Black blood donors needed: Hema-Quebec lacking matches for seriously ill Black patients

Akelia Campell is just 30 years old, but she already has arthritis severe enough to rival the condition of people decades older.

Her joints are so worn out that she's already had a hip replacement. She's wearing a sling to help recover from recent shoulder surgery. 

"I couldn't take it any more -- I couldn't walk, I couldn't sleep I couldn't do anything without being in agonizing pain," Campbell said recently.

It's all a symptom of sickle cell anemia, a genetic disorder that causes blood cells to lose oxygen too quickly and leads to a host of complications, including infections, organ and tissue damage and debilitating pain.

"How it's impacted me, I would say everything: education, social life, leisure, love life," says Campbell. "It hinders a lot."

She was diagnosed at just three months old and now calls it her "second job."

"It's a lot of managing," she said.

Part of that management is undergoing blood transfusions -- something she needed yet again before her latest procedure, the shoulder surgery.

Luckily, she found a match. But others are anxiously waiting for the same good news.

"For patients, it's a small number but significant -- it's very difficult to find donors, and sometimes we have to postpone intervention," said Dr. Nancy Robitaille of Héma-Quebec.

"If it's for an emergency, it can be life-threatening."

There's another hitch for many patients like Campbell. Sickle cell disease is more prevalent among Black people, and when it comes to finding donors, the best match usually comes from someone of the same ethnicity.

It's not just the main blood type that needs to be a match -- B negative, O positive and so on -- but the more specific characteristics of the blood, which need to fit as closely as possible with the recipient's own blood to effectively help someone with sickle cell anemia.

"Black donors are underrepresented and there are members of their community who are really in need of blood," said Robitaille.

Hema-Québec has 10,000 donors but needs to more than double that number to meet the current demand, as well as helping the estimated 1,600 Quebecers with sickle cell anemia.

Towards this end, it's holding upcoming blood drives that it hopes will attract some Black Montrealers, in Rivière-des-Prairies, Montréal-Nord and Pointe-aux-Trembles.

In Montreal North this week, from June 28 to 30, interested blood donors can go to Marie-Victorin College's gym to give blood, or to the Centre Globule Laval. The blood bank is also taking appointments online.

Campbell will need at least six weeks to recover from surgery. But it won't be the end of her medical journey.

"Further in the future, down the line, I'll have two hips replaced and two shoulders replaced," she said.

She's hoping more Black Quebecers will roll up their sleeves and donate blood -- so, at the least, it's one less thing she has to worry about.