Young 'superhero' battling sickle cell disease

Young 'superhero' battling sickle cell disease

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KJ McKenzie is using his "super power" to fight sickle cell anemia.  (Credit: Fox 2 News) KJ McKenzie is using his "super power" to fight sickle cell anemia. (Credit: Fox 2 News)
SOUTHFIELD, Mich. (WJBK) -

Sickle cell disease was discovered around a hundred years ago.  It is a painful disorder that seems to target specific ethnic groups and primarily African-Americans.  A brave young man is enduring blood transfusions while his family waits for a cure.

This is a story about a superhero.  Not Spider-Man, Iron Man or Batman, he is way stronger than them.  KJ McKenzie is using his power to fight sickle cell anemia.

At just five years old, KJ has regular blood transfusions -- clean, new blood to fight the sickle cell disease and minimize his chance of a stroke.  His mother calls the pack of blood her son's "super powers."

"He wants to show off his muscles.  He wants to show you how fast he can run and how high he can jump, and he's just a new kid when he comes home," said Tamiko McKenzie.

Sickle cell disease changes healthy, round, red blood cells into crescent-shaped cells like sickles.  Round cells move freely through blood vessels carrying oxygen to every part of the body, but the sickle-shaped cells can't get through blocking blood flow to vital organs, muscles, tissues and bones leading to a number of health complications and causing unimaginable pain.

"It gets in the way of school.  It gets in the way of dating.  It gets in the way of social life.  It's not easy.  It's not easy at all, but it can be helped," said Dr. Sharada Sarnaik, M.D. at DMC Children's Hospital of Michigan.

Sickle cell is predominate, but not exclusive to African-Americans.  Long ago it thrived in Central Africa, India and parts of the Middle East and Europe.  The sickle cell trait used to protect against malaria and people who had it lived longer, but today it's the opposite.  Few with the disease live past 60.  Flare ups can be debilitating.

"We describe it as he turned into like an alien.  His veins were pronounced.  You can see it through his skin.  He was very jaundice," said his mother.

One in 500 African-American children have the disease.  In Hispanics, that number is one in 36,000.  One in every twelve African-Americans carry the trait, which itself is harmless, but when two trait carriers like KJ's parents marry and have a child, their chances of having a baby with the full blown disease increase dramatically to one in four.

"I just felt sorry and bad that I did this to my son, but then I got up and had to deal with it," his mother said.  "I knew that I had the trait and he knew that he had the trait, but we just were prayful that he wouldn't get the disease and he did."

KJ's regular blood transfusions make him a candidate for a stem cell transplant.  For now that is the best possible cure, but doctors are testing new treatments every day.  Not every sickle cell patient is eligible for the treatment, which includes chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant.  The treatment is aggressive.

"You can get infection.  You can get bleeding and you can simply pass away from it," Sarnaik explained.

KJ will continue regular blood transfusions until his family decides he is old enough and strong enough to start chemo, which is the next phase in his treatment process.

KJ can't transform into a healthy boy with the push of a button, but he is still 100 percent superhero.

As for KJ, his mother saved cord blood for her two younger sons hoping it would one day be useful to doctors.

We are also dedicating this story to Rodney Ferguson, an unforgettable member of our Fox 2 family and the inspiration behind this report.  Rodney passed away last year due to complications from sickle cell.  He was just 50 years old.

Click here to learn more about sickle cell anemia

Click here for information on how you can help kids like KJ

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