Greek Gray was a fitness trainer and nutritionist for the American Council on Exercise when she was diagnosed with leukemia at age 33. Since she was in otherwise excellent health, she was chosen to be her own stem-cell bone-marrow donor.
After being in remission for eight months, the Chicago native suffered a relapse in early February and is now in need of a bone-marrow transplant. But Gray is African-American, and the pool of African-American blood and bone-marrow donors is very small. Her brother, Farrah Gray, author of the best-selling book Reallionaire, has organized a cross-country campaign to find a matching donor and to raise awareness about the need for African-American donors.
Gray's campaign stopped in Memphis last weekend at Christ Missionary Baptist Church on South Parkway for blood donations and to sign up candidates for marrow donation.
"Bone marrow is matched by inherited tissue likenesses, and tissue matches seem to have a lot to do with ethnicity and racial make-up," says Madeline Goldstein of the Farrah Gray Foundation. "That's why for an African American the best match is another African American."
Blood-drive participants will have the option of being entered into a registry for bone-marrow donation. After analyzing the blood, if the National Bone Marrow Donor Program finds a match, that donor will be contacted to donate marrow.
But African-American bone marrow isn't the only shortage. Lifeblood marketing director Beena White says there's a serious lack of African-American blood donors both nationally and locally.
"In our community, about 65 percent of the blood used is used by African Americans," says White. "But only about 15 percent of our donors are African-American. So there's a huge gap."
White says myths in African-American communities may keep people from donating. Many assume that if they have certain health conditions, they're not eligible for donation.
"People with high blood pressure or diabetes can still donate blood," White says.
The Med has a large sickle-cell treatment center, and White says there is an ongoing need for donations.
"Sickle-cell patients have to have specifically matched blood, and it's not just by your blood type. It's based on the blood's antigens," White says. "These antigens are much more common in African-American communities, so there's a need there."
In the past several years, prominent African-American churches and community leaders, such as Southern Heritage Classic founder Fred Jones, have helped Lifeblood recruit African-American donors.
"When I started working here in 2003, the percentage of African-American donors was at about 12 percent. Now we're up to 15 percent," White says. "But we'd like to see that double or triple."