Nurse known as ‘Sickle Cell Queen’ retires after 4 decades of care

LaVera Wilson dedicated her career to helping children with blood disorders

June 6, 2021, marked the end of the long reign of the “Sickle Cell Queen,” LaVera Wilson. So-named by her colleagues, LaVera spent her 44-year nursing career with what is now Norton Children’s, much of the time as a lead apheresis nurse.

“The first couple years, I started in general surgery, then moved to cardiology, then orthopedics,” she said. “I did renal nursing for a while, and then I went to hematology and oncology and that’s where I was for the rest of my career.”

LaVera worked with patients who had blood disorders and cancers, including leukemia and — accounting for her nickname — sickle cell disease (SCD). Anemia is a condition when there aren’t enough red blood cells to carry oxygen to the body. With sickle cell anemia, some of the red blood cells are shaped like crescent moons. These misshapen cells are sticky and rigid, and get caught in the blood vessels, which prevents the cell from delivering its load of oxygen through the body. Sickle cell disease is passed down through families, and there is no cure. It can cause strokes, paralysis and early death.

But thanks to LaVera and some of her nursing co-workers, SCD patients in the Louisville area can get help managing the disease. LaVera was the first nurse who, along with a patient care assistant, started an outpatient unit for hematology/oncology patients. Today, Norton Children’s has Kentucky’s leading Sickle Cell Disease Program. It is one of the few programs in the country that provides automated red cell exchange (apheresis) for adults and children. Many adult patients also get their regular treatment at Norton Children’s Infusion Center.

“I love apheresis,” LaVera said. “Apheresis and oncology are my first loves, and I love working with the children.”

For apheresis, a patient’s blood is withdrawn via a specialized machine. Some parts of the blood, such as white blood cells, may be removed, and the remaining portion is put back into the patient’s body. The therapeutic apheresis program at Norton Children’s Cancer Institute, affiliated with the UofL School of Medicine, is the only advanced sickle cell program in the state and offers transplant services.

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During a red blood cell exchange (RBCX) procedure, some of the misshapen “sickle” cells are removed, and the patient receives new red cells. The RBCX procedure decreases the amount of sickle cells in the body, which improves the patient’s oxygen levels.

After over four decades of service, LaVera has a special place in her heart for all the children who came under her care.

“The first child we had in the red blood cell apheresis program graduated from high school, then college, got married, had a baby,” LaVera said.

These milestones are perhaps even more precious for sickle cell patients than others, since SCD patients often have a much shorter life span than people without the disease. In the 1970s many with SDD did not live until adulthood, but in the decades since, outcomes have improved dramatically thanks to treatments available to children. Since the disease runs in families, LaVera often would have siblings in treatment together.

Although she misses the work she did for so long, LaVera is ready for the next chapter. If you ask her what’s ahead, she has her answer ready: cruising and travel.

Her top favorite ports of call are St. Thomas, Cozumel and Curacao. As far as bucket-list destinations, that list includes Australia, London and Costa Rica.

“My husband and I love to go on cruises,” LaVera said. “When it’s safe after COVID.”