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Home » Black Health » How A Duck Helped One Family Navigate Sickle Cell Disease

An innovative social robot helps children with sickle cell disease process and communicate.

After losing her first pregnancy, O’Shea Guillory refused to give up. When she gave birth to her twin boys, Sawyer and Saxton, she immediately took steps to ensure their health. “I asked very early on to test them for sickle cell anemia,” said Guillory, a project manager. “Sickle cell is hereditary. I knew it was a possibility.”

Saxton’s test was negative, but Sawyer was diagnosed with the most common and most severe type of sickle cell disease — Hemoglobin SS. “I felt like I was being handed a death sentence for another child,” says Guillory.

Saving Sawyer

Approximately 100,000 Americans suffer from the disease, including an astounding 1 in every 365 babies born to Black or African American parents — testing newborns is only now becoming a standard practice. This disconnect between the obvious need for testing and the resources provided is sadly a common experience for many families.

Guillory became aware of Aflac’s philanthropic endeavors when she began investigating ways to fight the disease at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, where the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center is located.

“I learned that the only possible cure for sickle cell anemia SS was a bone marrow transplant,” explains Guillory, “and the most successful way is a sibling donor match.”

Saxton was tested and found to be an ideal match for his brother, and today Sawyer is free of sickle cell SS. The transplant process was not easy for either of her sons — but an innovative social robot helped the Guillory family make it through.

A special duck

“Aflac has truly been a part of our journey from the very beginning,” notes Guillory. “Sawyer and Saxton were both given My Special Aflac Duck, and absolutely adored it.”

Aflac and research and design studio Sproutel initially created My Special Aflac Duck® to help children diagnosed with pediatric cancer. The robotic companion, created after 18 months of research that included medical providers, parents and children. Aflac expanded the program in 2022, to help kids with sickle cell disease. “We started with the social, emotional space,” explains Aflac’s Senior Manager of Corporate Responsibility Buffy Swinehart. “My Special Aflac Duck’s main goal is to bring comfort and joy to children.”

The duck’s accessories are designed for medical play. “Children can practice some of the procedures they are going through,” explains Swinehart. “It helps them feel less afraid. It also comes with seven different ‘feeling cards’ — when you tap the duck’s chest with one, he acts out the feelings — because children often have a hard time expressing feelings.”

A free app provided by Aflac unlocks more features — for example, giving access to different ‘planets,’ which allows children to go to their “Happy Place” whenever they want. The duck also becomes a sound machine, helping kids sleep in noisy hospital settings.

“I can’t speak enough about how much I feel that this duck is going to help change the sickle cell community for little children,” says Guillory. My Special Aflac Duck is free of charge and now available to families dealing with sickle cell disease. Authorized healthcare providers or organizations that serve sickle cell anemia patients can register here to order the duck for children age three and up.

Guillory founded Sawyer’s Sickle Circle, a nonprofit organization offering support and information for families living with sickle cell disease. “What I want to tell the parents is, it gets heavy, it’s taxing—but don’t give up,” she says. “Continue to see that small, dim, light. And it may seem far, but if you can just keep walking towards that light, there’s a possibility and a hope for a cure.”

If you want to support the research Aflac is funding, visit their sickle cell information page.

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