Carol Strickland met Carol Groover at a church in Cleburne in the 1980s. Strickland, a choir member in her 20s, shared her testimony after singing a solo: She’d been born with sickle cell disease, a rare blood disorder that constricts oxygen flow to the body and disproportionately affects Black people.
Groover approached her afterward, Strickland remembers: “(She) came to me crying. She said, ‘You’re the first person I’ve ever known with sickle cell.’” Strickland, 61, calls the meeting a “divine order,” the beginning of a sacred friendship that would last for years until, through life’s transitions, the two lost contact. Groover died from sickle cell disease in 2005.
Strickland would reconnect in spirit with Groover when, in June 2020, after weeks of waiting for a blood transfusion, Strickland received blood through Carol’s Promise Sickle Cell Foundation, an Arlington-based nonprofit and the namesake of her old friend. The transfusion would be one of hundreds she’s received in her lifetime.
But in the pandemic, demand for blood outpaced supply. In January, amid a surge in omicron cases, the American Red Cross, which provides around 40% of the nation’s blood supply, announced a “blood crisis” for the first time. Two months later, the shortage is no longer as dire, but the need for regular donations continues.
“Please emphasize, strongly, that we need blood,” Strickland said.
What’s the need?
One Mississippi. Two Mississippi. Every two seconds, someone in the U.S. needs blood, according to the Red Cross.
A person in a car accident can need 100 units of blood — about 10 bodies’ worth. People with cancer need blood during chemotherapy. Burn victims need blood. “We always need blood,” said Brian Moeschler, who directs regional donor services for the Red Cross in north Texas.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the number of donors to the Red Cross has dropped 10%. When schools and businesses closed, so did blood drives. Moeschler likens planning a blood drive to planning a wedding: “We’re throwing this party to be able to get everybody to come in to donate blood, and then we’ve got to make it happen.”
The process, which requires identifying and reserving a venue; coordinating a team of phlebotomists, or health care professionals who collect blood; and executing the drive itself can take several months. Venue closures and staffing shortages caused by COVID-19 variants like delta and omicron further complicated the supply.
Demand, too, rose. Because people delayed medical care during the pandemic, advanced stages of disease required more blood transfusions, Moeschler said.
As of late March, the shortage has abated, he said. When people heard about the blood crisis in January, “the community responded.” But, he said, the need for blood is ever-present.
That’s partly because blood expires. Red blood cells have a shelf life of about 40 days. For platelets, it’s five. Furthermore, blood can’t be made — “it has to come from another human being to another human being,” Moeschler said. He calls it the “arm to arm” process, like farm-to-table for blood.
‘We all bleed red’
When Strickland was a little girl in 1960s Fort Worth, she remembers her doctor saying she wouldn’t live past 12. So, she made a promise to herself — and to God — that she would.
Her commitment to life came partly from her parents. Every morning, her father would wake her before he went to work and ask her to recite Psalm 117:17: “I should live and not die and declare the good works of the Lord,” as she remembers it. And she did. She lived through six months of hospitalization in third grade. She lived through orange eyes — a side effect of anemia — and a swollen belly and pain like giving birth from the disease that turns her blood cells into sickles.
People with sickle cell disease may need at least one blood transfusion during their lifetimes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The transfusion of blood from people who don’t have the disease helps deliver oxygen through the body, decreasing pain and other health problems.
Each time Strickland received a transfusion, her dad encouraged her to think of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross: “I received the blood that I should live,” she said.
When she turned 17, she started a grassroots support group for other people in Fort Worth with sickle cell disease. Sicklers4Sicklers, she called it. Decades later, the group still exists. The Sicklers host blood drives and coat drives, deliver holiday meals to people in the winter, and work to educate the community about sickle cell disease, which affects 90,000 to 100,000 people in the U.S.
“We come in all shapes, different colors. But we all bleed red,” Strickland said. “I tell people we’re bonded by blood.”
Who can give?
During Kenya Buckley’s childhood, blood wove like veins through conversations at home. Buckley’s mom, Carol Groover, was diagnosed with sickle cell disease when Groover was 3 years old. It would be years before Groover met Strickland at church in Cleburne.
Groover was a prayerful woman, a “firecracker,” Buckley said. “She was a small little thing — she was like 4’11”. But she demanded your attention and your respect.”
Buckley remembers her mom in excruciating pain. She also remembers how much better she would feel — tired, but better — after receiving transfusions. The importance of donating blood came up again and again. Those discussions weren’t heavy or squeamish for Buckley; they were the norm.
Before Groover died, she asked her daughter to promise her something: that Buckley would do what she could to raise awareness about sickle cell disease. Buckley was 23. In 2017, she formed Carol’s Promise to hold true to that commitment. The nonprofit provides support and resources to people with sickle cell disease in north Texas; it also works to raise awareness about the need for blood. The next blood drive through Carol’s Promise is April 23 in Arlington.
If you go:
What: Blood drive
When: 9:30-3:30 p.m. on April 23
Where: 711 Highlander Blvd., Arlington, Texas 76015
Who: The drive is a collaboration between Carol’s Promise Sickle Cell Foundation and the National Pan-Hellenic Council
Sign up here.
In Texas, almost anyone who meets certain age and weight criteria can donate blood. Some restrictions apply. For example, people who are pregnant must wait six weeks after delivery to donate. Or, people who’ve visited countries where malaria is a risk may need to wait three months to donate after their trip. People who can’t donate can still volunteer at or host blood drives.
Despite widespread eligibility, only about 3% of people in the U.S. who can donate do donate each year.
Strickland received her most recent transfusion in January — two units. Each transfusion brings her new life.
“I call it my tune-up,” she said. “It is a burst of energy. I feel like a new person.” In her advocacy work, she’s asking churches, government organizations and schools to host blood drives.
In her own family, Buckley’s working to share the load. “Blood donations can save the life of a person with sickle cell,” she said.
Her husband participated in his first blood drive last summer. Buckley donates when she can. And, she talks regularly with her own children about the importance of donation.
“You never know who’s in desperate need of something that you take for granted.”
Alexis Allison is the health reporter at the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from Texas Health Resources. Contact her by email or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.