Sickle Cell Sanctuary offers new care option for thousands of Georgians

On Benjamin E. Mays Drive in southwest Atlanta, a 7,000-square-foot center feels more like a day spa than a medical clinic.

The new Sickle Cell Sanctuary was designed specifically for people living with sickle cell disease.

It is a project that Sickle Cell Foundation of Georgia Executive Director Tabitha McGee first envisioned back in 2021 to offer people living with sickle cell another care option.

"We felt that they needed something, that they can feel special, a safe place, a safe haven for them," McGee says.

Sickle cell disease affects about 13,000 Georgians, nearly half living in the metro Atlanta area.

The disorder causes normally round, smooth red blood cells, which carry oxygen to the body, to become sharp and sticky, dying off and getting stuck in blood vessels, which can cause pain, infection, acute chest syndrome and stroke.

Blaze Eppinger says he has been to the emergency department too many times to count.

"I've had a lot of chronic hospitalizations," the 33-year-old says. "I've been in comas, had acute chest syndrome, had more blood transfusions than I can count. So, it's been pretty critical to my day to day [life]."

Eppinger has been going to school to work at the Sickle Cell Sanctuary as a phlebotomist, drawing blood from sickle cell patients who need supportive care.

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Sickle Cell Sanctuary in Atlanta

"We don't have many places for sickle cell," he says. "There are other diseases where they have places for them. It's a lot deeper than just popping a pill. If you take care of yourself, you probably could prevent, you know, a lot of different things happening in the body."

The center will offer both mainstream medical care and holistic supportive care, and McGee says, pain control will be a major focus here.

"We have a hematologist," she says. "We have our holistic doctor. We have a registered nurse, we have a nurse practitioner that will all be operating inside of the Sickle Cell Sanctuary. And so, we are going to be focused on pain. So, with the massages that we're doing, the acupuncture that we're doing, the I.V. infusion and I.V. hydration, those things are all focusing on pain."

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Sickle Cell Sanctuary in Atlanta

The sanctuary is funded by state, local and private money, and McGee says care will be free for sickle cell patients.

"They don't have to pay," she says. "They don't have to worry about, 'I don't have enough money, you know, to be able to afford that service.' They can just come here and be taken care of."

Keecilon Wright, the Sickle Cell Foundations's program coordinator, and a sickle cell patient, says this place gives her hope.

"This is going to allow other people that have sickle cell like me, allow them to know that they will have a better tomorrow, a better week, or better days, because they can come here, relax, ease their mind and get healed from the inside," she says.

Blaze Eppinger says he is excited to see this sanctuary come to life.

The ribbon-cutting ceremony will be held June 18, 2024.

"I'm excited to see the ribbon get cut," Eppinger says. "It's just a crazy time for sickle cell. And, I'm glad that we are going to change so many lives. Not just today, but tomorrow in the future."