Tamiko is not just a football wife to the 8 year NFL vet and Green Bay Super Bowl champion, Keith McKenzie, but also a woman with internal fire of faith and fighting spirit. This active Off the Field Wives Association member is making moves to fight Sickle Cell Anemia that her 5 year old son KJ (Keith Jr.) is battling.
KJ was diagnosed with Sickle Cell disease at birth and began spending much of his time at hospitals having monthly blood transfusions to minimize his risk of strokes and unimaginable pain.This past December 5, 2013, Tamiko’s son began a bone marrow transplant and truly became a superhero conquering his sickle cell disease head on.
For every Superhero, there is a Super Mom. A Super Mom can be defined as one that leaves her career to protect, fight, and leap over any obstacle in a single bound in order to ensure her son gets the best care available. Meet Mrs.Parker-McKenzie. Put an “S” on her chest (and her family) and get a glimpse of the NFL wife’s journey, campaigning not against crime, but Sickle Cell.
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Pro Player Insiders: Congratulations and thank you for joining us, although you’re cold in Detroit. Tamiko, what are some of the things you’re doing out there in Michigan?
Tamiko Parker- McKenzie: Right now, I’m trying to keep my sanity walking this journey to get my son cured of sickle cell. I’m out there spreading the word about it. I’m also active, like you said, and the treasurer of Off the Field. Right now, we’re knee deep in Super Bowl planning. I’m trying to do my part with that. I’m also working with St. Jude Hospital to raise money for cancer research for children. I’m being a wife, a mom, a friend. A mom of twins and a 5-year-old with sickle cell, so I’m pretty busy.
PPI: You are making major ripple effects in Detroit. You and your husband are on the board for Fulfill the Cells. Tell me about that.
TPM: Fulfill the Cells and Kelly Littlejohn wanted to have a face and have people understand what Sickle Cell was and what it is like living with it. This is a 100-year-old disease. There’s still a lot of things that people don’t know and areas where it needs improvement in terms of research and healthcare. He came to us and wanted to put a documentary together to showcase what it’s really like living with Sickle Cell, Sickle Cell Disease, and his son has suffered from it, and he showed what he was going through with it. He interviewed myself and my family. We shared with him what it was like for us having a 4-year-old, who had to start monthly blood transfusions. They captured some of that and interviewed us, just so people could see and really understand what it’s like. I was honored to help him in any way I can and just spread the word and put a face to Sickle Cell.
PPI: Wow, you’re very involved with Sickle Cell. How did the founder of Fullfill the Cell, Kelly Littlejohn, hear about your story and recruit your help?
TPM: One of my close friends, Gina Coleman. Mutual friends were talking about it. The Sickle Cell population is really huge and people don’t really speak out loud about it. He asked her to put us in contact with each other. He asked if we would be involved with Fulfill the Cell and we did. Anything we can do to help get the word out and improve Sickle Cell. . . count me in.
PPI: There is an amazing story of KJ and calling him Little Superman. I read 1 in 500 African American children have the disease. 1 in every 12 carry the trait. You and your husband both had the trait. When did you find out he had the trait? What were some of the signs? How did that play out?
TPM: I knew I had the trait and I wasn’t sure if my husband had the trait. By the time we found out, we were pregnant and so we went to counseling. They told us we have a 1 in 4 chance for our child to have the disease or the trait. That would be the case for each pregnancy. We decided not to get the test to see if the baby we were carrying had the trait. We decided to play on fate. Here in Michigan, any African American baby born in the state has to get tested for Sickle Cell Disease. So we were tested and I got a call two weeks later after I had brought my little bundle of joy home. The doctor delivered the news that my son had the disease and that I should come and see her right away to figure out a course of action for him. It was pretty hard. I remember just screaming. I screamed so loud. I was so hurt and devastated and felt so guilt that this had happened to him. I swore from then I would do my best to inform everyone about this and what it meant.
PPI: You talked about your course of action to help your son in any way. In the month of December, your son has been going through bone marrow transplant. What made you take those steps?
TPM: Well, that’s one of the things I promised him. We would find a cure even if we had to go to a different country. He didn’t really know what that meant, but that was just my hope and determination. As a mother, you want to do any and everything you can to protect your child and ensure they grow healthy and have a quality life.
I also asked myself, “At only 5-years old, how was he going to endure getting poked in his tiny veins for life?” It was becoming harder and harder to watch him suffer, scream, kick, and fight to avoid getting poked. One day, while he sat on my lap and two nurses held him tight to start his IV, he swung his head back as hard as he could and ‘head butted’ me in the mouth! The pain spread across my face and tears came to my eyes. No, I didn’t get angry, I asked him why would he hurt me like that? His response was “you let them do this to me!” Those words along with his tears broke my heart.
