Today, I want to shine the light on an exceptional woman, who despite Sickle cell became a doctor, against all odds. This is part one of three; her life is compelling, and she achieved success out of sheer determination. Let’s read about Dr Y Hendricks.
I was born in 1961 in the UK to a mother who was of the Windrush generation. She was born in Grenada in 1937 with Sickle Cell anaemia. She grew up not knowing that the cause of episodes of severe pain, which her mother attributed to her eating unripe mangoes, was sickle cell crises.
My mother only found out about her condition when she arrived in the UK, which was March 1958. It was still cold. Not having adequate winter clothing, she developed pneumonia and was hospitalised. It was after she married and was expecting her first child that it was noted on her blood sample that she was anaemic. They assumed it was iron deficiency anaemia and treated her with iron injections which could have been harmful as SCD patients may already be ironed overloaded due to repeated haemolysis of red cells. Feeling constantly tired during her next pregnancy (with me), she drank Guinness which in the 1960’s was recommended for pregnant women because it is rich in the B group vitamins and was seen as a ‘tonic’.
I was 9lb at birth and seemed a healthy, bonny baby until the age of three. Initially, I got ill with frequent coughs and colds. I had to drink numerous bottles of the yellow banana-flavoured penicillin medicine. Then I developed recurrent urinary tract infections and episodes where my joints would swell up and become red and painful. I was admitted with these episodes which were put down to ‘possible Rheumatic Fever’. My first memory of being a patient at the London Hospital, as it was called then, was being in an oxygen tent in A&E. My mother recalled that a day or two after admission, she had gone home just after midnight and was lying in bed unable to sleep when a policeman knocked on our door. He told her to go back to the hospital because the doctors didn’t think I would last the night. We had no phone in those days so the doctors would contact the police to fetch relatives in these situations.
I did last through the night. I don’t know when the diagnosis of my Sickle Cell was made but after my mum died, I made a request to read her hospital and GP notes and the first mention of ‘Sickle Cell’ was in a hospital letter to her GP in 1968.
When I started primary school, my mum requested the teachers not to send me out to play if the weather was really cold. I recollect recurrent episodes of severe pain when my mother would make me drink sodium bicarbonate or milk of magnesia. I had to wait an hour before being given analgesia, aspirin in those days but this would not be given to a child under 12 now. The recommended advice is to take pain relief as soon as you can feel a crisis coming on. As a child in hospitals, I was terrified of cannulas and blood tests and would hide in the bathrooms on the ward. I was always found by the nurses. On two occasions I tried to run away from the hospital to escape and go back home but the porters would always stop me at the gate! Back then, parents were subject to strict visiting times and my mum worked long hours and had my older sister to look after, so visits were short. I developed an attachment disorder as a consequence, but no one knew what that was back then. Now when children are in hospital, parents can virtually move in and be with them round the clock.
In the 1960’s even through to the present day, there was a stigma attached to SCD. In my own family, I was not allowed to speak about it or tell anyone. Due to societal stigma and secrecy within the family, an aunt had said I had leukaemia, and not wanting to be seen as different I lived in denial about my SCD for the first 40 years of my life.
At the age of 14, I started studying biology and worked out the inheritance in my family (My dad and sister were carriers – trait, and me and my mum were HbSS), but I just got shouted at when I tried to talk about it within my family. No one wanted to talk about it or even read about it! When one member of a family is found to have a genetic illness, other members should be tested.
An enduring memory was when I was young and had a painful crisis. I was made to sit and wait several hours in A&E while the staff attended to all the cut fingers and sprained ankles. They seemed oblivious or just did not believe the amount of pain, I was in. After a few hours, my mum said, ‘Let’s go home, at least you will be more comfortable in a warm bed than sitting on a bench in a draughty waiting room’. We went home while I struggled through the pain without help or relief because the analgesics available over the counter barely touched the sides of my pain.
These experiences left me demoralised and wishing I’d never been born. It developed in me a whole host of insecurities which would haunt my life as an adult. In those days there were no psychologists or clinical nurse specialists to talk to. SCD children were seen by general paediatricians and not one who had specialised in Haematology. I remember being tried on large doses of Bicarbonate of sodium because the doctors thought that if my blood was kept mildly alkaline, it might reduce the number of painful crises. It didn’t work, so I was taken off them. Ironically, I’m back on them now as part of the treatment for my renal failure.
I was able to maintain my position at the top of the class, despite being in and out of the hospital sometimes for several weeks. My form teacher would send me to the year 4 class bookshelf to choose my reading books. My first primary school was okay but at the age of seven, we moved to a different part of Hackney which meant starting in a new school.
To be continued.
If you would like to get in touch with me about Sickle cell, do so, via email: [email protected]. And do check out my blog: https://www.dailylivingwithsicklecell.com/ My book on Sickle Cell – HOW TO LIVE WITH SICKLE CELL and my other books are available for purchase on www.amazon.com.