Sarah Ward Thomas: A Pioneer of Alabama’s Sickle Cell Research

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By Opelika
Observer Staff

The death of Sarah Ward Thomas’s son, Todd Phillip Franklin Thomas, spurred the life-long Lee County resident to organize the first Sickle Cell program in Alabama. The program, organized in 1974, was the first of its kind to receive state funding and also prompted then Governor of Alabama, George C. Wallace, to declare February as ‘State Sickle Cell Month’ as a memorial to her son.

According to the National Institute of Health, Sickle Cell disease is a group of inherited red blood cell disorders that affects hemoglobin, the protein that carries oxygen through the body. Those affected have red blood cells that are crescent, or sickle-shaped instead of round or disc-shaped. Furthermore, the cells of a person with sickle cell, do not bend or move easily often leading to blood flow blockages.

Thomas was responsible for initiating the screening of newborn infants for sickle cell in hospitals statewide in Alabama in 1980 and in 1991 she founded the first hospital-based program that operated out of East Alabama Medical Center for a time.

Nearly 20 years after Thomas founded the Southeast Alabama Sickle Cell Association, the focus of the organization shifted from its primary goal of education to emphasizing medical care and research. A new program was then formed as the Lee County-East Alabama Comprehensive Sickle Cell Education and Research Foundation, Incorporated.

Accomplishments

Thomas received extensive education and training on the disease and as an instructor for the Lee County Chapter of the American Red Cross she traveled across the state to provide training via clinics, seminars and workshops to others.

She has received many accolades and awards for her work in this field. Some of her most notable awards include:

– Role Model for Today’s Girls Women of Achievement Award from the Girl Scouts of America

– Channel 9 WTVM Special Friends “Taking the Time to Care Award

– Listing as one of the South’s most influential Women in the book titled “Women of the South.”

Thomas also served her community by founding the Lee County Chapter of the National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women’s Club, Incorporated and also served as Counselor of the Nurses Guild.

Thomas, who is now 90, has dedicated more than four decades to teaching others about sickle cell disease. While there are treatments for the disease, there is not a cure. However, a new gene therapy is currently being studied and has shown promising results in the early stages of the research.

Visit www.seasca.com/about.html for more information.

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