TPM (cont.): Then I remember on ESPN they had a documentary of Carlos Boozer and his wife and their first son was born with Sickle Cell Disease (Boozer story here). They did a bone marrow transplant and they had a documentary of it. That’s where I found out about the bone marrow transplant actually working. Her twins were his bone marrow donor as well. His was within his first year of life. Her son showed signs of it at birth, whereas my son was pretty healthy his first year. He didn’t really start getting sick until after he turned one.
PPI: Tell us about “why” you made the bone marrow transplant decision.
TPM: We were with the hospital in Detroit for his first four years and we were told his Sickle Cell wasn’t severe enough to be considered for a bone marrow transplant. It’s a very dangerous procedure and you could die, point blank. They had said we weren’t a candidate, but it wasn’t good enough for me. Once his Sickle Cell went from mild to him having to get ongoing blood transfusions as a way of life, which just didn’t sit well with me. So we went to another hospital, whose whole philosophy was a little more proactive and they did a lot more testing.
We found out his Sickle Cell was a lot more severe than we thought. The tests showed he had already been experiencing many strokes in his brain and his left heart valve was enlarged and his liver was experiencing overload. That’s when we decided we have to do something. Sickle Cell can take a turn at any point and this may be the healthiest he will be with all his organs. So we decided to move forward from there. Once we found out he was having mini strokes in his brain, yeah. They said he has a 1 in 4 chance of having a mini stroke every year for the rest of his life and he will always have to have blood transfusions.
PPI: Has there been a moment when you realized your husband’s platform can help raise awareness about Sickle Cell? Was there a moment where you were like wow?
TPM: Well, no. I feel like we’re so removed from that life. He’s stopped playing and they don’t do a good job of staying in contact. For me, it’s a platform for the wives group. Off the Field is what makes it a platform because the wives, we work together and look out for each other much better than they do amongst each other in the NFL. I really haven’t thought about what ways the NFL could help. I know they do a lot with St. Jude. I would love for them to prepare this and make it an important health issue to everybody.
PPI: You’ve been going through so much and you’re such a strong woman. How has faith played a role in your life?
TPM: That’s the only thing I can lean on. I feel like my footsteps are being directed. At first, you don’t really understand why this is happening to you, but I feel like these things are happening to me for a reason. It’s my faith in God that keeps bringing me this far. The fact that my twins are both 100% donor match, that’s God right there. There’s no other way to explain it because that’s the only thing that really keeps me strong. That’s why I’m moving forward with the transplant. I believe he didn’t bring me this far for nothing, ya know?
PPI: On a lighter note, your husband has been another one of your rocks. He had a fortunate career in the NFL. How did you guys meet?
TPM: We met at happy hour at a martini bar. I was working for the city of Cleveland for the mayor’s office. I had my little career in economic development. I was in school for my master’s, going to school at night. I was hanging out because of course I needed a drink. I went with a couple of coworkers and we were hanging out and it got pretty late and we were heading to leave. We stopped to say bye to a few of the guys at the bar and as I was leaving and we were saying our goodbyes, my husband and a couple of other players came in. The Browns were back and I think this was their first year since the team went to Baltimore. We met. I told him we were leaving and I told them they didn’t need to be out because I think they had a big game against the Steelers and we couldn’t lose to them, and they needed to get back home. We ended up having a couple of drinks and I gave him my business card and I left. He gave me his number and I gave him mine and we left. We never talked. It took us another two months of running into each other at different functions. We ran into each other at a restaurant. We ran into each other at a game. I think he got jealous I was getting too much attention and that’s when he decided he needed to talk to me more. We started having more phone conversations and then started going out.
PPI: What was it like having your husband play for many different teams? Which team or city did you enjoy the most? Which of those teams do you root for now?
TPM: Cleveland because that was home and we have our memories there. That’s where we met and I was a huge Browns fan until they released him. I haven’t been as excited. (laughs) We had a lot of fun with the Bears when he was there. When we were there, they were renovating the stadium, so we were playing in Champagne. It was fun to hang out downtown on the weekends. Green Bay, he has more fond memories of than I do. It was just cold. The games were exciting, but it was brutally cold. I remember Monday Night Football, and we should have been in Alaska. It was that cold. Buffalo is where I connected with the wives, who I’m still friends with to this day.
PPI: Has your husband had an NFL buddy or mentor that he’s stayed close with during his career?
TPM: He’s really close with Jameer Miller. They played together with the Browns and I stay in touch with his wife. In Detroit, Ron Rice, who plays with the Lions. Those are who he leans on the most.
