Hey everyone! Today’s interview is with Clayton Andrews, husband, father and dedicated advocate for at-risk children. Mr. Andrews, thank you for providing this interview. I’m looking forward to learning more about you, your amazing job and your journey with sickle cell disease. Let’s jump right in…
How old were you when you found out that you have sickle cell?
My mom explained my disease to me shortly after the death of my older sister. I was 3 years old.
Did your sister have sickle cell disease?
Yes. My older sister, Chandra, passed as a result of a combination of sickle cell complications during her battle with meningitis. When I asked my mom what happened to my sister, she told me that she went to heaven.
I am so very sorry for your loss. How did you handle hearing such difficult news?
I was angry at first, then sad, then later on that year I asked her why my sister went to heaven and she explained some things about sickle cell to me.
Sickle cell must have been very hard to understand at that age. Parents with young warriors often have difficulty explaining sickle cell to their children. Do you remember how your mother explained it to you?
I remember that my mom explained to me that I was a bit different from other children. She told me that sometimes I would feel more tired than others and that I would have pain sometimes. She was a little pessimistic at the time. She told me that there would be things that I would never be able to do. More than anything she wanted to make sure that I knew the basics (rest, hydrate) in order to stay as healthy as possible. My young age, however, kept me from having a full understanding at that point.
When did you come to a full understanding of sickle cell disease?
I would say that a full understanding finally came when I was in high school. When I was younger I always tried to keep the same pace as my friends. I wasn’t yet well educated about the disease. My mom had sheltered me, she knew how to handle the symptoms, but I had not yet learned how to take care of myself. By the time I entered high school I realized that I needed to know more. I was in the marching band and I began to notice that I would run out of energy before others. I had a good friend that lived a near parallel life to mine, but wasn’t experiencing the same symptoms. Eventually I asked my mom to explain sickle cell to me in greater detail and she sat down with me, pulled out a book that she had, and explained to me everything about sickle cell. She explained the genetics of the disease and why my older sister and I had the disease, but my younger two sisters only carried the trait. I would say that it was at that point that I finally began to understand sickle cell disease.
How do you explain sickle cell to individuals who are unfamiliar with the disease?
It’s kind of hard for me to explain my condition. I just explain to people that my blood is shaped differently than theirs and I explain how it affects me physically.
What techniques did you use to cope with school and sickle cell?
Honestly, I really didn’t do much. In grade, middle and high school, I wasn’t as keen on what caused my symptoms and still didn’t have a full understanding of how to cope. In college, however, after being educated a little more on sickle cell, I usually wouldn’t schedule a class too early in the morning if I didn’t have to (as the hours between 11pm and 11am are the prime hours for a sickle cell crisis to be triggered). The rest was just a matter of making sure that I paced myself.
I’ve noticed that night is the prime time for me to go into a vaso-occlusive crisis as well. How did you determine that 11pm to 11am is when you are most likely to crisis? Is that specific to you or were you given those hours as a general guideline?
Those hours are specific to me. I realized while I was still in high school that I would always crisis late at night. I wanted to understand exactly what triggered my crisis and once in college I began to experiment on myself in order to determine if I could pinpoint my triggers. I eventually concluded that at night, after a certain hour, cold beverages would lead to a crisis. I realized that I didn’t have an adverse reaction to food in general, but anything in large quantities that could lower my body temperature (like watermelon, for example) could trigger a late night crisis. I originally used water as my control, but I eventually realized that even cold water, if drank late at night, could trigger a crisis as well. Basically, I just experimented so that I could learn myself and exactly how my crisis state works.
Wow. That’s detailed deductive reasoning. You sound like a scientist. What exactly do you do? What type of experience and schooling is needed to obtain your job?
Currently, I work for the State of Georgia. I am a Child Protective Services Investigator; In other words, I work for DFCS. I enjoy it and actually would like to eventually work up to a supervisory/management position. The education and experience required is at the least a Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology or Psychology and experience in Social Work is also a good qualifier.
How did your childhood and your parents influence you in your career choice?
My parents didn’t really. My mom wanted me to study medicine, but I wanted to study Psychology and Criminology. It wasn’t really my childhood, it was my budding years in college that influenced my path of choice.
Can you tell us a little more about what, specifically, in college led to your career choice?
Actually it’s kind of a funny story. As I mentioned previously, my mom wanted me to major in biology so that I could choose a career in medicine. It was actually my experiences with a very crazy ex-girlfriend that fueled me with a desire to study psychology. I wanted a better understanding of human behavior, why exactly do people do the crazy things that they do. I found the subject so interesting that I decided to pursue a degree in psychology.
Ha! Now that’s funny. I guess you owe your crazy ex a thank you. Could you describe a typical day on your job.
Quite frankly, there’s nothing “typical” about any work day here at the office, but I’ll try. A day at the office will consist of visiting homes, schools, hospitals, etc, meeting various people – some good and some, not so much – driving and looking for people in the middle of nowhere, finding them and trying to get them to cooperate, lots of documentation and most importantly, protecting kids.
Tell us a little more about your job. Is there any part that you really hate or absolutely love?
I LOVE my job. When I was first hired at DFCS I was originally going to be working in the department that handles the placement of children, but at the last minute I switched to investigation. I am so happy that I did. My job allows me to protect children. When I hear on the news these despicable cases of child abuse it makes me so angry and now I am in a position to actually help these children. What I love most is that my job allows me to play an active role in helping children to live safe, productive and happy lives.
