Gannett News Service
Devin McCourty remembered being taken to the doctors along with his twin, Jason, at age 5 for a blood test. Because multiple family members had sickle-cell disease in their bloodlines, doctors were trying to determine whether the twins carried the trait.
“It was a relief when we found out we didn’t,” said Devin, who like his brother is a Nyack native and former Rutgers football standout who currently stars at defensive back in the NFL.
But that didn’t mean their experience with sickle cell ended then. They watched as close family members battled the effects of the genetic disease that causes lifelong complications, such as fatigue, body aches, poor eyesight, ulcers, infections in the bones, gallbladder, lung and urinary tract, and painful joints caused by arthritis.
According to the National Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), between 90,000 and 100,000 people in the United States are affected by sickle-cell disease.
Winifred McCourty is one of them.
“Our aunt, who we’re very close to, has the sickle-cell disease so as we got older we started to understand all the different things she goes through,” said Devin, a third-year pro with the New England Patriots.
“Now she’s legally blind in both eyes. Every time I get sick I take it for granted because I just take some medicine, but every time she gets sick it’s a big deal.
“Me and Jay, we’ve thought about what causes we want to contribute to, and this kind of jumped off the table.”
The McCourty twins have partnered with the Embrace Kids Foundation for a series of initiatives designed to raise awareness, increase blood donors and raise money to battle the sickle-cell disease.
In addition to promoting a 5K Run/Walk in Jersey City’s LibertyState Park on June 9, their Tackle Sickle Cell campaign will include three blood drives on Feb. 23.
The blood drives will be at three locations, including one locally — from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Palisades Center in West Nyack. The McCourtys are expected to be there for the first hour.
“When we told our aunt we were getting involved with the cause, trying to build awareness for this blood drive and the walk, she was just remembering back to when she was a little girl and the doctors telling her she probably would live only to her 30s,” said Jason McCourty, a cornerback for the Tennessee Titans. “Now she’s in her 60s. Just knowing the different things she’s had to fight through, it’s amazing.”
Like his brother, Jason said the goal in the Tackle Sickle Cell campaign is to build awareness.
“Because of the nature of this disease, sickle cell isn’t talked about a lot,” he said. “There is absolutely is no cure for it, and when you have sickle cell a lot of times you pass it on to your kids. For a long time people who had the disease kept it as a secret because there was a stigma attached as if you’re passing it on down the line. So I think if me and Dev can help give awareness to it, it’ll help a lot.’’
Having football players as recognizable as the McCourty twins offering to raise awareness is key to the cause, according to Glenn Jenkins, executive director for the Embrace Kids Foundation, whose mission is to provide financial assistance and support to families in the greater New Jersey area affected by cancer and blood disorders.
“We’re very excited about this campaign,” Jenkins said. “We were founded to help kids with cancer and blood disorders, and on the blood-disorder side the kids with sickle-cell patients are the largest group. It’s probably about 35 to 40 percent of the total patients we take care of. For the 11 years I’ve been doing this it’s very obvious that the resources, the awareness, the fundraising for kids with sickle-cell disease get a fraction of the support of what the other causes receive. I don’t like that; I feel like it’s unfair so Embrace Kids has been working towards evening it out.”
Glenn Jenkins, executive director for the Embrace Kids Foundation noted the importance of increasing the minority blood donations because, according to the CDC, sickle cell-disease is more common in people of African and Mediterranean descent.
“You want blood recipients to match both blood-type and ethnically,” Jenkins said, “so it’s important that the blood-donor pool is diversified.’’
Jason McCourty echoed that sentiment.
“This disease affects minorities — African Americans and Hispanics — the most and for whatever reason those are the people giving the least amount of blood,’’ said Jason, who led all NFL cornerbacks in tackles this past season. “According to New York Blood, which is sponsoring it for us, in New York City 71 percent of the blood donors are white, 8.4 being Hispanic and 6.8 being African American.
“It’s so important for blood types to match, so we have to get minorities giving blood and that’s what we’re trying to do with this campaign.”
As for the 5K Run/Walk on June 9, Jason said he still hasn’t decided his running pace but he vowed not to walk it.
“I’ve always been more of a sprinter than a long-distance runner but I’m sure whatever we do me and Dev will turn it into some kind of competition,” said Jason, noting that his 4.32 in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine bested his brother’s time by .02. “We’re so competitive, I’m sure we’ll have a side bet on it.”