I have lived sickle cell free for nine years.
When I think about my life with sickle cell (SC), I remember my first day of kindergarten–closing my eyes to check if I was feeling pain anywhere in my body. I did not. I was feeling completely normal. That was the last time I would have that feeling for a long time.
My second memory was a nurse giving me a shot, and being surprised I didn’t cry or even flinch.
I told her there was no point in crying over the things you cannot change. I was resigned to living with pain from SC for the rest of my life.
In high school, every morning started with turning off the alarm, rolling over and taking a bunch of pills: hydroxyurea, penicillin and oxycodone. I even took the painkillers to school, to deal with the pain.
The pain was like slamming your finger in a door: the initial sharp pain, followed by a dull ache. The dull ache was my daily life. The sharp pain was a pain crisis.
When I was 16, I remember sitting down to dinner with my family. My dad said, “Your doctor told me about a doctor in Pittsburgh who is curing people with sickle cell disease. I want you to have a transplant.”
I didn’t know what a “transplant” was. I was looking forward to graduation, and applying to colleges. I had a life. I didn’t want to interrupt my plans for a “transplant.”
Then one day I had a pain crisis that landed me in the hospital. My doctors told me I had to be on blood thinners for the rest of my life. Then they couldn’t find a vein. I thought about a life in and out of hospitals, all the needles, all pills, all the pain.
That’s when I began to seriously consider a bone marrow transplant.
When I arrived at the transplant center to meet my doctor and the rest of the team, I thought they’d tell me how great transplant was and how fabulous I would feel afterwards. But they kept talking about what it involved, chemotherapy, isolation, and potential side effects. It sounded horrible. But they wanted me to understand what to expect. I just wanted to feel better. All I cared about was, can you fix my sickle cell and can you reverse the damage that it has done already?
Fortunately for me, my sister was a perfect match for me. I went ahead and had the transplant. It was difficult, but the hardest part came afterward. I was immune-compromised on my 18th birthday. I had a huge chocolate cake I couldn’t eat. I had gifts I didn’t care about. I was worried about losing my insurance coverage because I turned 18. My mom had lost her job in Chicago because she spent so much time caring for me. Financially, it was very challenging, but our social workers helped us find grants and resources and our family helped fundraise. On top of all that, I was missing college interviews.
It took about a year after my transplant to accept that I no longer had SCD. It had been part of my life for so long, I had to figure out who I was without the disease. I had to unlearn old habits. Recovery was gradual, but eventually, my siblings were able to stop being careful around me, and my parents could breathe a sigh of relief.
My one regret is that I did not freeze my eggs before treatment, but having children was not my priority at 16.
Learning to adapt to life without sickle cell has been difficult, but life continues to get better. Sharing my story helps. I’m grateful for the experience and thankful to be alive.