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Empowering sickle cell patients to take the next step

VCU Health's sickle cell program organizes a career fair to remove barriers for patients who manage chronic pain and fatigue.

Man smiling as he has a conversation at a career fair Rawle Henry Jr., a patient in VCU Health’s Adult Sickle Cell Program, takes advantage of his opportunities at the Career and Transition Fair. (VCU Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

By Jayla Parker

People living with sickle cell disease often struggle to find flexible jobs and understanding employers while managing complications with their condition.

Sickle cell disease (SCD) is a non-contagious, genetic blood disease in which your body produces abnormal “sickle" shaped red blood cells that don't last as long as normal, round red blood cells. This leads to periods of crippling pain, known as pain crises, that can last for days or even weeks.

According to the Sickle Cell Society, there are a lot of factors in many workplaces that can ultimately lead to a sickle cell crisis. Those factors can include working in cold offices, outdoors in windy/cold conditions, air‐conditioning, pollution, infections, dehydration, strenuous exertion and stress.

This disease primarily affects African Americans. According to the Virginia Department of Health, 1 in 325 African Americans in Virginia are currently living with sickle cell disease, and 1 in 12 have the sickle cell trait.

Wally Smith, M.D., director of the VCU Health's Adult Sickle Cell Medical Home, says it’s important to help sickle cell patients simply feel like human beings who can manage their condition and strive for a brighter future with a career or by furthering their education.

“They've been told all their lives, you're not normal — you're not a human being,” Smith said. “So, let's continue to help our patients feel like normal human beings. How about that? That's what the patients want and that's what we're striving to do through the Career and Transition Fair.”

VCU Health's Adult Sickle Cell Medical Home hosted its first Career and Transition Fair for sickle cell patients on Sept. 19 in the Adult Outpatient Pavillion. VCU Health’s sickle cell disease care team serves most of the commonwealth’s adults living with the condition, according to project manager Shirley Johnson, LSW. The program organized the career fair after recognizing the need to support a specific underserved group of at-risk young people.

Patients who are going to high school or are 30 years old and younger were invited to participate. The event aimed to help those who are trying to take the next steps in their life. Whether that’s community college, vocational training or finding a job.

“In the past, some of our patients were not encouraged or willing to go beyond high school,” Johnson said. “So, we want to encourage them and provide them the ability to know what those next steps need to be.”

Patients were able to meet with more than a dozen businesses including Career Pathways, Mission BBQ, Reynold’s Community College, Publix, FedEx, Dress for Success, and Mr. Fix-It.

On-site interviews, resume building, learning how to dress for interviews and voter registration were also available for all attendees.

Group photo with a patient, VCU experts, and First Lady

Walter Davis, a patient in VCU Health’s Adult Sickle Cell Program, poses for a picture with the Suzanne Youngkin, First Lady of Virginia, and VCU Health team members. (VCU Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

“Everybody's been friendly. It's good energy. I feel like I'm learning a lot, and that I'm supposed to be here,” said Walter Davis, a patient in VCU Health’s sickle cell program.

Davis was motivated to come to the event to support his “sickle cell community” and to try to take advantage of the opportunities. He also noticed the time and dedication of VCU Health team members who coordinated the event.

“I know the people here at VCU Health actually care and they want to see you succeed and they want to see you better yourself,” Davis said. “So, I feel like I owe it to not only myself, but to them to show up and show out, no matter what.”

First Lady of Virginia Suzanne S. Youngkin, dean of Virginia Commonwealth University's School of Medicine Arturo Saavedra, M.D., Ph.D., MBA, Patricia Sime, M.D., FRCP, chair of the Department of Internal Medicine and other VCU Health team members attended the event to support patients and raise awareness for sickle cell disease.

First lady engaging in conversation

First Lady of Virginia Suzanne S. Youngkin talks to members of VCU Health’s adult sickle cell care team. (VCU Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

Youngkin noted that she has been learning more about this condition and the challenges facing sickle cell patients. She expressed gratitude for VCU Health team members leading innovative initiatives, such as this career fair, to connect patients to new opportunities.

“It's tremendously encouraging to see each and every one of you who are dedicated to different industries and different seasons of life and different aspects of vibrant living come together to try to create a holistic scaffolding for some of these patients,” Youngkin said to businesses in attendance.

In total, 26 patients participated in the career fair to learn about new employment and educational opportunities. Johnson says the sickle cell program hopes to host more events to support patients in a holistic way in the coming years.

If you are interested in providing employment opportunities to VCU Health sickle cell patients, please email Shirley.johnson@vcuhealth.org.

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