Tionne Watkins, better known by her stage name T-Boz — the “T” in the ‘90s R&B girl group TLC — is raising awareness of a serious blood disorder that primarily affects people of African descent: sickle cell anemia.
Sickle cell anemia is a type of sickle cell disease, in which red blood cells stick to vessel walls, blocking blood flow and preventing oxygen from reaching the body’s tissues. This can cause fatigue, pain, swelling, and a number of serious injuries and illnesses.
Watkins, 50, was first diagnosed with sickle cell anemia when she was a child. She says her mom was a major reason that diagnosis didn’t keep her from following and achieving her dream of becoming a singer, songwriter, and dancer.
“She basically was telling me I could do anything that I set my mind to, and she was supporting me as long as I tried to be the best of whatever it was that I chose to be in life,” Watkins said. “And I chose to believe my mom. Some people don’t have a strong person like that in their lives to help them. What the doctor said could have ruined my life.”
Learning the ropes
Even though the four-time Grammy winner knew she had sickle cell anemia, it took Watkins a long time to learn how to effectively manage the condition.
“Early on, it wasn’t managed at all,” she said. “That’s why I ruined every tour and got sick every time.”
Watkins now works with managers to ensure things go smoothly while on the road.
“Everything is strategically planned out, as far as how long travel is, what days I’m off, and what cities we do or don’t go to,” she said.
When TLC tours, they’ll avoid stops in high-altitude cities like Denver and Albuquerque, and they’ll always arrive early enough to give Watkins plenty of time to rest and acclimate. Over the years, Watkins has learned that massage therapy helps reduce her symptoms, so she always travels with a massage therapist.
She also takes cannabidiol (CBD) to improve her immune system, and has launched her own line of CBD, called TLCBD.
“It’s not a cure,” Watkins said of CBD, “but now when I do get sick, it’s not as often and not as bad.”
Since she started taking the proper precautions, Watkins has gone on four consecutive tours with TLC without a major incident.
Passing it on
Because sickle cell disease is hereditary, it’s important for people of child-bearing age to get tested for it, and all newborns (even healthy looking ones) should be screened as well. Knowing you have sickle cell disease is the first step toward receiving the right care and managing the condition.
“You’re the only person who can communicate with your doctor, and you have to be your own advocate,” Watkins said. “You, or your parents, have to be able to communicate with your doctor so they can help you.”
While having sickle cell anemia certainly hasn’t made life easy for Watkins, she says everything she’s had to overcome has made her the person — and artist — she is today. She hopes other people with sickle cell disease can look at her story and what she’s accomplished, and be inspired to pursue their dreams as well.
“If you want something in life, you have to go after it,” Watkins said. “Sometimes, yeah, I have to work 10 times harder than the average artist to do what I want to do, but that’s what I want. So I’m not gonna sit down and let a disease take over my life.”