This 5’8”, 177-pound, muscular 19-year-old who is a whiz at baseball doesn’t look like someone who has struggled with a chronic and deadly disease since he was 9 months old.
But Mark Burrow has stoically dealt with pain coursing through his body. Both of Mark’s parents carried the Sickle Cell trait, but he was the only one in his family of five to have the full-blown disease.
“Even though Mark has never had a pain-free day in his life, he does not let anything stop him,” Tywana said.
“I have Sickle Cell,” Mark has often told his mother Tywana, “But Sickle Cell does not have me.” He has played baseball on top teams since age 5 and recently played college level ball. For years, he has also coached a youth baseball team.
But she admits that Mark has had his share of crises. After having two healthy daughters (now age 29 and 23), Tywana bore a son who was diagnosed at birth with full-blown Sickle Cell Anemia---a debilitating disease that affects approximately 100,000 Americans. It occurs in about 1 of every 365 African-American births and in 1 of every 16,300 Hispanic-American births.
Those with the disease have red blood cells that are crescent- (or sickle-) shaped. This abnormal shape makes it difficult for the cells to travel through the blood vessels. As the sickle cells clog the blood vessel, they can block blood flow to various parts of the body, causing painful episodes and raising the risk of infection.
In addition, sickle cells die earlier than healthy cells, causing a constant shortage of red blood cells---also known as anemia. The condition requires frequent blood transfusions that are critical to increase the oxygen-carrying capacity of blood and reduce circulation obstruction that can injure organs and cause intense pain.
“When Mark was a baby, there was nothing they could do for him but give him medicine to relieve his pain,” Tywana recalled. “His first transfusion came when he was 7 years old—we thought we might lose him then.”
Over the next decade, Mark has had several transfusions and two surgeries – one to remove his tonsils and the other to remove his enlarged gall bladder. He has received treatment at St. Louis Children’s Hospital in St. Louis, and over the years the Red Cross of Greater St. Louis in the Missouri and Arkansas region has provided life-saving blood products to the hospital for sickle cell patients. Being in extreme cold weather can trigger a crisis that leads to hospitalization, and the disease can cause strokes. Mark has suffered from high blood pressure since age 6. But despite these conditions, he continued to enjoy sports.
At age 12, Make a Wish Foundation -- an organization that grants the wishes of children diagnosed with critical illnesses--selected Mark for its next gift. At first, Mark thought his wish would be a trip to an all-star baseball game where he would get a bat signed by all the players. But then his social studies teacher told Mark’s class about Dubai. The teacher urged the children to see the world and to visit places like Dubai. The teacher’s description of Dubai was so intriguing, Mark decided his wish was to go to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. The city is known for luxury shopping, ultramodern architecture and a lively nightlife scene.
The entire family of five took a 14-day, all-expense-paid trip to Dubai, and Mark came home with a nice gift for the social studies teacher. Mark told his mother that he was now “an international kid.”
“It was life-changing--an amazing experience for every member of our family,” Tywana said. “Everything there was beautiful, but Mark’s first love still remains baseball.”
That’s why Mark was thrilled to be selected to make the ceremonial pitch at the St. Louis Cardinal’s Red Cross Night Monday, June 12, when the Cardinals kick off their 20th annual St. Louis Cardinals Blood Drive.
“Mark always told me ‘I will never make the major league yet here he is going on the field at a major league game and pitching from the pitcher’s mound,” said Tywana. “This means so much to him.”
She added that his story about his struggle with a disease that relies so heavily on blood transfusions, might also make a difference in encouraging people to give blood at the drive.
“People do not realize the power that is in blood—that the one bag of your blood that you donate can potentially save the lives of more than person —it has helped save the life of my son.”
***Mark Burrow will throw out a ceremonial first pitch on Monday, June 12 at Busch Stadium prior to the St. Louis Cardinals-San Francisco Giants game to officially kick off the 20th annual St. Louis Cardinals Blood Drive. The blood drive has 21 locations in the St. Louis area and runs from June 13-15. To make an appointment download the Red Cross Blood Donor app, go to redcrossblood.org, or call 1-800-RED CROSS and enter/reference sponsor code CARDS.