Former Rutgers football players host event for sickle cell awareness
Jason and Devin McCourty in conjunction with Embrace Kids Foundation, teamed up on Saturday to "gamble" to battle sickle cell disease.
The McCourty brothers, both former members of the Scarlet Knights football team, hosted a casino night at Brother Jimmy’s BBQ on Saturday to raise funds for "Tackle Sickle Cell," a campaign dedicated to raising awareness of sickle cell anemia, a disease that morphs normal circle-shaped red blood cells into crescent, or sickle-shaped cells, and raises patient risk for acute pain, infections, strokes and death, said Devika Lal, an assistant professor in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.
The abnormal shape of the red blood cells will prevent them from carrying oxygen like a normal cell, she said.
“Because of their shape, they’ll physically stick together and be more likely to obstruct blood vessels,” she said. “Patients can have complications from that.”
This disease is usually diagnosed at an early age in patients, she said. Complications can include shortness of breath or stroke.
“The best treatment is transfusion, and unfortunately that’s not a permanent solution,” she said. “It’s important for (patients) to receive blood transfusions so they’ll receive normal blood just so it’s (easier) for them to carry oxygen to normal tissues in the body.
Patients receive multiple transfusions throughout their life to consistently replenish the red blood cells, she said, but others are given medications to raise the level of a normal hemoglobin type.
More than 150 people attended to raise awareness for sickle cell disease at $75 per head, said Glenn Jenkins, executive director for the Embrace Kids Foundation. Overall, about $25,000 were raised.
Participants would buy chips after arriving and “gamble” through the course of the evening, he said. Attendees of the event earned tickets, which could then be used in a raffle at the end of the night.
“The way charitable gaming works is you make a donation and you receive chips, but it’s a one-way transaction, so people are really playing for fun,” he said.
There was also a live auction at the event. Items such as a Patriots helmet signed by Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon, also a University graduate, were sold to the highest bidder.
This was the second year "Tackle Sickle Cell" hosted a casino night, said Jason McCourty. A blood drive was also hosted at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital earlier in the day.
McCourty said he and his brother got involved with sickle cell awareness because of their family. Their father is a carrier for the trait and they have an aunt with the disease.
They joined with Embrace Kids three years ago, he said. Its proximity to RWJUH and the University was a bonus.
More than 170 people donated blood at the drive, Jenkins said. The hospital will host another blood drive on Feb. 25.
Jenkins said he enjoys working with the McCourty brothers on such an important cause.
“Sickle cell receives a fraction of the funding and philanthropy of other chronic disorders, so we feel really good that we’re working in a space that’s underfunded,” he said.
Sickle cell disease can impact up to 80,000 Americans and millions of people globally, according to the National Institute of Health’s website. This blood disorder primarily affects minorities, said Jason McCourty.
“Rutgers (is) home for me and (Devin),” he said. “To be able to start it out right here and be so close to Rutgers and have so many other guys we played with come to the events and be a part of it (is) an awesome feeling.”
The first blood drive three years ago had about 110 attendees, he said.
In addition to raising awareness, the Embrace Kids Foundation helps families of patients, Jenkins said. The foundation provides financial assistance, scholarships and individualized tutoring to patients and their families.
The organization also puts on parties and other events for patients and their families, he said.
“Embrace Kids is blessed to be part of the Rutgers community,” Jenkins said. “We have many students and student organizations involved with the cause, and now to have former student athletes that have gone on to the NFL return home to help us out, that’s a beautiful thing.”
Editor's Note: A previous version of this article failed to note Devin McCourty as a former member of the Rutgers football team. Also, Michael Makur co-wrote the article.