MILWAUKEE — Versiti’s donor centers are a crucial part of Elodie Ontala’s life.
She has sickle cell disease and has needed 500 units of blood over the past four years.
“I was asked to talk to potential donors and explain to them how their blood donation is important to me, directly,” Elodie says. “So from then on, I kind of wanted to stick with the organization, so I found my way in!”
Sharing her story is a big part of Elodie’s new job as a patient advocate at Versiti. She says sickle cell disease comes with a wide variety of symptoms – including full body pain, called pain crises, and organ damage.
“So, without blood, for me personally, I probably would continue to have a lot of challenges and complications happening,” Elodie says.
Blood exchange transfusions allowed Elodie to be more active and outdoorsy. But leaders with Versiti say transfusions work best when the donor and recipient are a strong match – including race and ethnicity.
“Sickle cell disproportionately affects African Americans and so we’ve found over time that that match can be so much better if that same ethnicity is donating that unit,” says Versiti president and CEO Chris Miskel.
Miskel says working toward a more diverse donor pool is part of how Versiti is celebrating its 75th anniversary. It’s not just about blood – Versiti is an organ procurement organization as well. Versiti was actually involved in the very first bone marrow transplant between two unrelated people.
“If someone that looks like us donates, we’re more likely to find a match,” Miskel says.
A brand new donor center could help find those matches. Miskel says Versiti just broke ground on a new facility on King Drive in partnership with the TriveOn Collaboration.
“Our role will be to provide education for folks that are looking to get into the workforce, some training around the importance of why diverse blood supply matters, and then ultimately to be able to collect blood for patients like Elodie,” Miskel says.
He and Elodie see the space as a community center as much as they do a donation facility.
“The goal is just to have a presence and just continue to talk to people,” Elodie says. “Hopefully [it] will allow us to continue to build that trust in the community.”
As an employee, Elodie is excited to see all the hard work Versiti is putting in to treat and cure blood diseases. But it's even more exciting for her as a patient.
“To bring that to the new building and to educate our community members about the disease – and many other diseases, but sickle cell! It’s for me very hopeful and just impactful.”