By Katelin Chow
Northwest Asian Weekly
For Ed Wong, 81, fighting the odds seems bleak, but he’s not fighting for himself. Ever since his son Kirby died in 2000 from complications following heart surgery, Ed has been on a mission to get more Asians to donate blood.
Kirby, who had heart disease, couldn’t stop bleeding after surgery. While he was on life support, he went through a staggering 544 units of blood in the two and a half weeks.
“It got to the point where we had to pull the plug because it wasn’t helping anything,” said Wong.
Kirby died at age 44, six months after getting married.
Wong believes his son might have had better luck if he had genetically similar blood donors, even though perfectly matched transfusions would not have solved all of Kirby’s health problems.
Blood transfusions usually work across genetic and racial lines, but high volume needs like Kirby’s are not always colorblind. According to Wong, most of the blood used in the surgery came from Caucasian donors, and Kirby was of Chinese descent. In Kirby’s case, his body built up antigens and rejected the transfusions.
Even if he survived, it was likely that he would have needed a heart transplant, which would have required more blood. Kirby would have needed transfusions for a year following the procedure, said Wong.
At times, Wong’s fight, all in memory of his son, is daunting. He faces challenges like the Asian community’s cultural reluctance to donating blood and the limitations at local blood banks.
Although the need for more blood is universal, there’s a specific blood disparity within Asian communities, brought on by cultural barriers and the lack of awareness of the need for long-term donation.
The Puget Sound Blood Center needs 900 units of blood in order to support its patients in Western Washington every week.
But for people of Asian descent, making up 14.6 percent of King County’s population according to the 2010 census, and with only 8.8 percent of the Puget Sound Blood Center’s new donors identifying as Asian, the racial disparity is difficult to bridge.
Wong is determined to close the racial gap in the blood supply.
The problem is simple, the solution isn’t.
While blood can be and has been successfully donated across racial lines, especially in small quantities, it’s important to find a close match, which is what Kirby lacked. Because blood types are inherited, the best match is often found between two people who have the same racial background.
There are eight common blood types composed of different antigens — A or B — that come in different combinations. According to the American Red Cross, Asians have a relatively high number of Bs. If the body doesn’t recognize antigens from the donated blood, it can trigger a dangerous immune response during transfusions. This type of immune response is a concern for people with Sickle Cell, kidney, or heart disease who need large, repeated amounts of blood transfusions.
Roman Wong, a vascular surgeon at Swedish Medical Center, is hesitant to call race an issue in transfusions. He doesn’t want people to be discouraged from accepting blood from other ethnic groups.
“More of an issue is why you’re giving the blood,” (Roman) Wong said. “If you give more than, say, two or three units of blood, there’s something going on that’s very wrong.”
Barriers to donating
Twelve years after Kirby’s death and after organizing 23 blood drives around Seattle, Wong still finds the lack of Asian blood donors unsettling. He’s seen the blood drives draw in as many as 128 people in 2001, at his first drive, and as few as 11 in 2006.
“The main problem is to even get the Asians to show up,” Wong said. “They know it’s a good cause, but it just takes a little more effort than just talk and publicity.”
He banks on friends or friends of friends to come to his drives.
Some long-formed beliefs, generally incorrect, keep older generations or immigrants from donating.
The thought that blood doesn’t regenerate, or that donating blood is like giving away a part of oneself, are two such misconceptions.
Rosalind Chan, an interpreter at International Community Health Services, said she sees this in some of her elderly Chinese patients, most of whom are in their 70s.
“They think that if they give up blood, they’ll lose some nutrients in their bodies,” Chan said. “[They believe] that once they [donate], they’ll lose the blood.”
Heidi Wong, the director of fund development at Kin On Health Care Center, an organization providing nursing and long-term care to Seattle’s Asian community which (Ed) Wong helped establish, said that Asian immigrants might not donate blood because they associate it with being sick or with death, a taboo topic in some Asian cultures.
“As far as I can tell, [with] the immigrant population, when you mention blood, they just don’t want to talk about it, don’t want to get near it,” said (Heidi) Wong.
But in other cases, it’s not the lack of interest keeping people, mostly immigrants, from donating. It’s the language barrier.
If you can’t speak English well enough to fill out a form by yourself, or if you can’t answer questions in English before or after the blood draw, then you can’t give blood — at least not through the Puget Sound Blood Center (PSBC).
That’s what 55-year-old Lai Kwan Wong, who immigrated to the United States from Hong Kong 25 years ago, found out this past February when she was turned away from a blood drive. (Lai Kwan) Wong, who works in healthcare helping the elderly, was perplexed. She said through a translator that she gave blood in the United States after Sept. 11 when there was a high demand for more donors. Back then, she had the same English proficiency that kept her from donating a few months ago.
David Leitch, director of donor and volunteer services at PSBC, said the center simply doesn’t have the resources to accommodate non-English speaking donors, which would require the center to hire a bilingual staff.
“It’s not just forms that we would need to translate,” Leitch said. “We don’t have the resources to make a bilingual program for the top five languages.”
Wong is reluctant to blame the lack of donation on cultural and language barriers.
“It’s more or less educating the people about what blood is about and what it can do,” said Wong.
A difficult solution
Ten years ago, the Puget Sound Blood Center started Perfect Match, a general awareness campaign that asks already-participating donors to identify their race.
Back then, Perfect Match was well-funded with grants. It also had the active support of former Governor Gary Locke, who is Wong’s nephew.
“It was much more active and we had a lot more sorts of dollars and resources,” Leitch said. “What we focused on were a couple of different things, [including] pushing that diverse message, so that we wanted to know people were participating from different backgrounds and heritages.”
Leitch added that the PSBC has seen some success during the last six to seven years, increasing its non-Caucasian, first-time donor base by nearly 15 percent.
Even though Wong has registered more than 1,000 people since he began organizing blood drives at Japanese and Chinese churches around the area, he thinks there’s more that needs to be done. He isn’t so sure that Perfect Match is a proactive enough campaign.
“They should be advertising in all the minority papers, all the time,” said Wong.
Wong said that he thinks the blood center’s excuse is lack of money for Perfect Match.
“We’re always applying to grants,” Leitch said. “Right now, we don’t have any specific funds to continue to dedicate toward encouraging people who have already joined the program to continue to [keep donating].”
Finding long-term motivation
Money is only one part of creating a more diverse blood supply. There needs to be motivation to give blood and to keep giving. Long-term donation is especially important because blood doesn’t have a long shelf life, and there’s no guarantee that the blood drawn from Asian communities will go to someone of similar background.
Wong wants to make it clear that people need to donate on a continuous basis, and that they can do so every two months, when their blood regenerates.
After years of organizing drives, Wong seems resigned but hopeful. Still, his motivation to rally the Asian community to donate blood stays strong. On July 21, Wong will host his 24th blood drive within the Asian community at the Blaine Church in memory of his son.
“I’m committed because I said I was going to do it,” Wong said. “I said I’d do it in memory of my kid.” (end)
Katelin Chow can be reached at email@example.com.