In the summer of 1904, a Grenadian embarked on a journey to Chicago to attend dental school. The student, Walter Clement Noel, upon arriving to the United States was plagued with health complications requiring his internist to perform a blood smear, a relatively new technique not frequently used in diagnosis. This gave rise to the first documented finding of sickle cell-shaped blood cells which was presented to the world in a case study in 1910.
Almost 100 years later, a Chicagoan receives admission to a graduate program in Grenada, only to complete a thesis on sickle cell and chronic pain in the country that gave birth to a man whose blood gave name to a chronic disease.
Dr. James B. Herrick, credited with the first description of sickle cell disease, taught and practiced in Chicago, Illinois.
In science and research, life and circumstances often influence and shape your focus. A son who lost his mother to breast cancer is propelled to devote his energies discovering oncogenes. An impressionable college freshman is captivated by her professor and his research resonates in her own through the years. Inspiration can often be quite predictable. With me, however, someone with no prior exposure or bearings on any blood disorders, I have to believe that sometimes the research chooses you, a phantom deliberately lighting paths and dimming others, making you falsely believe your decisions are truly your own.
A little more than a century separate the opposite journeys that Walter and I took. And yet in that chasm of time, I’ve learned that just because we’ve given a disorder a name does not translate to a cure or even a standard global practice in managing the pain. My thesis helped me more than becoming a published primary author this past summer; it opened my eyes into seeing firsthand how medicine is much more than just biology, but also one part sociology, one part politics and policy, one part psychology, and even some parts geography. Continue reading
As a student known to sleep through a larger portion of my immunology lectures, the material, for me personally, lacked a little oomph. IgM. APC. CD28. C4b2a3b. A litany of cells, cytokines, and receptor molecules with unimaginative names and, often, even less enticing tasks that sounded more like a roll call for Star Wars characters. Little did I know, however, that the lessons imprinted on me in immunology translated to a much broader message.
Our biological well-being relies on the body’s meticulous ability to distinguish between the innate and the foreign. Thus, recognizing our own self is a lesson imbued to us by our own immune system. If the crux of good health relies on our body’s ability to recognize the “self” from “non-self” then being a good doctor, in my opinion, is about recognizing one’s own motives, perceptions, and attitudes against the backdrop of competing interests.
While conducting a research study on undertreated pain in sickle cell patients in a small middle-income nation, I interviewed around 40 sickle cell patients. After several long weeks of talking to patients, they all seemed to blend together as one in my head. However, one particular patient would always stick out in my mind. William, as I’ll call him, was rather gaunt and scraggly when he walked into the clinic where I was conducting interviews. His uncharacteristically hollow and worn face spoke volumes about his disposition and how mismanaged his pain was as a result of his disease.
Nevertheless, it wasn’t his face or his stature that made him more noticeable in my mind, but rather something about his eyes. There was a glaring yellowish tone within them, signs of full-blown jaundice, a common symptom of the disease, but even that was far from what made them distinctive. It was, instead, the dejected look he carried about him, a man who lost that sustaining spark to carry on. More so than his body, it was his spirit that was crippled. Continue reading