Take one look at the beautiful Grammy-winning Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins, and you’d never know she has spent a lifetime battling a serious disease. As the “T” in TLC, one of the most successful female singing groups of all time, T-Boz didn’t let on to her fans that she has struggled to stay healthy throughout her 35 years. But now, feeling better than ever, T-Boz talks to OK! about the disease she’s dealt with since childhood — sickle cell anemia — and how she hasn’t let it hold her back.
What Is Sickle Cell Anemia?
Sickle cell anemia is an inherited blood disorder, in which a person’s red blood cells (normally soft and round) sometimes become sickled, or crescent-shaped. This makes it difficult for the red blood cells, which carry oxygen, to pass through small blood vessels. When sickle-shaped cells block small blood vessels, less blood and oxygen are able to get to various tissues in the body. This can lead to organ damage, infections, stroke and episodes called sickle cell crisis (which can last hours or days and often result in intensely sharp pain). As T-Boz describes it, you feel like “someone is stabbing you with a sharp knife constantly.” And as its name suggests, sickle cell anemia can also cause anemia (a reduced number of red blood cells), which leads to extreme fatigue, among other things. “Though the body does its best to destroy the sickled red blood cells, it is unable to produce new cells fast enough. This causes the anemia,” says Dr. Anthony Stallion, a surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic’s children’s hospital and a board member of the American Sickle Cell Anemia Association. About 70,000 Americans have sickle cell disease, and most of those affected are of African, South American, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern or Indian descent. Experts estimate that one of every 500 African-American children and one of every 1,250 Hispanic-American children are born with the disease.