Sickle cell disease is a group of disorders that affects hemoglobin, the molecule that delivers oxygen to blood cells throughout the body.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, 70,000-100,000 Americans have sickle cell disease and 1 in 12 African Americas have the Sickle Cell Trait.
Characteristic features of this blood disorder include a low number of red blood cells (anemia), repeated infections, and periodic episodes of pain. The severity of symptoms varies from person to person. Some people have mild symptoms, while others are frequently hospitalized for more serious complications.
There are people that carry the sickle cell trait or even have the disease, but have never been diagnosed and don’t know they have it. This is the story of how I went to a plastic surgeon for breast implants and instead ended up with a diagnoses of sickle cell disease.
“Your blood test results show that you are severely anemic.”
This was a comment I became accustomed to hearing during my regular check-ups whenever I had blood work done. This mysterious blood-thing had plagued me for decades.
When I was in high school, we were encouraged to donate blood to the mobile blood bank that visited the school twice a year. All my friends thought I was crazy to donate my blood, but I thought, “Hey, if it doesn’t affect me or my life and it could benefit someone else, why not?” I entered the trailer with visions of all the people my blood would help. I exited 10 minutes later with a heart-shaped sticker on my chest that sadly read “I TRIED” in bold letters instead of the highly anticipated “I DONATED.” Apparently my blood was not suitable for donation. My friends thought this was hilarious. I was mortified.
Another blood-related incident happened in my early 20s when I went to a clinic to get my birth control prescription refilled. The doctor called me in. With a very sympathetic look, she gently said, “This is a well-woman’s clinic. We’ve tried to work with you to get your blood count up, but it’s still very low. Unfortunately, we can’t continue to prescribe birth control pills until we find out why you’re so anemic.” I was devastated. No more $10 co-pay birth control pills. I didn’t understand it. I felt fine. According to the doctors, with a blood count as low as mine, I should have felt extremely weak and tired. I tried taking the mega doses of iron that the doctor suggested. All I got was constipated. No elevated blood count. I stopped taking iron pills.
Years went by. I knew I still had the blood-thing, but I never had any health issues. Life went on and I rarely, if ever, thought about it. At one point, I thought that my blood disorder might have something to do with sickle cell anemia. But how could that be? I had heard that people with sickle cell anemia had painful episodes of fatigue and abdominal and bone pain and had to be hospitalized. I didn’t have any of that.