Interview with a Medical Doctor with Sickle Cell Disease
I have decided to do a spotlight series on the careers possible for those with sickle cell. If you would like to be featured, please follow the instructions HERE. You all know that I am a nurse, but I would like to seize this opportunity to introduce you to the one and only, amazing, and inspiring, Dr. Y, who has graciously done this interview.
SCW: Dr. Y, it’s a pleasure to meet you. Let’s start from the beginning, how old were you when you found out you had sickle cell?
I was 4 yrs old. The doctors initially thought I had appendicitis.
SCW: I guess we all find this out at a young age. Your parents instilled in you that you can do anything you set your heart and mind to. Has this always been true?
Pretty much. My parents raised me just like my siblings without sickle cell disease. Growing up in Nigeria, I used to be out of school for ~ 6 months out of the year. Yes, I have SSD but no excuses are allowed. The school was important and I was expected to catch up with my classmates. When I wasn’t sick I had to do everything everyone else did: cleaned the house, washed clothes, cooked, fetched water. Sounds easy right, but it actually wasn’t. Cleaning the house involved scrubbing the walls and floors, washing clothes was done by hand, no washer and dryer. Cooking involved grinding red hot peppers by hand, using grinding stones, my hands would sting for hours because I was pretty bad at it. Fetching water sometimes involved waking up at ‘ole dark thirty’, as in the crack before the crack of dawn, walking for ~ an hour or more each way, waiting for ~ two or three hours in long lines. Walking back home with a bucket full of water on my head, all before breakfast. All these things were my parents teaching me discipline.
SCW: Wow, that’s really hardcore. My parents pretty much spoiled me rotten ;p. I had to do chores, but it was usually significantly less laborious than what my non-SSD siblings did. Moving along, what made you decide to become a doctor?
I have always liked science and was the geeky kid who would rather read the encyclopedia than socialize. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not antisocial! The human body intrigued me, plus I was always fascinated by people who were different; It was always easy for me to make friends with the ‘outsiders’ ‘cos I felt like one.
SCW: What area of medicine do you practice in?
I am an Obstetrician/Gynecologist
SCW: The life of a medical practitioner can be quite taxing, for our readers, could you describe a typical day?
Dr. MD: My typical workday starts at 8 am. I work 24-hour shifts covering several different areas. Clinic-seeing patients in the office. Labor and delivery- laboring patients, including performing cesarean sections. I also cover Triage (the emergency room), which may include anything from treating pregnant women with colds, to performing emergency surgery on a patient with ectopic pregnancy (pregnancy in the tube). Consults from inpatients and patient transfers from other hospitals also keep me pretty busy. My job involves being a compassionate, caring physician, being diplomatic, multitasking, and fielding problems. It is highly stressful and requires a great deal of concentration. Honestly, I am not always the aforementioned descriptive, especially when achy, or exhausted. Patience is not my strongest suit, I’m working on it!
I try to stay hydrated when working, eat healthily, and take a ten or twenty-minute power nap when I can. Sometimes I’m running for 24hrs straight ‘cos so much is going on.
SCW: Amazing! You work for 24 hours non-stop? Unreal! The medical school presents a challenge to a sickle cell warrior. I know many of our compatriots have punked out of applying or going to medical school because of this challenge. How were you able to cope with medical school and sickle cell disease?
Dr. MD: Medical school classes started at 7.30 am till about 6 pm Monday through Friday. I was in the ER several times and had a few hospitalizations. I figured out I wasn’t cut out to be a Pediatrician ‘cos I would always catch whatever they had. My friends were pretty cool with my SSD and would help me catch up with school work. The Residents and Attending physicians were also pretty nice and would make sure I was well taken care of.
The residency was different, I was now a real physician working 24-40 hr days. Not all colleagues were sympathetic to working extra hours to cover a sick doc. My friends came through by starting IVs in the call room or my apartment when it wasn’t too busy, or I was off. The nurses and anesthesiologists would give me pain meds sometimes because I did not have a regular physician. Probably all illegal but hey they got me through.
SCW: Fortunately, your classmates and colleagues were so supportive. I got the same support during nursing school. I think once you explain to people what you are dealing with, they ‘get’ it and help you work around sickle cell. Next question, how do you manage SCD and still maintain a thriving career?
I’ll say it’s very challenging! Between work, port flushes, and doctor’s appointments I feel like I have 2 full-time jobs! When I come home from work in the morning, everything hurts. I usually would take Oxycodone + a muscle relaxant+ a heating pad for my legs and rest during the day if I can. I have a Gastroenterologist and a Hematologist/Oncologist that I see every few months- I keep my appointments, drink plenty of water, try to eat as much unprocessed food as I can, take my medicine, well most of the time, and try to get as much rest as I can. The last one is actually very hard, I’m an insomniac and sleep whenever I can, which is during the day when I’m not working. I work two or three 24 hour shifts a week.
Holy moly! 3-24 hour shifts! Now I can’t complain after a 12-hour shift! You are really committed to your career. Thank you for sharing your regimen; I think we all have some level of insomnia. I wonder, has sickle cell limited any area of your life?
Not really. I’m tired a lot of times because of my work schedule and taking narcotics, so I don’t have a lot of time to socialize. I would like to be in a relationship with someone nice, who understands me and is considerate of my lifestyle. I’m hoping he’s out there!
SCW: I know he’s out there…we just have to find him! When you reach obstacles in your life, what helps you overcome them?
Dr. MD: Nine years ago I was diagnosed with cancer. Prayer, my friends, and family helped me through. My favorite sayings ‘God never gives you more than you can handle’ and ‘When you are going through hell, keep on going’ also give me the extra strength to keep on pushing.
SCW: Amen to that! The first quote is one of my favorites as well! I think it’s so apt to our situation. I am just going to throw this next question in here, to prove to the skeptics that you are a sickle cell warrior just like they are. Do you have regular pain (more than 2x/wk)? How do you cope with this when you are working?
YES. I am in pain every day!!! My pain usually runs from a 3 to a 5 on a 10 pain scale. I do not and will not take narcotics when working, it’s like driving drunk, so I just deal with it, or take Tramadol close to when I’m about to finish my shift if it is really bad. Rarely if it is really, super bad; I’ll take Toradol and have an IV started.
SCW: I completely understand what you mean. I take Motrin on the job when I’m in pain, and sometimes I am in more pain than my patients! What medications do you take when you are in pain?
Dr. MD: Oxycodone, Toradol, Tramadol
SCW: What is your daily medication regimen?
Folic acid/2 GI meds for ulcers/Hydroxyurea/Cymbalta/Multivitamins
SCW: I see you are taking Hydroxyurea. Personally, I am not a fan, but I would like to understand your experience with Hydroxyurea; would you recommend it to someone else? Why or why not?
In 2001, I developed Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, 6 months after starting Hydroxyurea (Now, I’m in complete remission). I do not know if the Hydroxyurea precipitated it, however, my last hospital admission was in 2007. So I take it because it works for me.
SCW: Thank you for sharing that. Looking at the 14-year-old version of yourself what would you tell her if you could…
I would tell my 14-year-old self: life gets better 😉
SCW: Hahaha, so true! I would tell my 14-year-old self probably the same thing, and to avoid boys XYZ since they are heartbreakers…lol. Is there anything else you would like to tell sickle cell warriors?
To my fellow sickle cell warriors-stay strong and remember God never gives us more than we can handle!
SCW: Thank you Dr. Y for doing this interview. It was an honor and pleasure to meet you. Wow…isn’t she amazing! I told you she was inspiring! This spotlight series is brought to remind you that you can do anything you set your heart and mind to!