Feature

Sickle cell patients suffer discrimination, poor care – and shorter lives


 

For more than a year, NeDina Brocks-Capla avoided one room in her large, brightly colored San Francisco house – the bathroom on the second floor.

“It was really hard to bathe in here, and I found myself not wanting to touch the walls,” she explained. The bathroom is where Ms. Brocks-Capla’s son Kareem Jones died in 2013 at age 36, from sickle cell disease.

It’s not just the loss of her son that upsets Ms. Brocks-Capla; she believes that if Mr. Jones had gotten the proper medical care, he might still be alive today.

Sickle cell disease is an inherited disorder that causes some red blood cells to bend into a crescent shape. The misshapen, inflexible cells clog the blood vessels, preventing blood from circulating oxygen properly, which can cause chronic pain, multiorgan failure, and stroke. About 100,000 people in the United States have sickle cell disease, and most of them are African American.

Patients and experts alike say it’s no surprise then that while life expectancy for almost every major malady is improving, patients with sickle cell disease can expect to die younger than they did 20 years ago. In 1994, life expectancy for sickle cell patients was 42 for men and 48 for women. By 2005, life expectancy had dipped to 38 for men and 42 for women.

Sickle cell disease is “a microcosm of how issues of race, ethnicity and identity come into conflict with issues of health care,” said Keith Wailoo, PhD, a professor at Princeton University who writes about the history of the disease.

It is also an example of the broader discrimination experienced by African Americans in the medical system. Nearly a third report that they have experienced discrimination when going to the doctor, according to a poll by NPR, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

“One of the national crises in health care is the care for adult sickle cell,” said leading researcher and physician Elliott Vichinsky, MD, who started the sickle cell center at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland in 1978. “This group of people can live much longer with the management we have, and they’re dying because we don’t have access to care.”

Indeed, with the proper care, Dr. Vichinsky’s center and the handful of other specialty clinics like it across the country have been able to increase life expectancy for sickle cell patients well into their 60s.

Dr. Vichinsky’s patient Derek Perkins, 45, knows he has already beaten the odds. He sits in an exam room decorated with cartoon characters at Children’s Hospital Oakland, but this is the adult sickle cell clinic. He’s been Dr. Vichinsky’s patient since childhood.

“Without the sickle cell clinic here in Oakland, I don’t know what I would do. I don’t know anywhere else I could go,” Mr. Perkins said.

When Mr. Perkins was 27, he once ended up at a different hospital where doctors misdiagnosed his crisis. He went into a coma and was near death before his mother insisted he be transferred.

“Dr. Vichinsky was able to get me here to Children’s Hospital, and he found out what was wrong and within 18 hours – all I needed was an emergency blood transfusion and I was awake,” Mr. Perkins recalled.

Kareem Jones lived just across the bay from Mr. Perkins, but he had a profoundly different experience.

Mr. Jones’ mother, Ms. Brocks-Capla, said her son received excellent medical care as a child, but once he turned 18 and aged out of his pediatric program, it felt like falling off a cliff. Mr. Jones was sent to a clinic at San Francisco General Hospital, but it was open only for a half-day, one day each week. If he was sick any other day, he had two options: leave a voicemail for a clinic nurse or go to the emergency room. “That’s not comprehensive care – that’s not consistent care for a disease of this type,” said Ms. Brocks-Capla.

Ms. Brocks-Capla is a retired supervisor at a worker’s compensation firm. She knew how to navigate the health care system, but she couldn’t get her son the care he needed. Like most sickle cell patients, Mr. Jones had frequent pain crises. Usually he ended up in the emergency department where, Ms. Brocks-Capla said, the doctors didn’t seem to know much about sickle cell disease.

When she tried to explain her son’s pain to the doctors and nurses, she recalled, “they say have a seat. ‘He can’t have a seat! Can’t you see him?’ ”

Studies have found that sickle cell patients have to wait up to 50% longer for help in the emergency department than do other pain patients. The opioid crisis has made things even worse, Dr. Vichinsky added, as patients in terrible pain are likely to be seen as drug seekers with addiction problems rather than patients in need.

Despite his illness, Mr. Jones fought to have a normal life. He lived with his girlfriend, had a daughter, and worked as much as he could between pain crises. He was an avid San Francisco Giants fan.

For years, he took hydroxyurea, but it had side effects, and after a while Mr. Jones had to stop taking it. “And that was it, because you know there isn’t any other medication out there,” said Ms. Brocks-Capla.

Indeed, hydroxyurea, which the Food and Drug Administration first approved in 1967 as a cancer drug, was the only drug on the market to treat sickle cell during Mr. Jones’ lifetime. In July, the FDA approved a second drug, Endari (L-glutamine oral powder), specifically to treat patients with sickle cell disease.

Funding by the federal government and private foundations for the disease pales in comparison to other disorders. Cystic fibrosis offers a good comparison. It is another inherited disorder that requires complex care and most often occurs in Caucasians. Cystic fibrosis gets 7-11 times more funding per patient than does sickle cell disease, according to a 2013 study in the journal Blood. From 2010 to 2013 alone, the FDA approved five new drugs for the treatment of cystic fibrosis.

“There’s no question in my mind that class and color are major factors in impairing their survival. Without question,” Dr. Vichinsky said of sickle cell patients. “The death rate is increasing. The quality of care is going down.”

Without a new medication, Mr. Jones got progressively worse. At 36, his kidneys began to fail, and he had to go on dialysis. He ended up in the hospital, with the worst pain of his life. The doctors stabilized him and gave him pain meds but did not diagnose the underlying cause of the crisis. He was released to his mother’s care, still in incredible pain.

At home, Ms. Brocks-Capla ran him a warm bath to try to soothe his pain and went downstairs to get him a change of clothes. As she came back up the stairs, she heard loud banging against the bathroom walls.

“So I run into the bathroom and he’s having a seizure. And I didn’t know what to do. I was like, ‘Oh come on, come on. Don’t do this. Don’t do this to me.’ ”

She called 911. The paramedics came but couldn’t revive him. “He died here with me,” she said.

It turned out Mr. Jones had a series of small strokes. His organs were in failure, something Ms. Brocks-Capla said the hospital missed. She believes his death could have been prevented with consistent care – the kind he got as a child. Dr. Vichinsky thinks she is probably right.

“I would say 40% or more of the deaths I’ve had recently have been preventable – I mean totally preventable,” he said, but he got to the cases too late. “It makes me so angry. I’ve spent my life trying to help these people, and the harder part is you can change this – this isn’t a knowledge issue. It’s an access issue.”

Dr. Vichinsky’s center and others like it have made major advances in screening patients for the early signs of organ failure and intervening to prevent premature death. Patients at these clinics live 2 decades longer than the average sickle cell patient.

Good care for sickle cell requires time and training for physicians, but it often doesn’t pay well, because many patients are on Medicaid or other government insurance programs. The result is that most adult sickle cell patients still struggle even to access treatments that have been around for decades, Dr. Vichinsky said.

The phenomenon is nothing new — the disease that used to be known as sickle cell anemia has had a long and sordid past. It was first identified in 1910 and helped launch the field of molecular biology. But most of the research was used to study science rather than improving care for sickle cell patients, Dr. Vichinsky said.

In the 1960s and 1970s, sickle cell became a lightning rod for the civil rights movement. At the time, the average patient died before age 20. The Black Panther Party took up the cause and began testing people at its “survival conferences” across the country.

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