As second dates go, it was hard to top an exhibition at Kew Gardens: amazing flower display, beautiful grounds, a little bit of ice cream with great company – it was a dream.
Before it ended, I was already planning dates three and four; but nothing could put the brakes on like the text that followed a few days later from my (then) love interest and (now) wife. “Do you know if you have sickle cell trait?”
Were we branching onto a deep philosophical conversation?
Was this an educational moment, or was some shocking revelation coming?
I responded “no, why?”, stuck between confusion and curiosity about what this would mean for date three.
Lauren explained that she was a sickle cell carrier and wanted to ensure that the person she was with long term didn’t have the recessive sickle cell gene too.
As a Black man, I knew about sickle cell all too well.
The genetic disease that predominantly affects African and Caribbean people – rendering their blood cells sickle-shaped, leading to excruciating episodes of pain known as “crisis” – is a topic hard to avoid in our communities.
But I’d never met someone who carried the sickle cell trait; meaning that if they had children with someone else with the trait that child would have a 25pc chance of having full-blown sickle cell.
The blip in my knowledge of Year 9 science was overshadowed only by the reality that our third date was probably going to be in some NHS clinic with me having my blood drawn, if I had any hopes of things moving forward. I’d been asked for the basics in my dating life: flowers, outings, nice dinners – that sort of thing – but my genotype for a genetic disease was a first. We had a drink, then an educational conversation about the topic involving punnett squares and an update on when last I saw my red book.
Unwilling to end things after fireworks sparked at Kew Gardens – and in agreement that we didn’t want the devastating pain of sickle cell for future children – I called my GP and told them I needed a blood test.
The receptionist asked if I was sick or if a doctor had requested my bloods, but I simply explained that I really liked this girl and I needed to find out if I had the sickle cell trait in order to decide if we could go forward.
God bless the NHS: they weren’t going to stand in the way of love – I was booked in for a test in under two weeks.
In the end, the results came back – I wasn’t a carrier. We went on to get married a couple of years later and welcomed our first child earlier this year.
For everything I knew about sickle cell, not in a million years was I thinking about broaching it as a topic while dating – it just didn’t really cross my mind.
It wasn’t until I spoke to London rapper and sickle cell awareness activist A Star, who has the condition, that I understood the difficulty of navigating dating with the disease.
He’s now happily married with children, but before reaching that point he was adamant about discussing sickle cell early on in relationships and had ended things in the past if the other person was a carrier.
He told me he wouldn’t wish the pain of sickle cell on his worst enemy – a pain that hospitalised him as a child.
As part of sickle cell awareness month, which ends today, I hope others are better aware than I was about the implications of sickle cell on relationships and family.
It’s not the sexiest of dating chat, but having a conversation early on, discussing options and seeking medical advice can save a world of pain further down the line and prepare couples for what could be.
Great advances have been made with this year’s roll out of crizanlizumab on the NHS – a new “life-saving” drug that can reduce chronic pain and trips to A&E for sickle cell sufferers – but more still needs to be done to provide more readily available treatment options and raise awareness of the condition.
In addition, giving blood is extremely important, especially for Black donors whose blood types match more closely to patients in need from similar backgrounds.