Spider-Man got his superpowers from a radioactive spider bite. Hulk received his through radiation. Iron Man inherited a company, and Thor got his from his father.
Fourteen-year-old K.J. McKenzie got his one IV at a time.
Fighting bad guys is easy when you see the threat in front of you. But what if you can’t?
K.J. couldn’t see what was attacking him, but he knew something was there. He didn’t know if he could win.
Before he was born, K.J.’s parents, Tamiko and Keith McKenzie, had a decision to make. Did they want to have children?
Both Tamiko and Keith carry the sickle cell trait. That meant there was a 25 percent chance their child would have sickle cell anemia.
They ultimately decided to take the chance, and on Feb. 20, 2008, K.J. McKenzie was born at Beaumont Hospital in Detroit.
“Perfect. He looked perfect,” Tamiko said.
A phone call a few weeks later changed the McKenzie family’s lives.
K.J. had sickle cell anemia.
“It was devastating,” Tamiko said. “[Keith] had just started coaching, and he was at work. There was no sign anything was wrong — I just cried. I think I screamed so loud when I hung up from the doctor. I fell to my knees and just laid there and cried.”
Tamiko said Keith reassured her everything was going to be OK.
“It hurt,” Keith said. “We knew this was a possibility with us getting together, but … we wanted to start a family … It was heartbreaking. My wife felt like we did this to our kid. I told her, ‘we’ll find a way, he’ll get cured and God will make a way for us. We just got to keep being positive and can’t let this defeat us.’”
The journey began.
The first hill they had to climb was getting K.J. admitted for care. They waited in the emergency room of the Detroit Medical Center for two or three days before he got a room.
Treatments for K.J. included antibiotics, penicillin treatments started after his first birthday and blood transfusions began when he was 4 years old to prevent strokes.
“I remember all of the pokes and trying to get samples,” Tamiko said. “We would have to have nurses and doctors help hold [K.J.] down. It was emotionally draining because I couldn’t show my emotions because I had to keep strong for him and make it fun. We would always pretend he was getting his superpowers.”
While they didn’t have to spend all of their time in the hospital, any time K.J. had a fever, it meant an automatic 48 hours back at the Detroit Medical Center due to his weakened immune system.
Tamiko said hospital visits could last as long as 10 days because of complications, and making sure K.J. was clear to go back home.
“I lived at the hospital,” Tamiko said. “I literally would spend eight hours a day, at least, at the hospital.”
In 2009 — a year into K.J.’s sickle cell anemia diagnosis — Keith, who is currently Ball State Football’s defensive line coach, got a full-time as the linebackers coach at Wayne State University in Detroit. It meant he had to balance coaching and being there for his son in the hospital.
“You’re trying to put in time, you’re trying to work — it was difficult for us,” Keith said. “My son was in the hospital. I wanted to be there, but that job was the reason we were able to afford for him to be in the hospital.”
In 2010, the McKenzie family’s lives took another turn. Tamiko and Keith welcomed twins Kalen and Karson McKenzie, which made hospital visits trickier because Tamiko was needed at home. With Keith’s coaching job and two more children, Tamiko and Keith took shifts in the hospital —
Keith did nights while Tamiko came in the morning and brought Keith his coaching gear. Keith’s parents would also pull shifts in the hospital to help out.
“It was tough,” Keith said. “It was a tough deal. To be in that situation without family would have been really stressful. We were able to survive a lot of that because we had family help.”
In 2013, when K.J. was 5 years old the McKenzie family had to make another decision that could drastically change K.J.’s life. Do they risk a bone marrow transplant?
At first, it was a risk doctors said was not worth taking. So they switched to the University of Michigan Hospital and found out K.J.’s brothers had the same blood type, allowing for a bone marrow transplant to take place.
For them, It was a risk worth taking, but a process that took months to come together.
“I didn’t really know what a bone marrow transplant was,” K.J. said. “They just told me I was going to be better, so it made me really excited. I was still scared because I knew I was going to have to get a shot to hook up the IV. Overall, I was excited because I knew sickle cell was bad. I just wanted to get better.”
First, doctors checked every part of his body — from his teeth to his organs — to make sure he was healthy enough to go through with the procedure. Second, he went through chemotherapy to kill the sickle cell, which eventually got rid of all of his white blood cells, keeping him from having an immune system.
They spent 40 consecutive days in the hospital leading up to the transplant.
For people of faith, 40 days is the promise of hope.
“It increased our faith in God,” Keith said. “It made us realize we can overcome anything. We just got to stick together and have faith. We also realized there’s no situation that is too big for us. We can handle anything that comes our way.”
Movies were a common activity, and they watched “Journey to the Center of The Earth” or “The Avengers” to pass time. When K.J. was feeling energetic, he rode his Big Wheel or set up the playroom for Nerf blaster battles.
K.J. said he remembers a few things from his days in the hospital.
“I was really focused on trying to play around,” K.J. said. “I was [young]. Sickle cell wasn’t fun at all. I would always sleep a lot during the day. I would be up maybe three hours, and I didn’t really have an appetite.”
In January 2014, the day came.
K.J. was officially cured.
“My son — I knew he was going to have a full life, and we were happy … To go through the transplant, it was scary. But, at the same time, we knew it was necessary,” Keith said.
All that was left was recovery. It took about 100 days for K.J.’s immune system to return to normal. He was able to come home, but it meant his parents had to provide his medical care and make sure he received the proper medicine — up to 20 pills a day.
There were also restrictions such as being required to wear a mask in public. K.J. also couldn’t drink out of fountains and received consistent blood pressure checks to monitor his heart rate.
But with time, the McKenzie family put sickle cell in the past.
With time, Keith and Tamiko raised their children away from the hospital.
With time, K.J. could use his superpowers, attending school and playing football, basketball and wrestling.
“It is emotional because I prayed for this when he was just a little kid,” Tamiko said. “I pray one day he won’t even remember sickle cell and have a normal life. All I prayed for was that he would have a normal and healthy life.”
*Former reporter of the Ball State Daily News, Zach Piatt, also helped with this story
Contact Ian Hansen with comments at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ianh_2.