Madison blood drive brings groups together to fight sickle cell disease

Story by Nicole Sandler, Photos by Laura McGuire, American Red Cross

Walking into the American Red Cross Sickle Cell Awareness blood drive on April 30 at the Urban League of Greater Madison felt somewhat like walking into a party.

Amidst the conference room filled with donation beds, blood collection vials, tubing, needles and expert phlebotomists, there was a sense of connection, community and appreciation. Volunteers from Madison’s local chapters of Black fraternities and sororities helped with tasks such as signing in those who had pre-registered to donate blood and registering those who walked in. Other volunteers cheerfully worked at stations set up with chairs for resting and healthy snacks to replenish the energy of those who had just donated blood. Red Cross balloons and lively music added a festive air, and catch-up conversations and educational opportunities were plentiful.

Martin Lackey of Madison battles sickle cell disease. Sharing his story was key to rally friends and colleagues toward donations at a recent blood drive at the Urban League of Greater Madison.

When Martin Lackey arrived at the blood drive that morning, he was met with many high fives, hugs and smiles. As someone suffering from sickle cell anemia, he was there to provide support and inspiration. With his connections across various Madison organizations, Lackey realized an opportunity to bring together around an issue that has acutely affected local Black friends and family. Martin explained that the first step in the process involved calling his friend Dr. Ruben Anthony, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Madison, and the man Martin considers his mentor.  

Dr. Anthony in turn helped to coordinate the April 30 blood drive. “As a leader in our community, he has a bigger vision for this challenge,” Lackey said of Dr. Anthony.

Sickle cell anemia is a highly hereditary form of anemia characterized by low hemoglobin levels. Hemoglobin is the most important protein in red blood cells as it’s responsible for carrying oxygen. Red blood cells with defective hemoglobin contort into sickle, or crescent, shapes, and that is how the disease earned its name. Sickle cells die early, leading to a constant shortage of red blood cells, and when they travel through small blood vessels, because of their abnormal shape, they often get stuck and clog blood flow. This can cause pain and other serious problems like infection, shortness of breath, acute chest syndrome and stroke. Treatment includes medications, blood transfusions, and in some cases, a bone marrow transplant. Whatever a sickle cell patient’s status or recommended treatment may be, these patients require additional blood throughout their lives.

Martin was diagnosed at a young age with sickle cell anemia, and unfortunately, his diagnosis was not novel for his family – his older sister suffered from the disease as well and eventually died. After growing up in Chicago for the first 12 years of his life, his family moved to Madison where he attended local middle and high schools, and then earned a degree in business management at Madison College. He continues to pursue his passion for real estate and founded his own Realtor agency. He accomplished all of this despite struggling his entire life to manage the symptoms, and the pain, of sickle cell anemia. He describes being in and out of hospitals, and while his current stays are shorter in length, as a child he was hospitalized for months at a time.

Bobby Moore sips juice during his Power Red donation at the Urban League offices in Madison. Moore was inspired to give by those dealing with sickle cell disease, like his friend Martin Lackey.

Now, as an adult at age 45 with “too many years of experience” under his belt, he knows better how to manage the symptoms. He keeps extra oxygen at home and a steady supply of prescription pain medications.

Martin speaks with pride about his six adult children – four of his own and two nephews whom he raised and also counts as his own after his sister passed away. They are the focus of his life and he worries about the trauma they’ve suffered through witnessing their father’s chronic illness. Through it all, his disease has defined him and remains a constant in his family’s life. That is a significant reason why Martin remains motivated to do something about it. By raising awareness of sickle cell anemia and the need for blood donations to keep those with the disease alive, he believes he can help.

In all, this drive in Madison served 21 first-time donors and collected 55 units of blood. Just as important, the event met its goal of raising awareness about a painful, challenging disease. Through these efforts, more research and more engagement around sickle cell anemia can be achieved, and Martin Lackey will continue to inspire us all to do our part.

Click here to learn how the American Red Cross is taking on sickle cell disease with testing, blood supply diversity, scholarships and more.

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