Sickle Cell Awareness Day: Geno Atkins' Story
Sickle cell trait is not a disease, but having it means that a person has inherited the sickle cell gene from one of his or her parents. A person who has inherited one sickle cell gene and one normal gene will be a trait "carrier" and can pass it on to his or her children.
Geno Atkins’ Story
"My story started when a young man met a young lady on the campus of Florida A&M University. On their first date he asked the young woman if she carried the sickle cell trait! That young man became my dad and the young lady is my mother. My dad carries the sickle cell trait and was well aware that if he married someone who also carries the trait, their kids had a 50% chance of also having sickle cell trait and a 25% chance of being born with full blown sickle cell disease. He discovered that my mother is not a carrier of the sickle cell trait. The rest is history.
"I am the oldest of three children and the only one with sickle cell trait. The first time I learned I carry the sickle cell trait was as a freshman at the University of Georgia. I called home and my mother said, 'Your dad has the trait, but I don't recall the doctor saying you had the trait when you were born.' All newborns are tested for the trait in Florida, yet I had gone my whole life without knowing.
"Once I learned I had the trait I researched as much as I could and talked with the football training staff. They assured me that the trait would not affect my ability to play. There were four freshmen who tested positive for the trait along with me and we were assigned a trainer who watched us closely during practice sessions and on game day. I was not treated differently by my teammates and went about my life just as I had before. One day I learned that a football player had died from complications of sickle cell trait while participating in spring practice at another university. That's when I realized that this is a serious issue and I should not take any chances with my health. I played at the highest level in college and it earned me a spot in the NFL.
"I knew from my research that it would not be good for me to play in high altitude, so I prayed I wouldn't get drafted by Denver, which is at a high altitude. I ended up in Cincinnati and have played at a very high level without any adverse affects of the sickle cell trait. During the 2011 season we did travel to Denver to play the Broncos and that was the first time I can truly say I felt the effects of the trait. I could not breathe after a 10-play series and had to be given oxygen on the sideline.
"Some of the changes I've made in my life include eating healthy, avoiding drugs and alcohol, not smoking, and most importantly getting a lot of rest. Everyone in my family knows that I have to take my daily nap. I drink more water, sports drinks, and coconut water than ever before because it is important to stay well hydrated before and after activities.
"Having the sickle cell trait does not exclude an athlete from participating in sports, however, the training staff and coaches need to take precautions to ensure the athlete is not put in dangerous situations. In high school my coaches would get on me because I was always in the back during running drills and I often got very tired. I think back now and realize that it could have been a dangerous situation for me if over-zealous coaches or I had pushed too much during those hot days in south Florida.
"Each year I am saddened to learn of another young athlete dying from complications of the trait while participating in sports. This vicious cycle lets me know that not enough information, education, and spotlight are given to this issue. My goal is to start a foundation, with the primary focus on offering testing for athletes at the high school level and getting education for trainers and coaches on how to help the athletes be the best they can be."
CDC would like to thank Geno Atkins for sharing his personal story.
5 Truths About Sickle Cell Trait
There's a world of confusion about sickle cell trait. It's time to separate fact from fiction and set the record straight. Below are some facts you might not have known about sickle cell trait:
- Sickle cell trait affects people of many races and ethnicities. While most common among people of African descent, it also affects Hispanics, Asians, Indians and people of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern descent.
- A person cannot "catch" sickle cell trait from another person, like a cold or the flu, nor can you get it from a blood transfusion. Sickle cell trait is inherited from a person's parents. People with sickle cell trait can pass the gene for sickle cell disease on to their children.
- People with sickle cell trait can play sports and do other intense activities (e.g., military training). However, they should take steps to help prevent problems, like drinking plenty of water and resting often.
In their extreme form and in rare cases, the following conditions could be harmful for people with sickle cell trait:
- Increased pressure in the atmosphere (e.g., while scuba diving).
- Low oxygen levels in the air (e.g., when mountain climbing, exercising extremely hard in military boot camp, or training for an athletic competition).
- Dehydration (e.g., too little water in the body).
- High altitudes (e.g., flying, mountain climbing, or visiting a city at a high altitude).
- People with sickle cell trait don't have sickle cell disease and don't usually show any signs of the disease. Although — in rare cases — people with sickle cell trait might experience complications and, in extreme circumstances, sudden death. More research is needed to find out why some people with sickle cell trait have complications and others do not.
- You could have sickle cell trait and not know it. No matter what their ethnic background, both men and women need to be screened for sickle cell trait. Screening is equally important for men and women because it's the combination of genes from both parents that determines whether a child will have the disease.
- Testing is available at most hospitals or medical centers, from sickle cell disease community-based organizations, or at local health departments.
- A small sample of blood is taken from the finger (a "needle prick") and tested in a lab.
- If the results of the test show that a person has sickle cell trait, it is important that the person know what sickle cell trait is, how it can affect him or her, and if and how sickle cell disease runs in his or her family.
- The best way to find out if you are at risk of having a child with sickle cell trait or sickle cell disease based on your family's history is to see a genetic counselor. These professionals have experience with genetic blood disorders. It is best to learn all you can before deciding to have children.
- Recommendations on Screening of Student Athletes for Sickle Cell Trait [PDF - 221KB]
- Sickle Cell Trait Webpage
- Sickle Cell Trait Fact Sheet [PDF - 754KB]
- Sickle Cell Disease Website
- Sickle Cell Disease Resource Directory [PDF - 3MB]
CDC works 24/7 saving lives and protecting people from health threats to have a more secure nation. A US federal agency, CDC helps make the healthy choice the easy choice by putting science and prevention into action. CDC works to help people live longer, healthier and more productive lives.
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