The Gift of Resilience
The gift of life is precious, especially when it’s a gift you have to earn daily. Katherine Kay Blevens understands more than most that a chance to fight again is nothing to take for granted.
At the tender age of 11 months, Blevens was diagnosed with the most severe form of sickle cell disease, HbSS, commonly known as sickle cell anemia. Her diagnosis came at a time when medical knowledge and treatment of the disease was limited. Additionally, Blevens says that her mother was unable to grasp the complexities of the condition to care for her symptoms.
SCD is a genetically inherited blood disorder, characterized by abnormal hemoglobin. The result is sickle-shaped red cells (instead of biconcave discs) that become stiff and sticky as they flow through the blood vessels. The effect is a clumping up of the cells – resulting in extreme pain episodes, and an increased risk of a stroke, for the patient.
When Blevens was a teenager, doctors gave her a life expectancy of 21, which was common for sickle cell patients. However, Blevens contributes much of her longevity to the practice of personal care tips she learned from her sister-in-law, who also had SCD.
A turn for the better
Blevens’ sister-in-law shared tips for treating the symptoms.
“[She] taught me how to monitor the jaundice in my eyes, to wrap myself in warm blankets and to run a hot bath and soak,” said Blevens.
New challenges, new solutions
While Blevens was more knowledgeable in her adulthood and took doctor-recommended precautions to treat her disease, it became more aggressive at age 49. Pain crises were always a worry and took a psychological toll on her.
“The pain goes from jack hammer to just a hammer,” said Blevens when describing the difference between a pain crisis and general pain from the disease. “Psychologically you wonder is this crisis going to be it? Am I going to make it?”
Unfortunately, in May of 2015, Blevens suffered a major stroke. That’s when Methodist Hospital hematologist, Dr. Inna Shmerlin, prescribed Blevens’ first red blood cell exchange (RCE) treatment and called Carter BloodCare.
RCE removes unhealthy sickled red cells and replaces them with oxygenated red cells from a healthy blood donor. The other parts of the patient’s blood – white cells, platelets and plasma – are also returned to the patient in this process. The healthy red cells have a lifecycle of 90 to 120 days compared to the short 10-to-20-day lifecycle of sickle cells.
Dr. Shmerlin describes red cell exchange as a prophylactic blood transfusion, usually performed every four to nine weeks, to help reduce pain crises and stroke risk, among other SCD side effects. With this treatment, Blevens has been able to lower her risk of crisis and reduce her medication.
It gave me better quality of life with my family.” – Katherine Blevens
“We’re trying RCE every other month,” said Blevens. “I’ve only had one crisis where I had to go to the emergency room and one where I had to go into [Dr. Shmerlin’s] office.”
Another year of joy
Beating the odds, against previous medical prognoses, 53-year-old Blevens is blessed to see another holiday and to spend it with her family – husband, daughter and granddaughter. She’s more than a wife, a mother and grandmother – she’s a fighter.
“There are too many things to smile about,” says Blevens. “Whatever comes, we have to deal with it head on.”