Providing Relief From Sickle Cell's Agony

Doctor Deepika Darbari, left, talks with Jasmine Colbert, who is being treated for sickle cell anemia.
Doctor Deepika Darbari, left, talks with Jasmine Colbert, who is being treated for sickle cell anemia. (By Alice Reid For The Washington Post)
By Alice Reid
Monday, January 7, 2008

Jasmine Colbert, a senior at Largo High School in Prince George's County, remembers last year's attack. Her leg swelled, the pain so excruciating she could not move. It was her third such crisis in as many months, and it sent Jasmine to Children's Hospital for the only relief available: a morphine drip.

Jasmine suffers from sickle cell disease. She's one of more than 1,000 patients enrolled in the hospital's Sickle Cell Clinic, one of the nation's largest targeting youngsters who suffer from the painful and often dangerous disease.

"I would get attacks sometimes five or six times in a month," said Jasmine, 17. Today she is one of the clinic's successes. Her clinic doctor, Deepika Darbari, is treating her with a medication called hydroxyurea, which doesn't work for everyone but does keep the worst symptoms at bay for Jasmine. She has not had a sickle cell crisis for a year.

Sickle cell disease, also known as sickle cell anemia, is an inherited condition that causes red blood cells to morph periodically from smooth, round shapes, able to slide easily through blood vessels, into sharp, jagged, sicklelike objects that mass together like debris in a fast-moving stream. The sickle cells clog blood vessels, blocking circulation to extremities and often major organs, causing extreme pain and sometimes permanently damaging parts of the body.

The disease primarily strikes African Americans, and there is no cure. With a high number of children at risk for the disease right outside the doors of Children's, doctors there are working hard to control the disease and relieve pain when a crisis strikes.

"Right now we don't have everything we need to block the sickle-ing of the red blood cells," said Darbari, who sees Jasmine and other patients once a month. Doctors use intravenous fluids, transfusions, anti-asthma medications, even warm whirlpool baths to try to stave off pain and damage from the disease. They also try to keep patients out of the hospital so their lives remain as normal as possible.

The disease can lead to strokes or lung damage. To help prevent that, the clinic's patients get aggressive screening.

"Our biggest concern is for the brain," Darbari said. "Stroke is quite common in young children with the disease." Children who are diagnosed with sickle cell disease at Children's routinely receive a follow-up test known as a transcranial Doppler. Basically, it measures the rate of blood flow in the brain, and as Darbari explained, a rapid rate indicates a danger of stroke. Such children immediately receive a blood transfusion.

Young children with the disease also take antibiotics routinely to ward off infections because the spleen -- an organ that fights infection -- is often damaged by the disease.

Darbari and her colleagues are searching for drugs that will keep patients out of crises and slow the progression of the disease. But many young people with the disease still suffer tremendous pain. The hospital hopes someday to establish a pain clinic to help children with various illnesses. For now, its anesthesiology team steps in to make sickle cell patients more comfortable. The goal is to get youngsters back home, back in school and back to being as carefree as they can be.

How to Help

As the campaign to raise $500,000 for Children's Hospital moves into the homestretch, it's gratifying to see how generous so many of you have been. You've written checks as small as $8, as large as $3,000, and every one of them, no matter what the amount, is deeply appreciated. Twenty-one teachers and support staff members at Wolf Trap Elementary School in Vienna sent a group gift of $800. There have been gifts in honor of nieces and nephews, grandchildren, neighbors. The total now stands at $240,212.99.

One grandmother attached a note saying how thankful she is for the care her grandson received at Children's. Another contributed on the occasion of her twin grandchildren's safe delivery. Her gift, she wrote, is "for the next little one who needs a little help getting started in the world."

One reader celebrated her 40th birthday with a gift in appreciation for her good health. If you haven't yet been part of this campaign, it's not too late. You can simply write a check or money order payable to Children's Hospital and send it to Washington Post Campaign, P.O. Box 17390, Baltimore, Md. 21297-1390.

To donate online with a credit card, go to To contribute by phone using Visa or MasterCard, call 202-334-5100 and follow the instructions. All gifts are tax-deductible, as allowed by law.

Thank you!

© 2008 The Washington Post Company