PPI: You guys are living in Detroit. What is Mr. McKenzie up to? I read he’s in real estate. You said he is coaching. What is he up to right now?
TPM: The past five years he’s been coaching at Wayne State College as an assistant defensive coach. If you know anything about coaching, that’s all he does. He’s going to conferences and trying to network and get ahead with coaching. That’s his passion. The reason why he got into coaching is because his uncle, Reggie McKenzie, was a big time football player and played in Buffalo. He was with OJ and all of them and they were all best friends back in those days. His family has a foundation called the Reggie McKenzie Foundation. They have always been about giving back and doing for others and the community. They have the only free football camp that I know of and it’s been around for thirty years. He always was giving back and coaching at the football camps. I noticed he was doing a lot of coaching for free and I said, “I think this may be your passion and if you really want to do it, maybe you should find out if you can get on with a team. Maybe with the Lions or a college team.” He went to the Lions and he went to Wayne State and Wayne State picked him right up. He volunteered for the first year and he got hired right after that. He’s been there ever since. It keeps him pretty busy. During the season, I’m like a single mom.
PPI: What is Uncle Reggie up to these days?
TPM: He’s in between here and Buffalo. He has a machine shop in Buffalo. It’s affiliated with the Seattle Seahawks because he used to work the front offices there before they had new ownership. He goes back and forth to Seattle. He’s very instrumental in trying to keep the word out there about his football camp and keep sponsorship dollars coming in and grants coming in to keep the free football camp in the inner city. There’s a need for it.
PPI: Women always remember small moments. What has been your favorite moment watching your husband play? Was it the Packers Super Bowl victory? Or do you have a moment?
TPM: My favorite moment was any when he was on the field. I remember with the Browns, he played really well. It was his Pro Bowl season, his numbers were up and his sacs were up. He had a McDonald’s commercial. He was really happy. He was becoming a team leader. A couple weeks before his contract, he got hurt. I remember that the most. He went down with a broken ankle and pretty much ended his career after that. I remember a game where he recovered the ball and ran it in for a touchdown. That was big. I just remember him being so happy. Those were fun, light days.
PPI: We’ve talked about your foundation and your husband. What about your kids? You have your hands full with twins and a 5-year-old. Tell me a couple sentences about each one of your children.
TPM: My children are hilarious. They have lots of energy and they repeat everything. They repeat. They mock every type of phone conversation. They are so big into pretend play and it’s so funny watching them reenact or interpret the things that they think that they get from us, the parents and the people around them. When my girlfriends come over, my children always pretend they’re driving over to a friend’s house. They pretend they’re seeing Auntie Gina or this or that. If they met you, they would say, “We’re going to see Auntie Theresa.” That’s how they are. They are so silly. They’re very animated and they’re funny and they’re athletic and strong. My twins are 3 years old. They look 5, but they’re 3. Their names are Kalen and Karson. Those are my babies and my angels and they’re going to save their big brother’s life.
PPI: If you could give advice to others on balancing life with a child that’s battling Sickle Cell, what would it be?
TPM: I would say stay prayerful and have a support system – family, friends. Talk about it. Let people help you. That’s been my major challenge: not doing it all on my own and letting people help. It does help. Meditate and work out for sanity.
PPI: How can football fans and Pro Player Insiders readers help support your initiatives with Fulfill the Cell Foundation?
TPM: Fulfill the Cell, you can like them on Facebook. I am in the process of trying to start a blog and seeing if I want to start my own foundation. Right now, I say learn about Sickle Cell and support it. I know here in Detroit, the children’s hospital, they need a lot of help and contributions and sponsorshipfor Sickle Cell. It’s a lot that needs to be done – getting the word out about Sickle Cell. A lot of improvements need to happen as far as I’m concerned. My son’s bone marrow transplant happen at the University of Michigan children’s hospital November 25 and we were there until the end of December.
PPI: Why do you think sharing your story is so powerful?
TPM: I hope by sharing our story other parents become advocates for their child’s care, speak-up and get 2nd opinions. I also hope to encourage others to destroy sickle cell disease through bone marrow transplants while your child is young and healthy. Lastly, I encourage everyone to register to become a bone marrow donor #BeTheMatch in your City. You can save a life!
As of last week, KJ still remains hospitalized as he recovers and is doing well.
Follow Tamiko’s journey fighting sickle cell by visiting her blog. She shares more details about KJ’s bone marrow transplant, the emotional ups and downs of her family’s fight. http://destroyingsicklecelldisease.blogspot.com/
–Theresa Villano, @Theresa_ppi
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