Baton Rouge native confirmed as first person cured of disease
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the nature of Sickle Cell began to become clearer and doctors and researchers proved that Sickle Cell comes from an inherited gene from both mother and father. To date, as many as 140 thousand Americans are living with Sickle Cell with another 2 million people carrying a gene that could potentially be passed down to their children. But with so many Americans affected and all of the research done over the one hundred years since western discovery, there is no cure for the disease.
However one Baton Rouge native subsequently had been cured through a marrow transplant meant to save her life from another disease.
Here’s her story.
In 1976, Kimberlin Wilson George was two years old and newly diagnosed with Sickle Cell Anemia. Beginning treatment at Earl K. Long under the care of Dr. Shelia Moore, the Wilson family learned more about the disease and became active participants with the Sickle Cell Foundation of Baton Rouge.
“Throughout my childhood I would have a Sickle Cell crisis every other week,” George said. “I would remember my arms and legs being in excruciating unbearable pain. I would just lay there crying while parents and grandmother prayed and took turns rubbing my arms and legs. When the pain reached an intolerable level I would be on my way to the emergency room at our Lady of The Lake Hospital where they knew me well.”
Because of the pain and extended hospital stays, George missed lots of school and activities that children her age would normally be involved.
“Life as I saw it for me was just going to be filled with lots of pain and hospital stays,” she said.
But by age 8, George said she experienced a Sickle Cell crisis she will never forget.
“I was in lots of pain and had pneumonia,” she continued. “Of course I was admitted to the hospital and tests were run only to find more abnormalities. My parents were then put into contact with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis. Once there more tests were run and the only news I remember is that I had three months to live.”
It was then that the Wilson family also learned that their daughter had AML Leukemia. She was admitted to St. Jude where doctors decided to experiment with one of their first bone marrow transplants to get rid of the cancer.
George’s transplant – with marrow supplied by her younger brother Shongo – was done in 1983 in Birmingham at The University of Alabama Medical Center. She was then transported back to St Jude for one year.
“The outcome of my transplant was miraculous,” George said. “I was not only cured of the Leukemia, but also of Sickle Cell. This stunned the doctors and was also proof that God answers prayers. After I was discharged and returned home, I was confined to the house for a while. This was ok with me because I knew that there would be no more pain and I could now live a much normal life.”
George returned to school her ninth grade year and graduated in 1992. She went on to study at Xavier University of Louisiana, later transferring to Southern University A&M College where she graduated with a degree in child development.
Finally healthy, George taught first grade for one year, then opened a childcare center that she operated for 11 years.
“Throughout my adult life I ran into a few obstacles, the side effects from the medication, I thought that I would never have a family and I had a deteriorated hip bone, but I kept going strong,” George said.
The only other medical issue George ever ran into again was a total hip replacement in 2002. She has since married and has three children.
George’s results are extremely ill-typical and she is the first person ever documented to have been cured of the disease, which included chemotherapy.
“I live a wonderful life, live it to the fullest and thank God for living it every day,” George said. “Because of my family, many other people, the bone marrow transplant and God, I stand before you today the first person in the world to be cured of Sickle Cell and the second person to have had two blood diseases still living.”
One of the most important things that people can do is to get tested to see if they are carriers of the disease. The next step is to get informed. Sickle Cell Warriors is a fact-packed forum where patients can share information with each other (sicklecellwarriors.com), and the Sickle Cell Disease Association of America (sicklecelldisease.org) is a national advocacy group that caters to both patients and health care providers. Next, investigate clinical trials and get vaccinated because almost all sickle cell patients are immune-compromised, it’s all the more vital to keep on top of all recommended vaccinations.
As a survivor, George would also suggest you get support, likewise many patients report getting tremendous benefit from support groups.
“Understand you might not be the only one dealing with what you’re dealing with – always remain positive,” George said. “Just be as strong as you can, and always try to involve yourself with positive people.”
To date, about 25 adults have received chemotherapy-free stem cell transplant for sickle cell disease in recent years. Approximately 85 percent have been cured, including Chicagoan Ieshea Thomas, who was the first Midwest patient to receive a successful stem cell transplant to cure her sickle cell disease without chemotherapy in preparation for the transplant, in 2012.
By Leslie D. Rose