Special to South Florida Times
RIVIERA BEACH — Many people will have a lot to be thankful for on Nov. 25 but perhaps few as much as Travis Washington.
From the brink of death to disease free, Washington is completely rid of sickle cell anemia more than a year after a risky bone marrow transplant.
The Riviera Beach teen is now finally without the painful episodes caused by the blood disorder which landed him in the hospital several times yearly since infancy.
“No more episodes. No more pain. I can go out with my brothers now, just chill with my brothers,” Washington said this week.
But 18 months ago, the now 19-year-old wasn’t sure if he would survive the risky bone marrow surgery which was a last resort to save his life.
Doctors transplanted into Travis bone marrow donated by his younger brother Trevis.
Last Thanksgiving Day, his mother, Shirley Ambrister said, he had just made it past the 100-day mark of being sickle cell free.
“That number is important because the chance of Travis’ body rejecting the donor’s immune system, is significantly lowered,” she said at the time.
Now Travis definitely has a new lease on life after an uncertain first year following the surgery, Ambrister said.
Noted sickle cell anemia authority Dr. Astrid Mack said Washington’s bone marrow transplant appeared to be a complete success.
The former associate director for the University of Miami Sickle Cell Center said Washington has passed the test of time and is cured of this disease.
“Travis is completely rid of sickle cell; sickle cell free for the rest of his life,” Mack said. “With the bone marrow transplant, once you get past the body possibly rejecting the foreign cells and infection, [the patient] is fine.”
Washington was 18 when he had the risky procedure in August 2009, becoming the first person in Palm Beach County to undergo a bone marrow transplant, the only known cure for sickle cell.
Trevis, the donor, was 17 at the time and turned out to be a perfect match.
Washington was diagnosed with sickle cell anemia at 2 weeks of age, Ambrister said.
The inherited disorder distorts red blood cells, leaving them with a sickle-like shape that makes it difficult for them to pass through blood vessels.
The disease can cause intense pain, damage organs and lead to strokes in children, according to the Centers for Disease Control. And, in fact, for years Washington endured persistent pain in his head and abdominal areas. He suffered several strokes, including a massive one in 2006 that left his left side partially paralyzed, as well as other complications that required brain surgery in 2008.
His family and physicians decided then that a bone marrow transplant would be the best option.
The procedure was performed at the Holtz Children’s Hospital at the University of Miami School of Medicine/Jackson Health System in Miami.
Younger patients who are healthier and have less damage to their organs from sickle cell have a better chance of surviving the procedure in which the patient’s immune system is completely destroyed in preparation for the transplant, Mack said.
“It’s a very risky process not considered for every patient. It’s a last resort,” he said. “Chances are not as great for rejection with younger patients. Organs have not been damaged beyond the point where a transplant is not feasible.”
Mack said the first bone marrow transplants done in the United States took place 10 to 12 years ago and physicians are still learning about complications that may arise.
“It’s important to find other kinds of medications and treatments so patients won’t have to be exposed to this risky procedure,” Mack said. “Severe and debilitating pain for periods of four to five years, spending five to six times a year in the hospital — then it’s time to consider a transplant and start looking for a match.”
Sickle cell anemia affects between 70,000 and 100,000 Americans of various racial backgrounds and ethnic groups. About one in 500 African-American newborns have the disease, according to the CDC.
This Thanksgiving, Ambrister is thankful her son is no longer in pain and that he is alive.
“Words can’t explain how I feel. I don’t have to worry about Travis getting sick anymore,” she said. “No pain crisis, no blood transfusions. The surgery has helped him stay pain free.”
Washington says he is thankful for the support from his family and to God for letting him make it through the transplant.
“I was supposed to be dead a long time ago,” he said, “Life is good.”
CAROL PORTER/FOR SOUTH FLORIDA TIMES. HIS BROTHER’S KEEPER: Trevis Washington, left, donated bone marrow for a transplant for his brother Travis, who suffered from sickle cell disease since he was an infant. The transplant has cured him of the blood disorder.