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Amid low statewide blood supply, SC sickle cell patients are calling for help

Marcelo Leal

For most, it’s tough to imagine being told you wouldn’t live past 18 years, spending most of your life feeling intense amounts of pain, with monthly hospital visits to stay alive.

It's a grim reality, but one that sickle cell anemia survivor Erica Hunter is faced with every day.

“It’s a constant worry,” says Hunter, who needs eight to ten pints of blood each month to live.

Hunter, a Greenville native and mother to a 10-year-old daughter, was diagnosed with sickle cell anemia when she was two years old. Sickle cell anemia affects roughly 13,000 South Carolinians each year, according to officials with the Blood Connection, a regional blood donation center. The disease can cause extreme pain by blocking the body’s blood stream, and can be fatal without enough healthy blood donations.

Though Hunter’s routine treatments allowed her to live longer than 18 years, her life-saving blood transfusions have recently changed.

“There have been some months where I’ve only received three to four pints of blood in a month,” Hunter says, “[In those months,] I was very fatigued and had severe pain.”

In the last year, Hunter sometimes received a fraction of the blood needed each month to stop the severe pain, preventing her body from properly functioning. Recently, officials with the Blood Connection say its centers have been receiving only 60-70% of the daily donations needed to meet the demand.

Meanwhile, the South Carolina branch of the American Red Cross is short 7,020 pints of blood than this time last year. Without a high enough statewide blood supply, Red Cross officials like Vesha Jamison say thousands of sickle-celled South Carolinians are at risk.

“Our blood supply is very vulnerable right now, we definitely need more blood on the shelves,” says Jamison, the sickle cell account manager for the state division of the American Red Cross.

Jamison says sickle cell patients can only receive blood from the state’s African American and Hispanic communities. Of those groups, only one in three have a compatible match.

That means many are having to wait for life-saving blood donations, which concerns health officials like Bobby Thompson, the donor resources manager for the Blood Connection.

“You’ve got to think about the pain those patients are enduring,” says Thompson.

But rather than live in pain, Hunter is calling on others to help. Hunter and other survivors founded a nonprofit organization, Sickle Cell Lights of Hope, to advocate for sickle cell patients.

“I’m just trying to pave the way to help others receive the help that they need,” says Hunter.

To help meet that need, Hunter is hosting community events around the upstate to encourage others to donate blood. Through her work, Hunter not only looks to refill the state’s blood supply, but give survivors a light of hope.

“With the help of everyone else, we can get through this,” says Hunter.

For those that can donate, Thompson adds donating only once or twice more a year could help donation centers meet the statewide demand for blood.

Finn Carlin was an 2022 ETV Endowment intern working with SC Public Radio to produce news content. He is now an occasional news contributor.