Nikkolas Smith portrait aims to boost blood donations for SCD

'ARTivist' is raising awareness about ongoing need, particularly from Black donors.

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by Mary Chapman |

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Red blood cells are shown in an illustration.

A digital portrait created by artist Nikkolas Smith for the American Red Cross seeks to heighten awareness of sickle cell disease (SCD) and the ongoing need for blood donations for SCD patients, particularly from Black donors.

The artwork, titled “Transfusion,” depicts a young African American person crossing their hands, one in the shape of a “c” and the other in an “o,” symbolizing the procedure commonly used to provide healthy round red blood cells to a patient with sickle cell.

Blood transfusions help mitigate anemia and reduce blood viscosity, permitting it to flow more freely. In turn, disease symptoms are eased, and complications like organ damage and stroke often can be prevented. Frequent  transfusions may be required to help patients manage their disease.

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Despite the benefits of transfusions, patients often develop an immune response against donated blood that’s not compatible with their own blood. That is why more black donors are needed. One in three African Americans is a match for people with sickle cell, according to the Red Cross. Sickle cell affects some 100,000 U.S. residents, most of them of African descent.

Smith’s portrait is part of the Red Cross Sickle Cell Initiative, which aims to address health disparities in sickle cell disease by working to increase blood donations and helping to ensure that patients have closely matched blood products available.

Before creating the artwork, Smith spent time with four patients of various ages to talk about their SCD journeys. One of them, 12-year-old Dreylan Holmes, spoke of feeling isolated at school due to misunderstandings about the disease.

Tiereny Bell, an epidemiologist, explained how excruciating pain limits her work schedule. “People will sometimes say to me, you don’t look sick,” Bell said in a press release. “And I respond, well, what does sick look like?”

“What stood out to me the most when speaking with these incredibly brave sickle cell warriors is how much constant pain they endure due to the malfunctioning cells in their body, but also the level of determination they have to maintain in order to push through until their next blood transfusion,” Smith said.

His art seeks to underscore the need for blood donations, of which many African Americans are unaware.

“Sickle cell disease can be inherited by anyone of any race and ethnicity, but in the U.S., the great majority of individuals who have the disease are of African descent,” said Yvette Miller, MD, executive medical director of the Red Cross. “Nikkolas’ art reinforces that donating blood helps sickle cell warriors stay in the fight, while inspiring each of us to roll up a sleeve so they don’t have to fight alone.”

Rubin Beaufort, another patient with whom Smith spoke, is a retired mechanical engineer who, despite having received more than 240 blood transfusions, still regularly endures pain attacks.

“We’re facing this every single day, not just once in a while,” Beaufort said.

Microbiologist Erica Hunter, 41, the other patient Smith talked with, said she has had more than 50 transfusions to date, but that disease complications forced her to retire early.

“I was so moved to learn how [sickle cell warriors’] health greatly improves after every generous blood donation and transfusion,” Smith said. “My hope is that we can exponentially increase the number of lifesaving blood donations and transfusions this year.”

Self-described ‘ARTivist’

Smith, a Houston, Texas native who has a master’s degree in architecture from Hampton University in Virginia, seeks to create art that can spark discussions around social justice and that inspires meaningful change. As such, Smith, considers himself an “ARTivist,” in addition to a concept artist, children’s books author, film illustrator, and movie poster designer.

To donate blood, make an appointment through the Red Cross donor app, by visiting