Jasmine Hightower Aims High Despite Illness
When her friends are up late chatting and having fun, Stillman sophomore Jasmine Hightower is often in bed warding off a medical crisis. Jasmine, who was diagnosed with sickle cell anemia when she was three months old, knows her limitations. As a result of her disease, her red blood cells are sickle shaped. This causes them to block blood flow, which can lead to excruciating pain, organ damage and infections. Jasmine had to have her spleen removed at 16, and she has to be hospitalized several times a year. Yet she maintains a 3.2 grade point average and an optimistic attitude.
“Most hematologists are also oncologists so when I go to the doctor to get blood, I’m in the same room with cancer patients. When I see them, I think, ‘Oh, things could be worse,’” says Jasmine, who once had such a severe reaction to the pain medicine administered in the hospital that she lost her memory for two days.
Jasmine laughs when she recalls how shocked her relatives were by her amnesia. “When my cousins came in the hospital room, they were really dramatic and started crying because I didn’t know who they were,” she says, clearly finding humor in the situation.
“Because my blood cells are shaped like a sickle, sometimes they get stuck—usually in my lower back. When I go to the hospital, they give me lots of oxygen, fluids and pain medicine. I have a port—an artificial vein—under the skin on my chest because the pain medicine is so hard on your veins. Sometimes I have to have transfusions.”
Unfortunately, the more transfusions a patient receives, the less effective the transfusions tend to be. “You develop antibodies so it gets harder to match your blood. You can also get too much iron in your body from frequent transfusions, and the more transfusions you get the faster your blood cells revert back to a sickled shape,” says Jasmine.
Jasmine keeps a travel bag ready at all times because she knows that, if she goes to the hospital, she will usually be there for a couple of weeks. Almost every semester she has to be hospitalized twice, which makes it difficult to reach her goal of attaining a 3.5 GPA. Twice she had to drop out for a semester due to illness. Yet she is determined to forge ahead.
“When I’m hospitalized, I’m usually in too much pain to work for the first couple of days. After a few days, I start emailing my teachers and deans and letting them know why I’m out. Then I pull out my laptop and do my homework,” Jasmine says. “In my freshman year, after missing a lot of school and then finally catching up on all of my assignments, I got sick again during finals. My math professor came to the hospital to administer the final exam so that I wouldn’t have to drop the class. All of my professors at Stillman encourage me, and tell me not to worry.”
It would be easy for anyone in Jasmine’s situation to become discouraged and quit college. Fortunately, her parents have always resided in the pity-free zone. They gave no credence to the opinions of a high school teacher who insisted that Jasmine could not possibly go to college given her medical condition. And although some people encouraged Jasmine to stay close to home for college and live a low-risk life, her parents had no qualms about allowing her to leave her hometown of Dothan, Alabama to come to Tuscaloosa.
“My parents take really good care of me, but they have never treated me differently because of my condition. I’ve never seen my mom cry. She’s never cried in front of me. This helps me. When I’m in pain, it keeps me from panicking. She is sort of feisty and makes me walk. I’m never happy at the time, but it helps bring me out of a crisis.”
“My dad says, ‘You’re going to get a doctorate.’ I want to be a medical social worker and I will at least get a master’s. Maybe I’ll get a doctorate,” Jasmine concedes with a smile. Although her parents encourage her to pursue her dreams, they have also taught her the importance of doing everything in her power to maintain good health.
“I’ve never been the wild one,” she says. “Having sickle cell makes you have to grow up. Sometimes I have to say, ‘I can’t do this because it might trigger something.’ My friends call me the ‘Mama’ and say I’m like an old woman. But I have to listen to my body. Even if I know I need to study more, I have to go to bed when I’m tired to avoid a crisis. I try to eat healthy, listen to my body and work out a little—walking or biking, but nothing that’s hard on the body. And I take my medicine when I’m supposed to.”
Jasmine knows several Stillman students who have sickle cell anemia, and she says that they share a unique bond. “When one of us is in pain, the others can tell. When you have sickle cell anemia, you can always tell when someone else with sickle cell is hurting. There is a look. Others might just think they’re tired. But we can tell,” Jasmine says.
“I hope to be an encouragement to others who have the disease, but I also want to make people more aware of sickle cell anemia. A lot of people who have the trait aren’t even aware that they have it. My parents didn’t know they had it. Education about sickle cell is so important.”
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