Red Cross reports that some rare blood types are found only in minority communities. For example, U-negative is one of three blood antigens found almost exclusively among African Americans. In addition, the blood types most common among African Americans–higher frequencies of types O and B blood–are in shortest supply at the Red Cross.
Melissa McMillan, a spokesperson for America’s Blood Centers, a network of community blood centers licensed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, says blood donations are also important to support transfusions for treatment of sickle cell disease, a condition that disproportionately affects African Americans and Latinos. The National Sickle Cell Disease Association reports that one in 500 African-American babies in the United States, and one in 1,000 Latino babies, are born with sickle cell each year.
“Since 1997, doctors have been advised to treat kids with sickle cell disease with rapid blood transfusions every three to four weeks,” McMillan says. “This treatment has been shown to reduce by as much as 90 percent the risk of stroke in children with sickle cell.”
Dr. Donald Siegel of the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center, a national expert on sickle cell, says blood transfusions for children with the disease are most effective if the donor is from the same ethnic group, because blood proteins will be more alike.
“Blood from African-American, African or Latino donors has different proteins on its surface than blood from Caucasian donors,” he says. “When you try to find compatible blood for people, you must take into account the ethnic and racial background of both the donor and the recipient. If there were more donations from minority groups, it would be easier to find matches.”
Rising demand for blood for elective surgeries and other medical advances has strained supplies of blood available for sickle cell transfusions.
“We need much more blood than we currently collect,” says Merle Schneider, a national diversity officer for Red Cross biomedical services. “We get 6 million units a year and it’s not enough to keep up with the requests.”
At N.C. Central, Parrish credits a mix of academics and grassroots organizing for boosting blood donations. Students in his health-education classes design and distribute flyers about why giving blood is important. They make presentations to classes and other campus groups. And each student is asked to convince 50 others to become volunteer donors.
The approach has reaped several benefits, Parrish says. Students in his class helped form the Eagle Pride Blood Drive Planning Committee. The group, comprised of students, faculty, staff and representatives from the local Red Cross, meets regularly to plan and organize each of the five yearly blood drives at the university.
The work of Parrish’s students has made an impact, says Kruhm of the Durham Red Cross. “NCCU ranks among the top 10 donor sites in Durham county, ranking alongside many large companies in this region with a much larger donor base,” she says.
The university has gained national recognition as well. N.C. Central is the model for a program the American Red Cross and the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education have launched to boost blood drives at other historically black colleges and universities through training and job opportunities in the blood industry.
Parrish’s students are determined to do even more.
“Now that I understand the importance of giving blood, I will continue to give and I will talk with everyone I know and help educate them about the need,” says senior Tonya Ingram. “That’s the key. We have to educate everyone about the need.”
N.C. Central’s next blood drive is scheduled for Jan. 23, during celebrations for the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.