Conference Coverage

Rapper sings about living with sickle cell disease


MANCHESTER, ENGLAND – A London-based rapper known for his gospel-inspired music has now given a voice to patients with sickle cell disease. He is using one of his music videos to raise awareness and educate health care professionals about living with the condition.

Alidor Gaspar, also known as A Star, composed the song Hidden Pain about his experience of living with sickle cell disease, and he created a video posted on YouTube that shows him in a hospital bed, writhing in pain.

One important aim of the video, he says, is to help educate health care professionals, some of whom have not come across this condition, he explained at a session during the annual meeting of the British Society for Haematology, held recently in Manchester, England.

“It’s kind of frustrating to feel like your safe space, when you’re in front of doctors and nurses and paramedics who are supposed to know what it is and react with treatment, [and they] don’t know what it is,” Mr. Gaspar said.

He recalled an occasion in which he was experiencing a crisis, and his wife called for an ambulance. The paramedics arrived and his wife asked them for “gas and air and morphine, and they were, like, no, we don’t want to give that to him.” She tried to explain that he has sickle cell disease, but the paramedics had not heard of the condition and were suspicious that the request for morphine was a sign of drug addiction.

Mr. Gaspar expressed his frustration over “constantly having to prove that you have something serious enough to need the treatment you are asking for.”

At the meeting, Mr. Gaspar was talking on the stage with hematologist Dr. Stephen Hibbs from Barts Health NHS Trust, London.

Mr. Gaspar explained that it took years before he eventually reached “a point where I understood that it’s something that affects me and affects many other people, and I didn’t want to hide it any more.”

Sickle cell disease, which occurs primarily in people of Afro-Caribbean background, is a taboo subject in his community, Mr. Gaspar elaborated in an interview.

The condition has been associated with a great deal of stigma, with young sufferers traditionally seen as “demonically possessed,” he commented.

“So there was always a shameful aspect around it when it came to African families speaking about it, especially back in Africa.”

But after his parents came to the United Kingdom, he was able to “do his research and understand that it’s just genetics.”

This knowledge, Mr. Gaspar said, “takes away the spiritual aspect” and allows people to “have the conversation about sickle cell with potential partners” and ask them to find out their genotype, which in turn helps to “break down the barriers and the stigma.”

Mr. Gaspar emphasizes that there is much more work still to do.

In the video, he appeals to the Black community to make blood donations.

He said that something that “haunts” him is that currently, only 1% of Black people in the United Kingdom give blood, “so I really want the song to move my community to take a step forward and make that difference.”

He has been in contact with NHS Blood and Transplant, which provides blood and transplantation service to the National Health Service. They “really liked” the song, Mr. Gaspar said, and helped him get access to a hospital ward in University College Hospital, London, for the video.

“I really wanted to make a video that made people uncomfortable when watching it,” he said. It shows him hospitalized for pain and breathlessness and recalling having to use a Zimmer frame at the age of 25.

“This is a side of sickle cell that normally people don’t know,” he said.

Since releasing the song and the video, Mr. Gaspar says he has been contacted by many fellow patients. They have told him that he is now their “voice”; when they are asked how the condition affects them, “they can show someone the Hidden Pain video and say: This is how it feels.”

Clinicians have also approached him, asking if they can show his video to illustrate to patients and their families how having the condition may affect their lives.


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