Andray Simmons may be soft-spoken, but he holds nothing back in a wide smile that surely makes his orthodontist proud. The slightly built 15-year-old was still recovering from hip surgery when his class from Fairmont High School toured Community Blood Center. Andray had to avoid climbing stairs or standing too long during the tour. But when he spoke they listened.
Most high school sophomores are too young to donate blood and may only see a needle at vaccination time. Andray alone in the Fairmont group could stand in the lab where blood donations are readied for hospitals, and talk about receiving blood transfusions since birth.
“I’ve been an ambassador at Dayton Children’s Hospital since June,” he said. “I still receive transfusions, usually one or two units a couple of times a year.”
Andray was born at Miami Valley Hospital on Independence Day, July 4th of 2000. But his mother Jewels Howard soon learned Andray had sickle cell disease, and his young life would be dependent on treatment and precautions.
Sickle cell disease is an inherited form of anemia. Many of Andray’s red blood cells are abnormally rigid and “sickle” shaped, and there aren’t enough healthy cells to carry oxygen throughout his body. It’s a disease that affects one in every 500 African-Americans.
Sickle cell patients are vulnerable to painful restrictions of blood flow to the organs, or acute attacks on the lungs and heart. Regular blood transfusions are part of the treatment.
“It’s like you have this awesome baby, and suddenly he’s an awesome baby with an awesome component to him,” said Jewels. “Most people think of this disease as a curse. But it’s also been a blessing because he’s an awesome young man.
“His positive attitude – he’s happy. He knows what unhappiness and pain is, and he faces it with a smile and he’s courageous.”
At the time Jewels spoke, Andray was at home, missing school because of a stomach problem. “You wouldn’t know it,” she said. “He’s still smiling.”
Andray’s missed the entire first month of the school year after his August 14, 2015 hip surgery. Avascular necrosis, an interruption of blood flow in the joint, was causing bone to die. The surgery involved bone grafts, but Andray felt fortunate it was needed in only one hip.
Jewels said Andray spent spring break last March in the hospital after a simple cough turned into “a nasty bug” and pneumonia, requiring multiple transfusions. But Jewels called it “a good year” for her son.
“Two hospital visits is a good year,” she said. “Who says that?”
Andray is proud of his visits to Dayton Children’s that don’t involve treatment. “I’m still an ambassador,” he said, “and I’m also on the kids’ advisory board for the new Patient Tower.”
He’s committed to keeping a positive attitude at Children’s, at school, and at home. “Most of the time I have to try to keep my head up so I can make other people happy, mostly my family,” he said. At the top of the list are his mother and grandmother.
Jewels said Andray has been taking the drug hydroxyurea since he was five to reduce the rate of painful attacks. By first grade he was still receiving monthly transfusions. He survived a stroke-like paralysis at age seven. “He woke up and couldn’t move,” she said. New research and treatments have reduced the number of sickle cells in his blood and increased life expectancy, giving them hope.
“It’s definitely been harder,” Andray says about his struggle with sickle cell. “I had to give up being like other kids. I can’t play basketball with other kids. I don’t have the energy or heart to do so. I get tired out faster than an old person!”
Andray relies on familiar pep talk he tells himself when times get hard. “You’re having a bad day, but there’s always someone else having a worse day,” he said. “It may not be as bad as the person next to you. You get home, cry it out, and take your medicine. You think about what you did, what might have caused the pain, and try not to do it the next time. Every day you’re learning something.”
He’s committed to keeping his grades up and graduating with his class in 2018. His dream is to study law, perhaps open his own business. He likes the idea of helping enforce the law and “make sure people are on the right track.”
He’s also thankful for blood donors. “It’s pretty cool how people give their time and blood to some people they don’t know,” he said. “They don’t have to do it, but they’re looking out for people they don’t know and saving lives. It’s amazing.”