‘The best gift’

Published 10:14 pm Friday, December 21, 2012

Mary Ellen Ray is a newly appointed ambassador for the Red Cross.

With Christmas only days away, the excitement over Santa’s arrival has reached a fever pitch, but Atmore residents Joe and Jennie Ray know the real gift of the season is being able to celebrate with loved ones.

The Rays have one child, 15-year-old Mary Ellen, and being able to spend Christmas with her has not always been something they were sure would happen. Mary Ellen was born prematurely, entering the world only 23 weeks into her mother’s pregnancy, and medical issues were a problem from the start. Her father, Joe, said she already has overcome an amazing amount of adversity over the course of her young life.

“She was born at 23 weeks and typical is 40,” Mr. Ray said. “She was one pound, two ounces when she was born. Somewhere around her tenth day, she had a grade four interventricular hemorrhage. Basically, if it was in an adult, you’d be talking about a stroke.”

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Many more medical problems were to follow for Mary Ellen, and Mr. Ray said accessible units of blood have saved her life on more than one occasion. Her mother, Jennie, described blood donations as “the best gift.”

“Due to that, she has epilepsy,” Mr. Ray said. “She’s got cerebral palsy. Before she came home she had multiple blood transfusions. If I remember right, it was somewhere around 11 to 13 blood transfusions before even coming home.”

Because of a weaker than average immune system, Mr. Ray said Mary Ellen has had to have blood transfusions many times over the years, which makes her uniquely suited for the role she has recently taken on as an ambassador for the American Red Cross. Mr. Ray said the call from the Red Cross came after Mary Ellen’s most recent surgery. A procedure that, once again, was dependent on blood reserves.

“She is confined to a wheelchair,” Mr. Ray said. “She’s developed scoliosis. Over the summer she had a spinal fusion. Anytime they do a spinal fusion on a young child, they always have two pints of blood on hand. She only had to take one, so that was pretty positive. During that surgery is when we got asked if she would be an ambassador for the Red Cross.”

Mr. Ray said being ambassador has, not only helped give a face people can connect with to local blood drive efforts, but is also a great way to help individuals suffering from some of the same afflictions Mary Ellen faces.

“It seemed like the right thing to do,” he said. “We definitely want to support blood drives inside the community.”

And that is exactly what the Rays did Monday as Escambia County High School hosted a blood drive in Mary Ellen’s honor. The donations from the drive will go to help numerous men and women in the local area.

“Our goals was 35 units,” Mr. Ray said. “We had 54 people participate and we were able to get 36 useable units, so we exceeded our goal.”

Mary Ellen’s mother, Jennie, said the blood drive was a wonderful show of support from the community and will tremendously help the state of Alabama’s constant shortage of donated blood.

“We saved 100 lives Monday with those 36 pints,” Mrs. Ray said. “It goes to 100 people, but we are not a state that provides enough blood for the entire state. Mississippi and Alabama are two states that always can use blood and blood donors every 56 days.”

Mrs. Ray said her entire family has been delighted to have an opportunity, through the Red Cross, to help others whose lives may be dependant on blood donations, as Mary Ellen’s has been so many times.

“It means a lot,” she said. “With the blood transfusions with Mary Ellen, it has saved her life so many times. That’s why we wanted to do the blood drives. Just to say thank you to all of them who have ever donated blood for her.”

And the Ray family is not stopping with Monday’s successful drive. Instead, they are planning another donation effort tentatively scheduled for February at a Sam’s location in Mobile.

“This year’s the first time we’ve actually worked to organize a blood drive,” Mr. Ray said. “But we’re going to try to continue it.”
In the mean time, Mary Ellen is recovering from her recent surgery and her parents are hoping she will be able to return to school at the beginning of the new year.

“We’re just very thankful,” Mrs. Ray said.

For more information on how to support the Ray’s efforts with local blood drives, contact the Atmore branch of the American Red Cross at 251-368-3643 or the Mobile branch at 251-438-2571.