A world without the skills and expert care of today’s medical professionals is hardly imaginable at all. Widely known and respected for lending themselves around the clock to help others, society’s health deeply depends on our doctors/nurses/counselors/therapists collective assertiveness. But on whom do they depend? Rarely do we as a community pause to explore the paradigm shift that often occurs when physicians become patients needing the same treatment.

Recently, ESSENCE sat down with Kallie Hargrove, a Sickle Cell Warrior and registered hematology-oncology nurse to learn how her unique perspective informs her work and inspires her own fight against blood disease.

Sickle cell disease (SCD) is a group of inherited red blood cell disorders, in which healthy, round red blood cells become hard, sticky and turn into crescent-shaped cells that look like a banana or a crescent moon. Once deformed, the unhealthy cells are known to both die early and have difficulty performing their main function: traveling through small blood vessels, carrying oxygen to the entire body. This in turn often causes anemia, a perpetual shortage of red blood cells, and clogging of the blood vessels.

Hematology-oncology refers to the combined study of the blood’s physiology and cancer. Those trained in this dual specialty focus on the diagnosis and treatment of patients living with blood disorders and cancerous diseases, or both, according to WebMD.

“Being in the hospital as a child and living with SC as a young adult, I’ve had my fair share of ‘good’ nurses and ‘not-so-good’ nurses,” Hargrove says. “When it came to picking a career, I decided that I needed to be one of those ‘good’ nurses out here advocating for sickle cell patients. I needed to be what I want someone else to be for me.”

While SCD affects roughly 100,000 Americans, it disproportionately occurs in individuals of sub-Saharan African descent. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 1 out of every 365 African-American babies is born with sickle cell, and about 1 in 13 African-American babies is born with sickle cell trait (SCT).

For Hargrove, her parents didn’t know they were carriers of sickle cell genes until after she was born. Four months into the world, upon experiencing her first pain crisis, doctors diagnosed the now 26-year-old with sickle cell anemia. Being in medicine, the Mississippi native has become a huge proponent of early testing: If you get tested and know your status and if you and your partner do have sickle cell trait, you’ll at least begin your journey into parenthood informed and better prepared.”

Highly respected among her hospital colleagues, Hargrove takes pride in serving as an in-house SCD advocate who leads with empathy. “My parents always made sure that I knew what my illness is and that I was never ashamed of it; I’ve never hidden it from others,” she shares. “As a medical professional, I want those I work with to understand Sickle Cell Warriors aren’t the stereotypes we’re often labeled to be — we’re people in pain seeking relief, so that we can get back to our lives.”

If you’re someone impacted by sickle cell, or eager to learn more about disease, keep reading for Hargrove’s advice.

Hargrove on the importance of taking a proactive approach to managing your health:

Outside of spreading awareness at work, I’m on the board of the Mississippi Sickle Cell Foundation and we do a lot of events as well as speaking tours to help keep our community informed. I also advocate through pageantry, for which my platform is always sickle cell awareness. Both showcase how big I am on education and, again, encouraging people to know their status.

Williams on listening to your body and working with your healthcare team:

I’m a very busy person who’s always on the move, but when it’s time to rest, I rest. Make sure you’re staying hydrated and as stress-free as possible.

Aside from establishing a support system — my family members are my biggest supporters — build a healthcare team that’s flexible, listens and takes your concerns seriously.

Williams on maintaining a positive attitude and outlook on life:

Sometimes, a pain crisis comes out of the blue for me. Sometimes, I’m nervous about making future plans because of that. But sickle cell doesn’t scare me nor deter me from living my life. While it may make things hard at times or make it harder for us to reach our goals, anything’s possible. If you would have told me a few years ago that I’d be a hematology-oncology nurse, I wouldn’t have believed you. I did it though, and I’m so proud of myself! Remember, you may have sickle cell — but sickle cell doesn’t have you.

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