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Blood Donations More Diverse

Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes

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Klairyssa Poe sits high atop the two mattresses stacked on her bed.

A bright blue electric blanket peeks out from under a purple quilt. A Native American dream catcher is strung between the posts at the foot of the bed. A veil of white netting hangs from the ceiling at the other end.

This is where the Burien seventh-grader decides whether she's well enough to go to school in the morning. This is where she sinks into the soft mattresses, warmed by heat from her electric blanket, to ease her pain.

Poe, 13, has sickle cell disease, an inherited disorder that attacks the body's red blood cells, causing them to contort and block the flow of the oxygen-rich cells through blood vessels.

"Sometimes my bones feel like ice," explains Poe. "My mom says I have a fever, but inside I'm freezing cold."

Chronically ill patients such as Poe who need repeated blood transfusions can develop dangerous reactions to mismatched blood, including high fevers, kidney damage and low blood pressure.

Their best bet for a good fit comes from people with similar ethnic heritages.

Four years ago, the Puget Sound Blood Center received a $1 million grant to recruit and test blood from Asians and African Americans, or so-called rare donors. Sickle cell is most common in the United States among African Americans. Poe is African American.

A database of fewer than 1,000 minority donors grew to 17,000 as the blood center hired African American and Asian liaisons to carry their messages into the communities. Churches, high schools and community centers were all targets.

The new recruits increased the percentage of minorities from 1 percent to just under 4 percent of donors in the 14 Western Washington counties the center serves.

That's still not representative of the overall minority population, but it's a good start, say blood center officials.

A larger, more diverse pool of donors makes finding a match for patients like Poe much easier, said Dr. Michael Bender, director of the Sickle Cell Clinic at the Odessa Brown Medical Center.

"It's not a big issue for people who receive blood once and go," said Bender. "But the next time, with that same little mismatch there's a chance your body will attack (the blood). Over time, it's harder and harder to find blood you won't react to."

A warm bath, pain medicine and bed rest can help Poe feel better.

But at their worst, her "pain crises" send Poe to the hospital for higher doses of medications about twice a month.

In the six years since she was diagnosed with sickle cell, she has had 55 blood transfusions. In the past, she needed fresh blood to battle lung problems related to the disease, which can surface in organs and limbs at whim, causing a range of minor to serious complications depending on where the sickled cells land. More recently, Poe needed a transfusion before her appendix was removed.

Receiving fresh blood can take up to four hours.

"I just lay there and let them do their business," Poe said.

The blood Poe receives is specially selected to fit at least six of her own antigens, proteins that cover the surface of blood.

The blood center's Rare Donor Program has made greater strides among Asian, boosting their numbers to about 3 percent of total donors, said Maria Elena Geyer, director of Donor and Volunteer Resources.

African Americans make up about 1 percent of donors.

A couple of high-profile cases, including a little girl with leukemia who needed a bone marrow transplant in 2001, might have contributed to mobilizing the Asian community, said Geyer.

In 2002, Edwin Wong started a blood drive to boost the number of Asian donors after his son died while waiting for a heart transplant. The Kirby Wong Memorial Blood Drive alternates between two Chinese and Japanese Baptist churches in Beacon Hill every six months. But the number of donors who show up has declined from about 100 to 50 since the drive began.

"The further away you get from the time my son passed away they're not relating to him at all because they don't know who he is," said Wong.

It's difficult to explain what antigens are and why the differences among ethnic groups matter in a way that sticks with people, said Wong. "(That message) has to be repeated all the time," to keep people committed to giving blood.

For now, Poe is doing better. In recent years, she has made fewer trips to the hospital. She makes it to school more often. And she's looking forward to learning tae kwon do.

"When I'm not sick, I have so much energy," Poe said. "I can go outside and do cartwheels all day."

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