“How I explain Sickle Cell to people is other people’s blood cells are shaped like circles and mine are shaped like Cs,” Tiffani Jackson explains while reflecting on her life living with Sickle Cell Anemia (SS.) About 100,000 people in the United States have sickle cell disease. Most are of African descent. The disease causes red blood cells to harden and form a C-shape (like a sickle.) When hardened, the cells can get caught in blood vessels and cause serious complications for patients. These complications can include severe pain, respiratory conditions, organ failure, and even stroke.
Tiffani is originally from Detroit and was diagnosed at birth with the disease as both of her parents carried the Sickle Cell trait. It ended up greatly interfering with most of her childhood; being in and out of the hospital frequently, missing a lot of school, facing bullying from peers who did not understand, and the constant fear and pain that comes with having the disease.
The extended hospital stays and uncomfortable school environment ultimately led Tiffani to be homeschooled until she enrolled at Grambling State University in Louisiana. She planned to pursue her degree and also enjoy the benefits of living in a warmer climate than Michigan as cold temperatures often contributed to her ending up in the hospital in a pain crisis. Conversely, being dehydrated in the Louisiana heat also created health problems for Tiffani, coupled with the stress of college and everyday life.
It was during her college days that she started receiving oxygen and blood transfusions as a treatment for Sickle Cell which is one of the most critical treatments for people living with the disease, for which there is no cure. For many patients, a close blood type match is essential and is found in donors of the same race or similar ethnicity.
“Blood transfusions are really the thing that helped me stay out of the hospital for a while,” she said, counting at least seven instances of needing blood during that time.
Through the many hospitalizations and obstacles that come with living with Sickle Cell disease, Tiffani continued to beat the odds and have big goals for her life regardless of what doctors told her.
“Its hard for a person with Sickle Cell to dream big because you’re told you might not live long. You have so many restrictions, but your drive has to be bigger than people’s estimations on your life,” she said.
After transferring to Illinois State University, Tiffani got involved in her major of Journalism by joining the campus newspaper and even created her own news outlet: Onyx Connect with the goal of sharing positive stories about people of color. Her entrepreneurial spirit got her noticed by NPR, who recruited her as a paid student intern. Tiffani worked multiple jobs, juggled school and dealt with her Sickle Cell disease, even working on her laptop from a hospital bed if she had to.
Her real-world work experience ultimately helped her land a full-time job as a culture, diversity, and inclusion reporter with the State Journal-Register in Springfield, IL even before graduating in the Spring of 2022.
Now at age 24, and still dealing with Sickle Cell disease, she’s determined to continue pursuing her dreams.
“I have this mindset that regardless of what I have, I have my mind made up on what I’m going to do….and having that mindset is what got me to where I am right now.”
She plans to continue growing her journalistic skills and dreams of building her own collegiate news network to inspire young African American students and share their stories no matter what challenges they face.
“I hope that my journey with Sickle Cell inspires other people who have it to aim higher regardless of what other people say.”
The American Red Cross has launched a new national initiative to reach more blood donors who are Black to help patients with sickle cell disease.
The Red Cross asks members of the Black community to join with us and our partners to help meet the needs of patients with sickle cell disease and other medical conditions to improve health outcomes. Please take action today and schedule a blood donation appointment by visiting RedCrossBlood.org, downloading the Blood Donor App or calling 1-800-RED CROSS.
Written by Illinois Red Cross Communications Manager Holly Baker