On June 20th 2017, at the age of 42, Albert “Prodigy” Johnson, a hip hop pioneer, passed away due to complications from sickle cell disease. His death was unexpected but his lifelong battle with the condition was articulated in a song he created back in 1996 called “You Can Never Feel My Pain.” Over the years, Prodigy was documented using spirituality and music as a coping mechanism as Doctors struggle to treat his pain. I was born with the sickle cell trait and I have a cousin and a friend who suffer from the disease but I never bothered to learn more about it until I heard of Prodigy’s untimely demise.
In the United States, people of African ancestry or people who identify themselves as black are more likely to have the sickle cell disease. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, 1 in 13 African American babies is born with the sickle cell trait and 1 and every 365 black children is born with sickle cell disease. The disease is passed on to their offspring by their parents’ genetic makeup. If a child is born with the trait, then that means only one of the parents passed down the gene. If the child is born with sickle cell disease, then both parents passed based down the gene.
Sickle cell disease is essentially an inherited disorder, in which a group of red blood cells are misshapen. Normal cells (shaped like donuts without the holes) are able to deliver oxygen to the body’s muscles as they continuously flow through the veins. Sickle cells are not able to deliver oxygen due to their shape (they look like half-moons).
Sickle cells are not flexible and they can also stick to vessel walls causing blockage in the veins. The blockage slows or stops the flow of blood so oxygen can’t reach nearby cells. The stoppage of blood causes joint pain and over a lifetime, the disease can cause harm to a person’s vital organs.
Sickle cells also have a shorter lifespan than red blood cells. The body is always creating new red blood cells, which live about 90 to 120 days, but sickle cells die early or burst (lifespan is 10-20 days). Since the body can’t produce enough blood cells to keep up with the destruction of sickle cells there is a shortage of healthy red blood cells. The condition is known as sickle cell anemia. People suffering from sickle cell anemia tend to have lower levels of energy.
The biggest issue caused by sickle cells is the pain attacks that come without warning. The severity of the pain varies widely from person to person. Most adolescents and adults may suffer from chronic ongoing pain between the severe pains of an attack. The condition also causes manageable fatigue, dizziness, and infections. However, the severity of each symptoms varies from person to person. Often after a pain attack, the person suffering is hospitalized for an effective treatment.
Currently, the only cure for sickle cell anemia is a bone marrow transplant but the procedure is preserved for people younger than age 16 and finding a donor is difficult. Patients older than 16 don’t not have the option to receive a transplant since the risk of death increases as one get older. Doctors advise people suffering from the disease to try their best to avoid crises, relieve symptoms, and prevent complications. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend children and adults with sickle cell disease see a doctor at least once a year. Call your doctor for effective solutions if you or a loved one are suffering from sickle cell anemia.