The Trait and I–filling in the blanks

There’s lots to learn about Sickle Cell Disease and Sickle Cell Trait. Click the image to listen to Planet Noun’s interview on SoundCloud featuring Elle Cole, writer and founder of

Mom is the one who first told me about sickle cell disease and the sickle cell trait. I can’t tell you what prompted the discussion. Maybe it was hearing about a childhood acquaintance who had the disease, was in crisis and in the hospital. Maybe something else prompted her to open up that discussion.

I have the trait, and so do you, is the essence of what she said.

Concern had to be etched on my face or laced in my words or questions, because I remember Mom reassuring me I could not “grow” or develop the disease. People with sickle cell are born with it and both parents must have the trait to pass it along to their children, and there’s a one -in-four chance that can happen. Mom told me she and Daddy didn’t have to worry about having a child with sickle cell disease, because he is trait-free.

This trait conversation was one of “the talks” I’d have to bring up when dating or considering marriage, Mom warned me. Wish I could recall how old I was when she told me all of this. I don’t, but it’s something I’ve kept with me all these years.

Couldn’t say if I discussed this with every single guy I’ve dated, but I do know with the more serious ones, it’s definitely come up in conversation. It wasn’t one of those big deal “we need to talk” convos. It just came up either naturally, or in a casual “oh, by the way,” kind of manner.

Making Connections

One thing Mom and other medical professionals have told me—there’s nothing to worry about with the sickle cell trait. Seems that’s pretty much been the case throughout the years. However, I’ve recently learned is that even though I can expect to have good health (bastard fibroids aside), folks with sickle cell trait are at risk for a health complication called exertional sickling that can happen during or after strenuous exercise or exercise that’s carried out in extreme environmental conditions. For example, exercise on very hot days could trigger exertional sickling. Dehydration can also play a role.

As a result of my interview with Cleverly Changing, I’m starting to learn about some of the effects the trait can carry with it, and she pointed me to some resources for more information.   In retrospect, I’m also realizing maybe I’ve had experiences that coincide with some other symptoms a trait carrier can have during workouts.

Maybe this explains why, when I was in high school, I felt loopy and dizzy when we had to run a mile—I’d never done that before, and hated how I felt afterwards. I’d run sprint races like the 50 and 100-yard-dash during elementary school field days, and never felt like I would pass out. But that first high school mile not only temporarily took my wind, which is natural, but the added dizziness let me know something might be awry. What it was, I didn’t know at the time.

I can still walk, I thought. Maybe it’s not that bad. I’m just out of shape.

I wasn’t “in shape,” nor did I workout every day. But I wasn’t inactive. I walked plenty in those days of catching the city bus. Sometimes I ran for the bus, sometimes I walked from my street of residence to another main highway to bypass one of the bus lines and slash my trip from two buses to one. Then there was the walk from the bus stop to the school. Even with that walking, being out of shape for a mile run was still a definite possibility.

Looking back, perhaps it was my paltry water intake that made me dizzy after that mile. Back in those days, I preferred drinking lots of milk, because it did a body good, and colored drinks and sodas because they were tasty and cool. Water, I drank a little bit before and right after exercise. When I was in elementary school, I loaded up after spending recess running around the school yard. At home, I used it to boil for hot teas and cocoa, and to dissolve Kool-Aid, Tang or Country Time Lemonade for a cool beverage on hot days.


I’ve never run one. Once upon a time, it was on my list of things to conquer—but it’s slid from the back burner, off the stove into the trashcan. I’m not saying I won’t ever, ever run one… but resting in my mind’s closet has always been that high school experience—sort of warning me of what could be a latent reality.

When I worked in the Rosslyn neighborhood of Arlington, Va., I got the chance to observe folks who had just finished running the Marine Corps Marathon. Throngs of runners collected there to recover, rest and reunite their loved ones in that area, which also doubled as a celebration and festival area. Once I left work and saw some of the runners after the race. Most looked like they were about die or wanted to. My instinct told me maybe running marathons wasn’t for me after all.

It was my gut speaking.

Then, several years later, I learned about the possibility of exertion sickling for athletes with sickle cell trait.

The University of South Florida Health, in informational material on sickle cell trait for coaches, defines exertional sickling as “a potentially life-threatening condition resulting from the sickling of red blood cells during intense exercise.  Sickling results in muscular ischemia and collapse, whereby the athlete may experience intense muscular pain, rhabdomyolysis, and other serious metabolic problems. Signs and symptoms of an exertional sickling event include intense pain, fatigue, feeling like you cannot continue exercising, muscle cramping and inability to catch your breath.  Exertional sickling is a medical emergency and requires immediate treatment.”

Of course, I realize there’s no guarantee this will happen to me during intense workouts. I’m not athletic like that. But, then again,  I can’t guarantee it won’t. So I just take it easy, and set my own pace—which I’ve always done and is recommended for anyone during exercise— and have settled with the idea that an onslaught of extreme athletic anything may not be part of my life.

And that’s O.damn.K.

At the same time, I’m not ruling out reaching in the trashcan to recycle my discarded marathon dreams—maybe in abbreviated 5K form.

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