By Veronica Araujo
“My parents made sure I was educated and knowledgeable about my disease. They made sure that I was a steward of my disease. They stepped back to give me the opportunity to be the decision maker. A sickle cell patient should take ownership of their health; ultimately, it’s their health. Carriers should be taught the responsibility that comes with the disease. Give them the opportunity to make mistakes and to learn from them,” says Andre Marcel Harris when asked about his upbringing as a child with Sickle Cell Disease.
Originally from Kalamazoo, Michigan, Andre moved to Houston, Texas, in August of 2020 to attend graduate school for a degree in social work at the University of Houston. Every day of his life has revolved around genotype SS sickle cell anemia, the most common type of sickle cell disease. Andre has received one unit of blood a month since he was 2 years old as part of his disease management. “I suffered a stroke when I was two years old, and my parents were told I would live until the age of 12. It is a blessing to be 32 years old today,” says Andre.
Before substantial medical advances in the treatment of sickle cell disease, the life expectancy of a carrier was 16 years. With sickle cell disease, red blood cells deteriorate and form deoxygenated sickle-shaped cells, bringing on the chronic pain of anemia, potential strokes, and other life-threatening side effects.
“This disease is full of unpredictability; one day you’re fine, and on the same day you feel like you may not survive. I’m grateful to not experience excruciating pain on a weekly basis, unlike some of my colleagues who can’t even get out of bed. Everybody who has the disease experiences it differently. Sickle cell is always at the forefront of your mind,” says Andre.
Andre’s advocacy around sickle cell awareness is driven by his goal for health equity, and though it has inspired his career and activism, Andre underlines that racism and prejudice that has historically misconstrued sickle cell as a disease that exclusively affects Black people. He aspires to break the boundaries that block quality health care service to patients with Sickle Cell Disease, chronic disease, and other rare diseases, making it possible for more patients to maintain a healthy lifestyle and live through their adulthood.
“Donating blood for some people is a civic duty, but I want people to understand that it saves lives. It is imperative that we build a robust donor base that regularly donates; there are people who depend on that blood supply. Now at a time of a pandemic, we have a shortage of blood donations. We need to take care of sickle cell patients, and if they need blood products, they should easily be able to receive it.” People of the same race and blood type are the most compatible in transfusion. “Everyone who meets the screening criteria is eligible to donate. Our goal is to get more donors of color, but we don’t want to exclude anyone,” says Andre.
“The American Red Cross is a leader in blood drives and collecting blood products. They are pivotal for me to have received countless blood transfusions. We support each other and raise awareness,” he adds. September is the Sickle Cell Disease Awareness Month; take a day in this month to honor a sickle cell patient with a gift only another life can give.
A blood drive in will take place on September 7th, in the Graduate Institute of Social Work of the University of Houston, 3511 Cullen Blvd, in coordination with Andre himself, the administration of the social work department, the American Red Cross, and courtesy of the African Heritage Society, and the Association of Black Social Workers. You can sign up at RedCrossBlood.org. Appointments are still available!