Valerie Jean Hardin was given 10 to 15 years to live after being diagnosed with sickle cell disease at age 10. Today, at age 66, she’s proud and extremely grateful to be recognized by the local chapter of the service-focused Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority as the oldest living person with sickle cell in Summit County.
“I never thought living this long was possible,” she said. “I’m so blessed and overwhelmed that I’m still here. It’s a miracle. God has answered my prayers.”
Sickle cell disease is a red blood cell disorder, where the red blood cells become hard, sticky and contort into a crescent or sickle shape. The sickle cells die early, leaving a shortage of red blood cells and causing severe anemia, or reduced oxygen flow to the body’s organs. The crescent-shaped blood cells also can block blood flow, known as a sickle cell crisis, causing severe pain.
Though Hardin suffers daily from the disease and its complications, such as chest and joint pain, kidney issues, among others, she focuses on the positives and doesn’t complain. She says she has more good days than bad because, shedding a few tears, she’s been blessed to live this long and raise her beautiful children.
Hardin’s 3 kids — Lavaile, 50, Yolanda, 47, and Rayshawn, 44 — all carry the sickle cell trait. This means they have inherited the sickle cell gene, but they do not have any symptoms of sickle cell disease.
Though Hardin feels blessed beyond words, it hasn’t been an easy row to hoe.
Growing up with sickle cell disease
As a child with sickle cell, Hardin was limited in which activities she could participate. There were many days her oxygen levels were low, which caused extreme fatigue, and she was in and out of the hospital due to sickle cell crises. She did participate in the cheer squad and ran track for several years, but she’d tire out much more quickly than her peers.
Before officially being diagnosed with sickle cell, doctors thought Hardin suffered from acute anemia. It wasn’t until after a 7-day hospitalization at Akron Children’s due to extreme fatigue, swelling and pain that doctors discovered Hardin had sickle cell. (Today, through newborn screening performed throughout the United States, children are diagnosed with sickle cell disease in the first few weeks of life.)
“My grandmother told me when I was younger to put myself in a good place when I was in pain,” remembers Hardin. “I would think about all the great places I wanted to visit, like London and France. I would think about visiting my aunt who lived in the Deep South. I called it God’s country. I’d take my pain medication and pray.”
After being diagnosed, Hardin was treated at Akron Children’s Hospital. While a patient here, she also traveled with hospital nurses and physicians, along with several other patient families, to sickle cell conferences and educational seminars. While networking with other sickle cell patients, it helped her better understand her symptoms and find ways to relieve her pain and suffering.
“The nurses and physicians were so supportive of me and treated me like family,” said Hardin. “Even back then, they understood the disease and knew how to help me. I hated giving up Akron Children’s when I became an adult. Children’s is like home to me.”
Reflecting on her life and many blessings, she is dedicated to building awareness and helping others suffering from sickle cell. She continues to attend sickle cell conferences, but now she’s the one offering the advice and experience to help others. She occasionally speaks at conferences around the state and networks with the sickle cell community to offer her support.
In addition, each fall she participates in Akron Children’s Mychal Clayton Sickle Cell Awareness Walk & Motorcycle Run. In 2014, she was a guest speaker at the event.
“God’s been good to me, even though those clouds hang low sometimes,” said Hardin. “I’m grateful for being blessed to be a part of this world, my children’s life and even my grandchildren and now great-grandchildren. I never thought I’d live to see that.”