Are you comfortable revealing your sickle cell diagnosis with your coworkers? Why or why not?
Yes and no. It’s beneficial to have concerned colleagues that can help you, when you’re in a bad way (and like myself, determined not to go to the hospital, despite being curled over at my desk in pain), but at the same time, no one wants to be pitied or felt sorry for. I get around just as fine as the rest of them.
Have you noticed a difference in how your coworkers treat you once they know you have SCD?
Since revealing to my coworkers that I have Sickle Cell, no one really treats me any differently, they just watch me whenever I’m looking lethargic and remind me more that I need to stay hydrated.
How do you manage SCD and still maintain a thriving career?
Will power? LOL. Can you be more specific? I know that many people know you by your middle name, Will. Is “Will power” a play on your name?
Yes, it’s a pun. It refers to my desire to push forward and keep going regardless of any obstacles that might be in my way. If I have a crisis I try not to allow it to interfere with my life. In college my motivation was birthed through a desire to prove how strong I was, but I’ve matured since then. Now I do it for my family’s sake. I know that I have to push forward and carry on because I need to provide for my family. I know my limits and boundaries. I’ve dedicated much time and effort in learning exactly how this disease works in my body so now I use that knowledge to my advantage. Above all, I never want to be a quitter. I want to be seen as someone that will push through even in the hard times. My wife has been a major motivation for me and the source of my inspiration. She was a single mother when we met and I was then, and continue to be, impressed with her strength and well she has managed. I want to prove to myself that I am a man worthy of such a strong and amazing woman as Minimarie.
What advice would you give a fellow warrior wanting to join your profession?
Pace yourself, especially if you plan on working a part-time job on the side. This job alone is enough to drain you in two weeks, tops if you don’t pace yourself. If you know that you are prone to more pain crisis than most individuals with SCD, make sure you take the proper medication and stay hydrated. Also, don’t hesitate to let your supervisor know what is going on with you. It’s better that they understand when you’re in pain or dehydrated or are feeling lethargic, due to SCD, rather than to think at any time that you’re being lazy.
Has sickle cell limited any areas of your life?
A little bit. I initially wanted to join the military when I graduated, but was disqualified due to my condition. I also wanted to join Law Enforcement, but I was told that I would be unable to work the field, which is probably why I enjoy being a CPS Investigator so much. Honestly though, I try not to let SCD limit me in any area of my life, if I think that I can do it; I like a good challenge.
When you reach obstacles in your life, what helps you through it?
Simply put, it’s just not in me to quit.
Do you have regular pain (more than 2x a week)? How do you cope with this when you are working?
Neither my wife nor my coworkers know this, but I’m typically in pain at least 3x a week. However, it’s always at a level where I can either will it away or just ignore it. Very rarely do I have an episode where it gets to the point that I can’t even move.
What is your daily medication regimen and what medications do you take when you are in pain?
Right now I take folic acid and a 25mg Blood Pressure medicine (I forgot the name of it, sorry). For pain that I can’t control I take Motrin. For pain that’s unbearable, I have a prescription for Percocet.
How has sickle cell affected your personal life?
My friends and family who know that I have SCD usually will look out for me and make sure that I’m taking care of myself. It’s sometimes hard to explain my condition when with new people, who do not know that I have SCD.
Please tell us about your wife. How has she helped you with sickle cell? How did your relationship evolve taking into account sickle cell? When did you tell her?
My wife, Minimarie, is a wonderful woman. She is very supportive of me and my condition with sickle cell. However, it wasn’t always like this. When we first got together I told her about my condition, but she did not believe/understand it completely and so at times when I would become lethargic or had a crisis, she would accuse me of being lazy. I have to admit, I know she understands me now, but I was initially given such a hard time about things that honestly, I try to hide my pain crises and lethargy from her when they come. It’s something I’m going to have to work on.
Do you have children? If yes, how many? Are they warriors as well?
I have two beautiful children. I have a 5 year old stepson I call my own, Pierce, and I have a beautiful little girl, named Paige. Paige is 1 ½ and she has the trait. Pierce, however, is completely free of sickle cell disease.
If you could have a conversation with your 14 year old self, what would you tell him/her?
I think the main thing I would explain to my younger self is to not feel bad about not being able to keep up with friends during physical activities. As a kid and as a teen, I hated sports. Not because I didn’t like them, but because I couldn’t play them. I was always the slowest at anything and got tired so easily and couldn’t understand why at the time. I would also tell my younger self that he is not lazy. It’s something I would hear often; at work, at school…anytime I needed to sit down (which was often until I learned to pace myself) for any reason. I think I just really have an issue with that word, because I always knew that I was a hard worker, and knowing myself, I don’t stop until I get my job done (yes I know I work 8-5 and it’s 4:45 and I haven’t had a lunch break, but I’ll take one when I finish!). Lazy is just not me. I always hated that word; it strikes a nerve.
I think many Warriors have that in common with you. Lazy simply does not apply to most of us. Is there anything else that you would like to share with the sickle cell warrior community?
Stay hydrated at all times.
Know yourself (I’ve got my SCD down to a science. I know the prime hours when I am most susceptible to a pain crisis and I know under what conditions).
Know how to best manage your pain when you get a crisis.
Know your levels of pain and when to identify when over-the-counter meds just won’t justify it.
Know when you need to STOP.
YOU ARE NOT LAZY!!!
That’s fantastic advice Clayton! Thank you for sharing your story with us.