By LaKeshia N. Myers
As a teenager in the 1990s, life was good. I had no real responsibilities and a friend group rivaled by the (middle school) masses, and to top it off, we had the perfect soundtrack to narrate our young lives, TLC. The trio of Tionne ‘T-Boz’ Watkins, Lisa ‘Left Eye’ Lopez and Rozonda ‘Chili’ Thomas, offered up the best in 90’s cool—fashion forward and musical prowess to saturate the airways. What I wouldn’t learn until many years later, was that one of my favorite group members, T-Boz, was silently suffering from sickle cell anemia.
Sickle cell disease is a blood disorder that affects red blood cells. According to the Sickle Cell Disease Association of America, “People with sickle cell disease have red blood cells that contain mostly hemoglobin S, an abnormal type of hemoglobin. Sometimes these red blood cells become sickle-shaped (crescent shaped) and have difficulty passing through small blood vessels. When sickle-shaped cells block small blood vessels, less blood can reach that part of the body. Tissue that does not receive a normal blood flow eventually becomes damaged. This is what causes the complications of sickle cell disease. There is currently no universal cure for sickle cell disease. Hemoglobin is the main substance of the red blood cell. It helps red blood cells carry oxygen from the air in our lungs to all parts of the body. Normal red blood cells contain hemoglobin A. Normal red blood cells that contain hemoglobin A are soft and round and can squeeze through tiny blood tubes (vessels). Normally, red blood cells live for about 120 days before new ones replace them” (SCDAA, 2021).
Watkins detailed her ordeal with sickle cell during the early years of TLC’s success, saying, “We were so hyped to be making our first album. But despite all the excitement and the seemingly fairy tale direction my life was headed in, I was constantly sick from my disease. I got sick every three months, at least. If I overdid it at Jellybeans or if it was too cold outside that night, I’d be in pain that night or the next morning. If I rehearsed too hard, my limbs would ache. I always pushed through it, ignoring the pain and forcing myself to be the performer I wanted to be despite my illness—or, at least, until my body just collapsed and couldn’t take it anymore…at one of our shows, I collapsed on the side of the stage after we finished performing, and I left the venue in an ambulance. The press and our fans got wind that something was going on, and everyone made it into this big dramatic thing” (Watkins, 2017). At the time, T-Boz’s constant hospital visits even led to false rumors that she had been infected with AIDS.
Sickle cell disease affects millions of people throughout the world and is particularly common among those whose ancestors came from sub-Saharan Africa; Spanish-speaking regions in the Western Hemisphere (South America, the Caribbean, and Central America); Saudi Arabia; India; and Mediterranean countries such as Turkey, Greece, and Italy. There are currently one hundred thousand Americans who live with SCD; of these, SCD occurs among about 1 out of every 365 Black births. SCD occurs among about 1 out of every 16,300 Hispanic-American births and about 1 in 13 African American babies is born with sickle cell trait (CDC, 2021).
The month of September is National Sickle Cell Awareness Month and I encourage everyone to learn more about this “invisible disease.” To find out if you or a loved one is a carrier of the sickle cell trait, you may contact your primary physician or Milwaukee Health Services to request a blood screen. If you are a person who has sickle cell disease, I encourage you to reach out to Dr. Dora Clayton-Jones, president of the International Association of Sickle Cell Nurses and Professional Associates. The IASCNPA provides a platform for nurses, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, social workers, sickle cell advocates and other health care professionals caring for individuals with sickle cell disease to improve their care through advocacy, standardized practice and education. They specialize in connecting individuals who have SCD with qualified health professionals.
The more we know about this disease, the more we can help those that suffer from the disease. Chances are, you know someone who may be suffering in silence.