Every four weeks, Malick Burrow gets what he calls an “oil change.”
WellSpan lab workers remove two pints of Malick’s blood and replace it with two fresh pints, given by a small, rotating group of donors whose blood is such a perfect match for Malick that they are known as his “blood twins.” The monthly transfusion, which takes seven hours, is lifesaving for the 31-year-old York man who has sickle cell disease.
“The donors are really my lifeline,” says the softspoken father of two young sons, who is deeply grateful to these donors he has never met. “Every time I come in here, I wonder who it is who is doing this for me.”
Dr. Michelle Erickson, medical director of the blood bank and blood resources at WellSpan, says all donors are vital to others. And donors who have a unique type of blood – whether it matches sickle cell patients, ill babies, or other specific types of patients – play a special role in the health care system.
“These donors have to be really dedicated,” she said. “We need them to come in on an ongoing basis because patients like Malick need regular transfusions.
“There is a huge need for all donors. If you are healthy, please consider being a donor. There is a patient who needs your blood type.”
Sickle cell disease is a group of inherited red blood cell disorders that occurs in one out of every 365 Black births. People with the disease inherited a sickle cell gene from both their parents. (Neither of Malick’s sons inherited the disease.)
Healthy red blood cells are round, and they carry oxygen through small blood vessels to all parts of the body. But people with sickle cell disease have red blood cells that become hard and sticky, looking like a crescent-shaped sickle. These cells die early, which causes a constant shortage of red blood cells. Also, these cells can get stuck and clog the small blood vessels, causing pain and possible health issues such as infection or stroke.
In addition to patients with sickle cell disease, there are others who depend on regular transfusions – those with other blood disorders, kidney disease, leukemia, or other types of cancer.
The challenge is that WellSpan and other health systems are experiencing blood supply shortages due to aging donors and the lingering impact of the pandemic, which caused illness and fewer blood drives to be held at workplaces and schools. That makes it even more challenging to find an exact blood match for patients like Malick. Overall, less than 5% of donors are a “blood twin” for Malick.
Blood banks are always looking for a more diverse group of donors because blood recipients need to receive the most compatible matched blood, which generally comes from someone of the same race or a similar ethnicity.
“We need that diversity of blood,” Dr. Erickson said. “We need that perfect blood twin for every patient we have.”
To find out where to donate blood in the region, go here. The links to York and Lebanon also provide information about other area donor sites, via the Central Pennsylvania Blood Bank.