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Gilbert Brown spoke with the children about the importance of being a blood donor. (Photo provided by Versiti)

Elodia Ontala Babongui, 29, had a stroke a couple years ago. Since then, she’s received chronic blood exchanges every five weeks. Getting a stroke at a young age may not seem that common, but for patients living with sickle cell disease, it’s just one of the many symptoms they have to deal with.

Babongui, who is originally from Libreville, Gabon, was diagnosed with sickle cell disease when she was 3 years old. While the test is commonly performed on newborns, Babongui was tested late.

Sickle cell disease is a genetic disease, which occurs when both parents carry the trait, she said. Sickle cell disease means that Babongui’s red blood cells don’t carry enough oxygen like they should and as a result they become sticky. This leads to clogging and blood flow difficulties, which can cause pain in the joints and body, organ failure, kidney disease and stroke.

According to the American Society of Hematology, approximately 70,000 to 100,000 Americans have sickle cell disease, of that eight percent are African Americans.

When Babongui goes in for her blood exchanges, her body requires eight units of blood. It’s a lot of blood, she said, and one of her main concerns is the shortage of blood donations.

“If people don’t donate blood, I won’t be able to get a treatment and live a healthy life,” she said.

Versiti, is an organization, which can be defined as many things. It is a place for research, donors, patients and more. According to its website it’s a “national leader in innovate blood health solutions.”

As part of its mission, Versiti aims to educate people on the importance of donating blood. Last week, it held a Health & Huddle with its partner, Journey House. During the event, former Packer player, Gilbert Brown, spoke to the children, while Versiti spoke with the adults.

Malayia Roper, Versiti diversity outreach and partnership programs specialist, said that Versiti wants to expand its outreach in African American and Hispanic communities. She explained that in communities of color, there’s a lack of blood donations because there’s a lack of education on the topic or because it’s never been normalized.

One of the goals of Health & Huddle is to change that. During the event, Versiti addressed people’s concerns and questions. There’s a lot of misconceptions about what it means to be a blood donor or to be on the donor registry list.

Roper said giving blood should be viewed as a way to give back.

“People need people, our whole thing is that it’s bigger than you,” Roper said.

During a single donation, about eight percent of an adult’s blood is donated and it is replaced in 24 hours. Blood donations can be made every 56 days and red cells can be donated every 16 weeks.

She explained that more African Americans and Hispanics should consider donating to help patients of the same ethnicity. When the blood can be matched, it helps create a more personalized patient care plan and has a better rate of success.

Babongui said the shortage of blood donors could be because this generation focuses more on wellness, whereas as older generations understood the importance of donating blood.

“I don’t think our generation was trained to think of blood donations that way,” she said.

In reality, blood donations aren’t just used for patients such as Babongui. Blood donations helps trauma victims, surgery patients, premature babies, people with anemia, cancer patients and more.

“Donate blood cause, you don’t know,” Babongui said. “It could always save a life [including yours].”

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