Growing up, Mario Hendricks knew there was something different about him. He just didn’t know what it was.
“Every time I played sports, I got sick,” Mario said. And for a child who dreamed of being an athlete, that was a serious concern.
Once he was old enough to understand, Mario’s mother explained to him that he has sickle cell disease, a genetic blood disorder that causes a variety of health issues throughout the patient’s life. The disease primarily affects those of African descent, and appears in approximately 1 in every 500 births of African-American children.
“When you’re a kid, you never realize what it means,” Mario said. “I just wanted to be normal.”
In school, bullying became a problem. Other children didn’t understand that they couldn’t catch sickle cell from him, and some made fun of him for the jaundice in his eyes caused by the disease. Even at a young age, Mario felt himself beginning to grow bitter about his lot in life.
“For a lot of years, I went by in denial and hatred,” he said. This was compounded by the fact that one of his younger brothers also has sickle cell.
When Mario was 8 years old, his mother got him and his brother involved with the Sickle Cell Foundation, a River Region United Way affiliate agency, and both boys were able to go away to camp for the first time. For Mario, it was a revelation.
“It was the first time I’d ever met anyone else with sickle cell,” he said. “Because of the United Way, I got to meet and be myself around people who were like me.”
The connections he made with other sickle cell patients and the support they gave each other helped Mario work toward accepting his diagnosis as he grew up. He joined the ROTC at Carver High School and met other students with sickle cell. As he graduated high school without having been sick in years, Mario began to plan for his future by joining the Army.
Three weeks into basic training in South Carolina, after a long day in the cold rain on an outdoor rifle range, Mario was hospitalized due to a sickle cell “crisis.” (A crisis is a severe attack that causes widespread pain and possible organ damage, among other issues. Extreme cold or heat can often trigger crises.) Once they realized the severity of his illness, the Army gave Mario a medical discharge.
“All I wanted was to be a soldier,” said Mario. “I began to accept that I could never live the life that I had so envisioned as a child.”
Mario’s acceptance of his body’s limitations brought new goals. He went to college, planning to pursue less physically demanding career. He earned a degree in communications and began working, along the way getting married and starting a family. Mario’s oldest child was born healthy, with no signs of sickle cell.
Two years later, daughter Tanzania was born 4 months premature -- with sickle cell disease.
“When the doctor told me, it was like I had died,” Mario said. “I didn’t want to bring a child into this world to go through what I had.”
Mario fell into a deep depression after the birth of his daughter, but eventually his family and his faith helped him to rally.
“I realized, who better to raise a child with sickle cell than me?”
Mario became Tanzania’s educator as well as her father, helping her learn through his experience how to avoid triggers for sickle cell crises, reminding her about taking her medications, and motivating her to do her best.
“It’s about living as healthy as you can,” Mario said.
Working with his daughter, now 10, has made him passionate about helping younger sickle cell patients. He has served as a United Way ambassador, helping raise money and awareness in the River Region, as well as mentoring young sickle cell patients directly.
“The goal is to help this younger generation know that sickle cell is not a death sentence,” he said.
It hasn’t been an easy road for Mario and his family. Three years ago, while pregnant with their youngest daughter, his wife fell at work. During a subsequent medical exam, doctors began to suspect that she had multiple sclerosis – once the baby was born, the diagnosis was confirmed.
Now the couple is learning to cope with two illnesses.
“As she’s helping me, I’m helping her,” Mario said. “It’s like teamwork. Teamwork makes the dream work!”
One of the biggest tests of faith came in 2013 when Mario suffered a severe aneurysm due to his sickle cell and stress after being laid off from a job. He was hospitalized for a month, and homebound for two more as he recovered, having to relearn how to walk. He doesn’t remember several months from that year, and suffers short-term memory loss as a result. But he doesn’t regret it.
“God gave me another chance,” he said. “If there’s anything I can do to help somebody while they’re here, I will.”
Mario said he still has his moments when he feels depressed, and wonders “why me?”
“But then I realize, why not me? I’d rather have it happen to me than my siblings. The way I see it is, God knew I was strong enough to handle it.”
Now back to working part time, Mario is focused on raising awareness of sickle cell disease and how to live with it.
“When I was young, I didn’t know anyone past the age of 30 with sickle cell,” he said. “Now people are living past 80.”
“There are great people out there who want to help,” Mario said. “It’s time to break the sickle cycle."
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