RICHMOND (WRIC)—More than 100,000 people across the country suffer from sickle cell disease, a disorder that's more common in African-American families.
In Virginia, one in 325 babies is born with the disease.
Doctor visits at VCU Medical Center are just a normal part of life for Francis Churchill. He's been living with sickle cell disease for more than 47 years and has one word to describe it: chaos.
The disease keeps Churchill in constant pain. He's had dozens of surgeries, including four on his leg after developing an ulcer.
"I've had operations on almost every part of my body, especially my joints, because that's where sickle cell attacks—your joints," Churchill said.
Sickle cell disease is an inherited blood disorder, and its main symptom is pain.
"Pain that causes hospitalization, pain that requires morphine and narcotics, pain that's unremitting—days, weeks at a time," said Dr. Wally Smith, director of the VCU Health Systems Adult Sickle Cell Program.
Normal red blood cells are smooth and donut shaped—that makes them flexible, so they can easily travel through the body. But patients with sickle cell disease have cells that are hard and shaped like a crescent or garden sickle, hence the name.
As Dr. Smith explains, these sickle cells get stuck and block blood flow to different organs.
"You get pain because there's no oxygen going there," Dr. Smith said. "Just like you would have pain if somebody tied a tourniquet around your leg and just left it there for weeks."
Dr. Smith says as patients like Churchill get older, their organs start to fail. Pain relievers and bone marrow transplants used to be the only treatment options, but now, a pill is sparking new hope.
"The safest and most effective treatment for sickle cell disease is a simple drug called hydro-urea," Dr. Smith said.
The drug was approved by the FDA in 1994, but is just now becoming widely used. For Churchill, hydro-urea has changed his way of life.
"You can relax; you can do most normal things with it," Churchill said.
Right now, Churchill is preparing to have hip-replacement surgery, but is grateful to God he is still alive.
"I'm blessed just to be here," Churchill said.
You can find out if you have sickle cell disease, or if you even carry the trait, with a special blood test called hemoglobin electrophoresis.
Copyright 2013 by Young Broadcasting of Richmond
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