LAGRANGE, Ga. (WSAV) — Keyera Jennings had a lot to celebrate last month as she turned 22 years old. The doctors told her that she wouldn’t live past 18 years old because she has sickle cell anemia.

“We were just there as a family celebrating my birthday because my cousin, she died at 20 because of sickle cell. So, it was kind of a celebration for me, that I made it to 22.”

Keyera Jennings at her 22nd birthday celebration. Photos courtesy of Keyera Jennings.

According to the Mayo Clinic, sickle cell anemia is one of a group of inherited disorders known as sickle cell disease. It affects the shape of red blood cells, which carry oxygen to all parts of the body.

Although signs and symptoms of sickle cell anemia usually appear around 6 months of age, Jennings was diagnosed much later.

“Usually it’s picked up by the screenings that they do when the babies are newborns, but she had a high hemoglobin level so for some reason, she didn’t get the full test and it kind of fell through the cracks.” said Jennings mother, Lakeisha Jennings.

She continued, “As a baby, she was a happy baby. She didn’t whine a lot. We realized when she was five that there was something going on because whenever she would do the Slip n’ Slide, she would have severe pain in her central area. We would take her to the doctor and they would do labs, they would do x-rays. They would say it was because it was bruised.”

However, once she turned 5 and started kindergarten things begin to change. She became lethargic, not being able to move around without someone helping her, running a fever and having a cough, her parents took her to the doctor.

“They thought I had the flu or something. So they kept taking me to my pediatrician and they kept giving me shots of Rocephin to get the fever down and help whatever virus I had, but I wasn’t getting better and I kept getting worse,” said Jennings.

One night when her fever went up to 105 degrees she was admitted to the hospital and was tested for sickle cell anemia and eventually, diagnosed.

“I was in total shock. She had her childhood immunizations, her childhood wellness visits and it wasn’t caught because she had a high hemoglobin level.” said her mom.

Like some teens, at 13 years of age, Keyera had a creative interest, dance. Yet, it was difficult for her to move because she had a lot of pain. However, her first blood transfusion helped her get back on her feet.

“My hemoglobin was very low and I was having severe pain. So they gave me a blood transfusion and that helped me get back to normal, helped my body recover and it helped get oxygen to the rest of my body.”

Keyera Jennings getting a blood exchange treatment. Photo courtesy of Keyera Jennings.

When she turned 18, she received her first blood exchange. According to U.S. Library of Medicine, a blood exchange transfusion is a potentially life-saving procedure that is done to counteract the effects of serious jaundice or changes in the blood due to diseases such as sickle cell anemia. The procedure involves slowly removing the person’s blood and replacing it with fresh donor blood or plasma.

“This works so much better. Like, I can actually go on an airplane, I can actually breathe, I’m not having seizures or headaches. For the first time, I felt normal, I felt like, full of energy. When you have sickle cell anemia, you are anemic, so you have that fatigue. Sometimes it’s not even the pain, it’s the fatigue that gets to you. My parents had to help me bathe, help me go to the toilet because I was just so tired. So, with the blood exchanges, it makes it to where I can actually live my life.”

Jennings with her service dog of 3 years, Yarrow. He assists by picking things up, opening doors, get help, alerts her about her heart rate, and he is able to pull Jennings wheelchair.

“My pain stays around a 5, 24/7. Some days, I just have to take my stronger pain medicine because it gets bad. I know if I don’t control the pain before it gets bad then I’m going to end up in the hospital. It’s different types of pain.

In describing the pain she said, “Sometimes it feels like somebody’s breaking your bones. Sometimes it feels like there’s like glass going through your veins. Sometimes it’s like muscular pain. It’s so different. Bone pain is the worst kind of pain. It feels like you broke something but you know you didn’t do anything to break something. That’s just how sickle cell feels.”.

Keyera Jennings with her dad Donald Jennings, who was diagnosed with the sickle cell trait much later in life. Also pictured is her mother, Lakeisha Jennings.

Concerning her prognosis today, Jennings said her doctors think she has a good chance of getting gene therapy and being able to live a long life.

Gene therapy is a technique that modifies a person’s genes to treat or cure disease.

“I’m going to be honest with you, if I don’t get gene therapy, I know that I will die from this disease. It really does wreak havoc on your body,” she said.

Until then, Keyera has been busy marking something off of her bucket list.

“Last night I went to the Bridgerton Ball.  It was always on my bucket list to go to a ball. So, me and my sister went. She was my date. She really went with me because she knew my bucket list so she wanted to experience it with me. She was really there to support me living out my dreams, and I love that, my big sister!”

Today not only is Keyera a sickle cell warrior, and a TikToker, she is also an American Red Cross ambassador for the American Red Cross and has a message about the importance of donating blood.

“You never know, blood not only goes to people with sickle cell, it also goes to people who have been in car crashes and all different accidents and you never know, that could be you needing blood.”

She continued, “So, you would hope that people would donate because you never know whose life that’s going to save. When you donate blood, you could be saving someone’s life.  It could be a baby’s life you’re saving, it could be a man or a woman in a car crash, it could be someone with cancer. It could be someone like me with sickle cell because without the blood exchanges I get every month, I wouldn’t be here.”

For parents who have had children diagnosed with sickle cell anemia, Lakeisha said, “Yes, there are dark hours, everybody has a cross to bear, there will be good days, there will be bad days. There will be days where you rejoice, days where you cry. Life is hard sometimes, but it’s definitely worth living.”

According to the American Red Cross, about 62% of the U.S. population is eligible to give blood, but only about 3% actually give. By making an appointment to help save lives with the American Red Cross in August, donors can pump up the blood supply and keep it from falling to shortage levels. Platelet donors are especially needed now.

As a thank-you, all who give Aug. 1-31 will be automatically entered for a chance to win gas for a year, a $6,000 value. There will be three winners. Everyone who gives blood in August will also receive a $10 e-gift card to a merchant of possible choice. Donors can schedule an appointment to give using the Red Cross Blood Donor App, by clicking here or by calling 1-800-RED CROSS (1-800-733-2767).