How sickle cell anemia influences a medical school journey

“Where there is no struggle, there is no compassion.”
-Frederick Douglass

Growing up with sickle cell anemia exposed me to the field of medicine. As I go through the pain and complications, it humbles me to the point that motivates me to work harder to be the doctor I want for myself. I want to be a physician-scientist that conducts clinical research targeted toward patients like me. I believe that as a medical professional, it is important to be informed of the latest discoveries and advancements in the field and to moreover bridge the gap between the community and our health care institutions.

At birth, I was diagnosed with sickle cell anemia and my journey with doctors, nurses and clinical trials at Children’s Medical Center in Dallas, Texas, began. Sickle cell anemia is an inherited condition affecting the red blood cells and various organs in the human body. Due to a lack of hemoglobin in my blood, I suffer from severe anemia which causes me to feel fatigue, faint, short of breath, dizziness and nausea. Even more, any physical activity will worsen my breathing. Every day, I must avoid triggers that will cause red blood cell sickling: cold environments, overexerting myself, and staying away from high altitudes. I have always known the importance of preventive care as I visit my hematologist every month to ensure my granulocyte counts are not elevated; having a high granulocyte count is a risk factor for death. With sickle cell anemia, I have constant episodes of “sickling” that produce sudden episodes of mild-to-excruciating pain.

January 10, 2018 – I remember waking up at 4 a.m. to prepare myself for work. As my day started with me in a cold room, I adjusted the temperature so that I would not get sick. Around 5 a.m., I dressed in layers of clothing to stay warm during my usual walk to work. As the day went on, around 1:13 p.m., I was sitting at my workbench in the hematopathology lab and began to feel mild chest and lower back pain. I immediately started saying to myself “By Jesus’ stripes, I am healed” over an over until I was too tired to repeat. I took 800 mg of ibuprofen, and at that very moment, all I could feel was hope. That I would have enough strength to push myself to finish my lab work and that my pain will stop. I had to muster my strength to finish the day, walk home, get into bed, and try to sleep through the pain. As soon as my 10-hour shift was done, I began my trek home by foot. With every step I took, all I wanted was to cry out and to give up fighting the pain. But from past experiences, I knew that giving up will not solve anything. From then on, I focused on what I could have done to prevent my red blood cells from sickling that day. Should I have not walked in the cold to work? Did stress over my work demands and looming deadlines cause the pain? Or could my three jobs be a risk factor? These are all questions that I asked myself.

Once home, I headed straight to my room and locked the door to keep anyone from walking in on me during a time when I was suffering and to avoid them seeing me at my lowest. Hours later, I felt immense chest pain and immediately knew that I was experiencing acute chest syndrome. As I became increasingly anxious from the trauma I have from my constant complications, the only thing I could do was say, “By Jesus’ stripes, I am healed.” After tiring myself out, I called my mother at around 3 a.m. to ask that she read the Bible to me and pray until I fell asleep. During my time with her, I felt at peace even though I was still in pain. Just hearing God’s promises through the words my mother read from the Bible made me realize that even through my suffering it was important for me to rest.

The next morning, I was still in pain, but I pushed myself to head to work.

To remain active, I dedicate my time as a community advocate for sickle cell anemia with a non-profit organization called Sickle Cell Association of Houston; I have always aspired to bridge the gap between communities and the health care institutions here in Houston. Also, on my days off from my full-time job at MD Anderson Cancer Center and part-time job at Texas Children’s Hospital, I am an active volunteer at Ronald McDonald House of Houston at MD Anderson Cancer Center. There, I serve as the house manager where I support programs that address shelter needs, medical resources and food. The goal is to improve the health and well-being of children and their families which is what I aspire to do as a physician.

Every day, I am grateful for the learning experiences that the Texas Medical Center, MD Anderson Cancer Center and Ronald McDonald House at Texas Children’s Hospital have to offer their employees.

Before I received an interview at MD Anderson Cancer Center, I applied for various positions for two years straight. When the time came, I was fortunate to meet with Dr. Timothy McDonnell and Mrs. Candice Evans at the MD Anderson Cancer Center Hematopathology-Research Department. If it were not for them seeing something within me that I couldn’t see within myself, I would not be able to express my inner joy.

Even against sickle cell anemia, I hold both a full-time job and a part-time position at two hospitals along with working over thirty-six hours as a Lyft driver to ensure that I save enough money to apply to medical schools.

Overall, Frederick Douglass once said, “Without suffering, there would be no compassion.” This statement reflects my life experiences. Because of my fight against sickle cell anemia, I will forever be compassionate and empathetic to my patients. My desire is to be a living example that your disease does not have to affect your life negatively. With persistence and passion, I will do everything that I can to ensure that my future patients have access to medical care and ensure that their loved ones are supported and actively involved in their medical care. Ultimately, the purpose of my life is to do whatever I can do ethically and professionally to help people regain their lives free from pain and disease.

Bianca Bowden is a medical student.

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