As 5-year-old Trip Walker munched on chicken tenders and french fries in an upstairs room at Jimmy’s Famous Seafood in East Baltimore, a spokeswoman from Make-A-Wish Mid-Atlantic talked about how the foundation granted more than 400 local wishes in 2016, but have more than 600 children with critical medical conditions, like Trip, on the waiting list.
Trip, who has sickle cell disease, wouldn’t have to wait much longer. Upon announcing his wish — “WrestleMania!” he said to the crowd that had gathered for a press conference Saturday, Jan. 27 — who should emerge from a side room other than WWE Superstar Roman Reigns, who has participated in the main event of the last three WrestleManias.
“Hey Trip, how you doing buddy?” Reigns asked as he presented his speechless new friend with an oversized WrestleMania ticket. After getting a high-five and a hug, Reigns offered to sign the ticket “and we’ll get you some smaller tickets, that way you don’t have to carry this all the way to New Orleans.”
WrestleMania 34, which Reigns described as “the biggest show on Earth,” takes place April 8 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in Louisiana.
“This was crazy,” Trip’s mother, L’Tisha Walker, of Severn, said. “I knew more than the rest of the family, I knew we were going to meet someone so they could do a special reveal.” What she didn’t expect was that it would be someone of the caliber of Reigns, one of the WWE’s top stars, or that they would granting her son’s wish to go to WrestleMania this April.
“WrestleMania, that’s a bucket list thing,” she said, noting she and her husband Torres Walker, a Staff Sgt. in the U.S. Air Force currently stationed at Ft. Meade, are both WWE fans and their sons watch regularly too.
Reigns also helped friend John Minadakis, the co-owner of Jimmy’s Famous Seafood, present a check for $12,200 to Make-A-Wish Mid-Atlantic, that the two partnered to help raise through a social media effort.
“There’s so much that goes into getting these children to their wish; this stuff isn’t free,” Reigns said afterward. “You have to have these funds to help these children, help these families, and give them hope. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
Tara Wilson-Jones, the vice president of marketing and communications for Make-A-Wish Mid-Atlantic, said the organization depends on “wonderful community partners” like Jimmy’s to help grant wishes.
“All the money we raise is raised locally and serves local kids,” Wilson-Jones said. “There is a gap between the wishes we are able to grant and the funding we have to make sure kids don’t have to wait, so we can make sure kids like Trip get their wish, and get some happiness in the face of the adversity they are facing.”
World Wrestling Entertainment and the Make-A-Wish Foundation have been working together since the 1980s, when Hulk Hogan got involved. In fact, 16-time WWE Champion John Cena holds the record for most wishes, granting his 500th in 2015, according to the Associated Press.
“WWE has been partnered up with Make-A-Wish for over 30 years now and we’ve granted thousands and thousands of wishes,” Reigns said. “I’m just proud I’ve been able to be a part of it the past few years. It’s so much bigger than just one Superstar.”
While Trip and Reigns hung out, chatting about getting together again during WrestleMania weekend in New Orleans to their favorite Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – Reigns liked wise-cracking Michelangelo when he was a kid, Trip said Raphael is his favorite — L’Tisha talked about her son’s condition.
Trip has sickle cell anemia, which is genetic. Both L’Tisha and Torres carry the trait.
“His blood cells are shaped incorrectly, so his blood can’t work as hard,” L’Tisha explained.
Normally, red blood cells are flexible and round, allowing them to move easily through blood vessels, according to the Mayo Clinic. In sickle cell anemia, red blood cells become rigid and sticky, shaped like sickles or crescent moons. The irregularly shaped cells can get stuck in small blood vessels, slowing or blocking blood flow and oxygen to parts of the body.
As many as 100,000 Americans, mostly African-Americans, have sickle cell disease, according to the U.S. National Institutes of Health and the University of Maryland Medical Center. About 2 million Americans carry the sickle cell trait.
Sickle cells die in 10 to 20 days, versus the 120 days red blood cells leave before they need to be replaced. When that happens, the shortage of red blood cells, known as anemia, causes the body to feel fatigued, according to the Mayo Clinic. It can also lead to periodic episodes of pain, sometimes, severe, called crises.
Pain levels, duration and frequency vary, according to the Mayo Clinic. Someone have only a few pain episodes and they can last for a few others, others can have weeks-long crises, as many as a dozen or more times each year. A severe enough crisis can cause you to be hospitalized.
Because sickle cells can also damage the spleen, which helps fight infections, people with sickle cell anemia are more prone to infections, some potentially life-threatening, such as pneumonia.
Trip has already had pneumonia three of four times in his young life, his mother said.
On some days, Trip is like any other 5-year-old boy, running around playing, roughhousing and loving life. “Today, he’s perfectly normal,” L’Tisha said on Saturday.
On others, he can be in excruciating pain. The family spent eight straight days in the hospital around New Year’s, L’Tisha said, and Trip has had bouts of pain where he’ll be hospitalized two to three weeks at a time.
“You kind of live life one pain episode to the next,” she said. “All you can do is keep him as comfortable as possible.”
The disease affects everyone differently, L’Tisha said.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen as [Trip] gets older,” she said. “It shortens life expectancy and there’s a higher risk of stroke.”
Forty-five years ago, the average lifespan of someone with sickle cell disease was 14 years old. With advances in medicine, the average life expectancy is around 50, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center.
L’Tisha noted there are some new medications recently approved on the market that could potentially let her son live more comfortably.
Last summer, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the first new drug for sickle cell disease in nearly 20 years. Endari helps reduce severe complications associated with the blood disorder. In clinical tests of the medication, patients have fewer hospitalizations for pain related to sickle cell anemia, spent fewer days in the hospital and had a lower risk of a life-threatening complication known as acute chest syndrome than those who received a placebo, according to WebMD.
On Saturday, Trip’s mind was far from hospital visits and doctor’s offices. Someone asked “So, what do you think about today, buddy?” Trip was at a loss for words. “Was it awesome?”
With wide eyes with an even wider smile, Trip nodded, as he got a fist-bump from his pro wrestling hero.
Reigns, though, said it’s kids like Trip, “who have been fighting since day one,” who are the true superstars.
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“To be at that young age and have that type of resilience,” he said, “those are the real heroes that we are fortunate enough to be involved with and get to meet and pull inspiration and motivation from.”