Take a child with sickle cell disease who is already at a significantly higher risk for asthma, pain and acute chest syndrome—the leading cause of death in these children—and mix in adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) such as violence, racism, abuse, parental death or divorce. The result: sicker children who, due to toxic stress exposures, are more likely to experience poorer health outcomes.
That’s what Brandi M. Pernell, DNP, an assistant professor of pediatric hematology and oncology who works at the Children’s of Alabama dedicated pediatric sickle cell clinic, found in her research.
“The literature shows that those who experience ACEs early in life have a higher risk of chronic conditions like asthma, cardiovascular disease, and obesity”—even cancer, Dr. Pernell said. But until her work, there was limited documentation in the sickle cell literature about ACEs. What is known is that acute stress is a common trigger for pain episodes in children with sickle cell disease. Pernell is now connecting the dots to show that ACEs increase asthma risk in these children which, in turn, leads to an increased risk for pain and acute chest syndrome.
Her findings highlight the need to screen children with sickle cell disease, particularly adolescents, for ACEs and, if found, implement protective factors and buffering mechanisms to address the physiologic sequelae from these toxic exposures.
She’s already begun that process, teaming with the local chapter of the Sickle Cell Foundation to promote social and emotional competence and resilience among affected adolescents. That community-based approach is important, she said. “I believe we need to meet families and patients where they are,” she said. And the Foundation has a different relationship with patients and families than the clinic staff. “We address the medical side, but ACEs are things happening in the home and neighborhood,” said Dr. Pernell.
For Dr. Pernell, the work is more than a scientific endeavor; it’s personal. She felt called to this research, she said, both as a Black woman (sickle cell primarily affects Black people) and as a healthcare provider, particularly given the events of 2020. “In the wake of COVID and the social and racial uprising prior to and throughout 2020, it just spoke to me,” she said. So when she joined the University of Alabama at Birmingham faculty in 2016, this is where she focused her research. “I can relate to my patients in a way that some others can’t,” she said. “I’ve experienced some of the same things they have.”
“If not me, then who?” she asked, quoting the late congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis. “If not now, then when?”