Rena N. Grant Sickle Cell Center Opens, Honors SC Legislative Analyst

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by Mary Chapman |

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Even while hospitalized with one of the acute pain crises that sickle cell disease (SCD) patients frequently experience, it was common for Rena Grant to continue plugging away at her job as director of legislation for a South Carolina House of Representatives committee.

Her courage and dedication — and the resulting heightened awareness of SCD in the legislature — led to the establishment of the newly opened Rena N. Grant Sickle Cell Center at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC).

The center was named in memory of Grant, who died in February 2020 at age 38.

“You really didn’t know how much she suffered from a pain standpoint,” Gilda Cobb-Hunter, a South Carolina state representative, said of Grant in a university press release. “Rena would be in tremendous pain, and unless you really knew her or took the time to really talk to her, you would have no idea, because she was the ultimate professional.”

Cobb-Hunter was one of three state lawmakers to speak at the center’s official opening on Jan. 18 about Grant, who had been the first African American to serve as director of legislation for the House’s Ways and Means Committee.

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Pain is a hallmark of SCD, a blood disorder thought to affect one of every 365 Black babies born in the U.S. Such pain episodes, known as vaso-occlusive crises (VOCs), occur when sickle-shaped red blood cells get stuck inside blood vessels and block blood flow to different parts of the body. Severe pain from VOCs can lead to hospitalization.

After Grant’s death, legislators allocated $1 million to MUSC for the development of a comprehensive approach to SCD treatment in the state. The goal is to raise SCD awareness, study ways to cure the disease, and educate the state’s healthcare providers about the inherited disorder and the pain it causes.

The funding also will establish a Rena N. Grant Endowed Chair for Hematology.

“It’s so amazing, and it shows how many people loved Rena when she was alive,” said her mother, Laura Grant, at the center’s dedication. “They’re still showing compassion for her after she’s gone. Now that she’s no longer here, her work is already done. But it will be finished out through the work that MUSC and the elected officials will do for people with sickle cell in the future.”

David Cole, MD, MUSC’s president, said the Rena N. Grant Sickle Cell Center will benefit patients statewide. According to Cole, “this is a significant step forward toward improving health care access and outcomes for South Carolinians who live with sickle cell disease and sickle cell trait.”

For his part, Patrick Cawley, MD, MUSC Health’s CEO, said the new center will be particularly helpful to adults — a patient population that still lacks access to specialized care and has to deal with low provider awareness on how to manage SCD in emergency rooms and acute care settings.

“Hospitalization is very high among sickle cell patients, particularly adults,” Cawley said. “These funds will support a center of care focused on people with this disease. That’ll help us to No. 1: provide more outreach to rural and underserved areas; No. 2: increase service access for people in need of specialized care; and No. 3: address some of the health disparities we see among people with sickle cell disease.”

The Grant center will hire a nurse to coordinate chronic and transitional care, and will likely add a program coordinator and educator, said Temeia Martin, MD, who directs the adult sickle cell clinic at MUSC Health. Other objectives for the clinic include weekend availability, enhanced mental health and palliative care services, and acupuncture, as well as art, pet, and massage therapies.

David Zaas, MD, CEO of MUSC Health’s Charleston division, said he welcomed MUSC’s burgeoning role in SCD care and treatment. “We all believe that in sickle cell care, the science and innovation are really advancing and will improve the care for generations to come.”