Honor Society project was personal mission to support those with rare blood disease
NEWARK – When Ryan Colasanti needed a service project for the Junior National Honor Society, the Holy Angels School eighth-grader made an ambitious decision. After all, not one student at the school will be allowed to participate.
Ryan is spearheading a blood drive to help people like his father, Ralph. The elder Colasanti lives with a type of thalassemia, or Cooleys anema, a group of blood disorders affecting the red blood cells. Ralph said it is similar to sickle cell anemia, but his red cells do not deform. His body produces red cells at a rapid pace, but they die quickly.
“The best way to describe it is if you see a red delicious apple that’s a nice, bright red, that’s like a healthy red cell. If you see a Gala apple, that’s kind of like red and white, that’s kind of like what a thalassemia cell looks like. The red cell dies quickly, so we are always anemic and require blood transfusions,” he said.
He gets a transfusion every three weeks. Some people he knows need them more often. Ryan knew what he wanted to do.
“There’s so many ways I could help,” Ryan said last week at the school. “The blood drive seemed like the right thing to do. It just spoke to me and felt like the right one to do.”
The drive is scheduled for Jan. 26. The Colasantis and officials from the Blood Bank of Delaware hope to get 45 people to donate from among parents, faculty and parishioners. Ryan and other members of the Junior NHS spoke at Masses at Holy Angels and St. John the Baptist churches last weekend to drum up interest.
Ryan has seen what his father goes through on a daily basis because of thalassemia and wanted to help.
“I think it kind of made me into who I am today,” he said. “I get so much from my dad. Just watching him. I’ve seen other thalassemia patients just lose the will to live or not handle it as well as he has.”
Ralph is a familiar face at Holy Angels. He is unable to work, so he is at the school nearly every day as a dedicated volunteer. He was diagnosed with thalassemia when he was 6 or 7, which is relatively late.
“My blood count was normal around 5 or 6. I was able to function, but I was very lethargic, very jaundiced. My mother was taking me to all kinds of doctors,” he said.
He had his spleen removed when he was 13, and there have been other health complications. One of the issues with receiving so many transfusions is he has too much iron in his blood, so he takes three pills each morning to deal with that. The pills are a blessing compared with what he endured for two decades: a 12-hour subcutaneous infusion every night.
“It was no fun at all, especially since I was hitting my teenage years. But I did what I had to do,” he said.
Around the turn of the century, the nightly infusion gave way to a medicine he could drink, although the texture and taste resembled chalk.
“It was better than sticking myself,” he said. “The quality of life has gotten so much better over the years.”
Gene therapy remains the best hope for thalassemia patients, Ralph said, with the possibility that transfusions could be reduced or eliminated. Bone-marrow transplants have worked as well, although they are usually done in younger people and require a matching donor.
Next year, Ryan will be attending St. Mark’s, which was one of the first high schools in Delaware to host a blood drive and now has one twice a year. He hopes someone keeps up what he is starting at Holy Angels.
“I have a couple of friends in the younger grades that I’m trying to influence,” he said. “At Holy Angels, they’re really teaching the importance of serving and helping our community, so I don’t think it will end with me.”