Blood donors get a big thank you from a grateful little girl

Seven-year-old Sierra Hitsman was diagnosed with sickle cell disease when she was just a week old. Before she was 3, she had received her first blood transfusion.

Now she depends on two blood transfusions every month to keep her out of the hospital and ease her family’s worry that she’ll have a stroke.

On Thursday, Sierra was able to meet and thank the people who have given her all that blood over the years.

As part of National Blood Donor Month, the Community Blood Center in Kansas City picked Sierra for its fourth annual meeting of a blood recipient and his or her donors.

Before the ceremony started, she scampered around the rows of chairs wearing a dark blue velvet dress and a blue ribbon in her hair. Seemingly oblivious to the fact that the crowd of about 50 people had turned out just to see her, Sierra became shy only when cameras started pointing her way.

But as proceedings got under way, attention focused on Sierra’s story and how the Linn, Kan., girl, who looked healthy, had to repeat kindergarten because her condition had grown so bad.

Her mother, Sandra Hitsman, fought back tears as she recounted Sierra’s battle with sickle cell disease.

Sierra first developed symptoms when she was 3 months old, and when she was 21/2, she developed acute chest syndrome, a common cause of death for people with sickle cell disease. That’s when she had to undergo her first blood transfusion.

Sierra’s symptoms became more severe as she grew, and by the time she was 6, she had to receive oxygen every night as she slept.

Because children with sickle cell disease are at risk of having a stroke, Sierra had to receive periodic ultrasounds of her brain. When she went in to receive the ultrasound in July 2011, Sierra’s doctor thought something had gone wrong with the test. He ordered another one.

“(Afterward) the doctor called me and said, ‘Sandy, she’s at a 96 percent chance of a stroke,’ ” Sandra Hitsman said. “Without all of her donors, she would not be here today.”

In the year and a half that Sierra has been receiving regular blood transfusions, her chance of having a stroke has decreased to 25 percent. Her mother said she no longer receives oxygen, and she hasn’t been hospitalized since the transfusions began.

Sierra is now in first grade, and the only time she has to miss school is when she goes to receive her blood transfusions twice a month. More than 25 people have donated blood to her, said Stann Tate, the Community Blood Center’s director of marketing.

Donna Gratts is one of those donors. Gratts, a dental assistant who lives in Baldwin City, Kan., has been giving blood for more than 40 years. In more than 100 donations, she had never met anyone who has received her blood before. That’s a rare connection, and Gratts “didn’t even know they had anything like this.”

At the ceremony, Sierra gave Gratts and nine of the other donors who could make it a framed thank you card that she had colored.

“Thank you for the gift of the quality of life,” it concluded.

In September, The Kansas City Star reported that the Community Blood Center was critically low on blood. Tate said the supply is low once again. The center usually has about a five-day supply of blood, but it was down to just a two-day supply Thursday.

Because the holiday season and January are notoriously difficult times to collect blood, Tate said, the center puts on events during January to increase donations.

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