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Sickle cell disease association meets to talk about condition; Affects millions of people

By Staff | Sep 26, 2008

For most of his life, Fort Myers resident Donnell Green has been struggling with his diagnosis of sickle cell anemia.

Green, 50, and millions of other Americans have the disease which alters the shape of a person’s red blood cells and, if untreated, can be deadly.

“I’ve had it all my life,” said Green. “Mostly I drink a lot of fluids and take my medication every day.”

On Thursday, Green joined approximately 100 people at a meeting of the Lee County Sickle Cell Disease Association, which has some 35 members locally, according to president Pamela Goldsmith Denson.

“We’ve covered so many angles of sickle cell, but we’ve never covered the eyes,” said Denson. “A lot of people don’t realize that sickle cell affects the whole body.”

The organization hosts medical professionals from across the United States who provide information on various ways sickle cell anemia can affect the body.

The group welcomed Dr. Jackie Kovach on Thursday, an assistant professor of clinical ophthalmology at the University of Miami, who talked about sickle cell retinopathy — a condition that can cause blindness.

A person develops sickle cell anemia from a parent who passes on the trait. It is more likely to affect African Americans, but also affects Hispanics, Asians and Native Americans. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, the trait resides in one in every 12 African Americans.

Kovach explained that the disease manifests itself because of a mutated hemoglobin molecule that makes up the bodies’ red blood cell.

The mutation causes the red blood cells to become abnormally shaped like a sickle, when they should be oval. As a result the mutated blood cells have a hard time traveling through the blood vessels, delivering oxygen to internal organs.

With sickle cell retinopathy, Kovach explained, the blood cells are not bringing oxygen to the eye.

“The disease blocks tiny blood vessels that are the lifeblood of eye tissue. The actual blood vessels are damaged and they need oxygen as well,” she said.

Later, the damage in the eye causes bleeding within the retina, and retinal detachment and vision loss can result if not treated immediately.

Laser photocoagulation is one treatment for the damage, where a laser is used to rid the eye of the blood spots.

Green, who was one of a handful of attendees who had sickle cell anemia, said he has already had a detached retina and two hip replacements.

“I had detached retinas and the deterioration of my bones and joints,” he said. “Had two hip replacements and I’m working on my third.”

Like other people with sickle cell anemia, Green has to be very careful about strenuous, physical activity.

Ereck Plancher, a former Lely High School football player who collapsed on the field during practice at the University of Central Florida, was found to carry a sickle cell trait.