Homerton Hospital’s new sickle cell unit brings hope to patients

Recently opened medical day care unit means expanded facilities and improved access to treatment for sufferers.

When she was just 11 years old, Gemma Thomas was told by a doctor that she would never be able to have children and would die before she reached her 20th birthday.

“I was in a state of shock,” she recalls. “At first I tried to push it to the back of my mind but every time I got sick I would always worry that it would lead to something worse.”

Like many fellow-sufferers of sickle cell anaemia, Gemma had been diagnosed as a toddler. For most of her childhood, she assumed she had no future.

Everything changed, however, when she was admitted to Homerton Hospital Sickle Cell and Thalassaemia clinic for treatment at the age of 15.

Now, at the age of 22, Gemma has already outlived her death sentence and is determined to have a child one day.

Her disease, which affects around 6,000 adults and children in the UK – predominantly those of African and Caribbean heritage – is an inherited disorder of the red blood cells that prevents the cells from moving freely around the body. Depending on the severity of their condition, sickle cell sufferers can suffer organ damage and mild to intense bouts of pain.

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Gemma is one of around 500 patients – including some who are carriers of the disease – currently being treated at Homerton Hospital in Homerton Row. Last Thursday it launched expanded day-care facilities, to ensure sufferers have immediate access to doctors and specialist nurses.

Other innovations introduced last week include a psychology and social care liaison service, together with equipment to deliver efficient automated red cell-exchange blood transfusions.

According to consultant haematologist Dr Roger Amos, they are already having a huge impact on the quality of patients’ lives. He said: “Lots of hospitals may have facilities like this but they are not always as large or as well-staffed and don’t always offer psychological help.”

As well as receiving regular life-saving treatment – including several red blood-cell transfusions since December – Gemma goes for a special gym session every Wednesday for sickle cell sufferers, organised by the centre.

Through the centre, she has befriended several other young men and women who also have the disease.

“It’s important to have friends who understand what you are going through and are going through the same thing,” she said.

Pamela Bayilema, 29, from Stamford Hill, moved to London five years ago from Paris, France. While at school, she fell behind and had to repeat a year at school, not only because of severe bone pain but also because her weakened immune system meant that she was frequently falling ill. Now, however, she is studying to become a beautician and hopes one day to have her own business.

Some patients have already lost a parent to the disease; others were born to carriers. Eleesha Bailey, 25, from Lower Clapton, is the daughter of two carriers and was diagnosed with the disease in her mother’s womb.

“Sickle cell disease has set me back in a lot of ways,” she said.

“When I was a teenager, all my friends were going out, drinking and dancing but I was often too tired or in too much pain to go.”

As her partner is a sickle cell carrier, she is not sure whether she will ever want to risk having a baby and passing on the disease.

Dr Amos explained that sometimes, sufferers can also find it almost impossible to hold down a job. Eleesha, who worked as a nursery assistant for six years, claims she was forced to quit when her condition deteriorated and she could only go into work twice a week.

But as part of the improvements to the centre – largely financed by the Homerton Trust – there is now a social liaison officer who offers help and advice to sickle cell sufferers on both employment and social housing.

There are also plans for future expansion. “We have lots of ideas,” said Dr Amos, “including the use of a social network site where patients and staff can communicate electronically.

‘‘We also have ambitions for a 24/7 helpline and complementary therapy.”