Living with hemophilia: How battling the rare bleeding disorder helped shape a local NASA engineer

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Posted at 7:09 AM, Mar 17, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-17 10:34:04-04

SUFFOLK, Va. - In February, Don Smith was glued to his computer screen, anxiously waiting to find out if NASA's Perseverance rover landed safely on the surface of Mars.

He'd been involved in wind tunnel testing the rover's parachute system at Langley Research Center.

"You do go through that seven minutes of terror," Smith said of the Entry, Descent and Landing portion of the mission.

But being uncomfortable for a few minutes is nothing compared to what the aerospace engineer has lived with his entire life.

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Don Smith's first ride in an airplane. Smith, an aerospace engineer now in his 50s, was born with Hemophilia A, a rare blood disorder.

"I have hemophilia," Smith told News 3 on his back porch at home in Suffolk. "My blood doesn't clot like yours does normally. I have bleeding episodes, typically in joints."

Smith was born with Hemophilia A, a blood disorder impacts roughly one in every 5,000-10,000 men, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

At the time, blood transfusions were the only treatment for painful bleeding episodes, he says, and a long life wasn't guaranteed.

"I spent a lot of time in the hospital when I was a child," he recalls.

Now in his 50s, advancements in medicine have Smith expecting to live a full life. To help his blood clot normally, he self-injects a drug called HEMLIBRA every other week.

When he was child forced to have blood transfusions, however, Smith says fear of injury kept him from playing sports with the other kids.

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Medical advancements have kept Don Smith's hemophilia manageable. He and wife, Beth, frequent the outdoors.

Instead, science called and Smith pursued a career in engineering. At Langley, he leads a team of 100 people using the center's wind tunnels to test various air and spacecraft. "If it flies, we've tested it," he said.

Working with engineers has its perks, though. Like when Smith returned to work from an ankle surgery to correct damage from hemophilia.

"I was on one of them knee scooter things. Some of the technicians built ramps for me so I could get around in the wind tunnel. It was phenomenal," he said.

Good insurance from working with NASA also helps pay for expensive hemophilia treatments, Smith says. One reason why he's speaking out during National Bleeding Disorders Awareness Month.

"Bleeding disorders are actually a lot more common than you think," he told News 3. "We like to offer Bleeding Disorders Awareness Month just so people are aware that it's out there, it's something to be concerned about, it sometimes goes undiagnosed or misdiagnosed."

As for Smith's advice for people just now learning they have hemophilia...

"Yeah, there may be some limitations, but there are a lot more things that we can do than we can't," he said.

For anyone looking to learn more about hemophilia and other bleeding disorders, visit the Virginia Hemophilia Foundation's website.