Deborah Hunte has battled sickle cell disease all of her life. But rather than resent her circumstances, she’s chosen to share her story to help others.

As a volunteer with Canadian Blood Services’ speakers’ bureau since 2002, Deborah visits offices, clinics and attends special events to encourage others to donate — and continue donating — blood.

“I want to inspire people to donate so they can save lives,” Deborah says. “For current donors, I’m an example of the fruits of their labour.”

Diagnosed with sickle cell disease as a toddler, Deborah has received more than a dozen lifesaving blood transfusions over her lifetime to treat complications caused by the hereditary blood disorder.

A form of anemia, the disease causes red blood cells to mutate into a rigid, sickle shape. This mutation reduces blood flow in the body and causes irreversible damage to organs such as the heart and lungs.

With no cure, sickle cell patients often find themselves in and out of hospital battling surges of the disease known as sickle cell crises.

“You go to the hospital to control the pain first,” Deborah explains. “And if that doesn’t work, you have a blood transfusion to help revive your blood cells.”

Positive and resilient, Deborah continues to battle against all odds to stay healthy and live a full life. She regularly consults a list of specialists, including hematologists and a nephrologist, and takes a drug that helps produce healthy red blood cells. While the life expectancy for females with sickle cell disease used to be just 47, outcomes are rapidly changing.

“There is now more awareness,” she says. “People are living longer, but it’s unchartered territory.”

Sadly, this is still not the case for all patients with sickle cell disease, including Deborah’s own family members.

While Deborah has faced many challenges with her disease over the years, her most difficult moments have been the loss of two of her siblings to the same disease — her twin sister, Sandra, in 2000, and her older brother, Geoffrey, last summer.

While Deborah misses both siblings immensely, she is grateful for the blood donations that helped prolong both of their lives.

“I wouldn’t be here either if people didn’t graciously give up their time,” she says. “I’ll now hold the torch for both of them.”

Photography by Lorella Zanetti