Shortness of breath, brain fog, dry cough, chest pain, sore throat… all of these symptoms sound like Covid-19, flu, or pneumonia. Add a few more—anxiety, insomnia, dry skin, itchy skin, dry eye and/or mouth—and it starts to sound like diabetes. But what I am describing is a little-known condition called Sarcoidosis.
This autoimmune disease killed 10,348 people from 1999 through 2010, according to the National Institutes of Health. A 2015 article by Mehdi Mirsaeidi, Roberto F. Machado, and Robert P. Baughman indicates that 6,285 of those deaths were African-Americans, compared to 3,984 Caucasians. Sarcoidosis is a disease of unknown etiology, which means its origin and causes are unknown.
Anwar Hankerson was living the life of an average young man, attending college, hanging out, and having fun. Then in 1995, he started vomiting and losing weight, eventually losing nearly 60 pounds within a year. Due to a lack of health insurance, Anwar suffered through these issues on his own. Finally, a concerned uncle spoke to a friend at the Detroit Medical Center about Anwar’s health and was able to get him in to see a doctor. After a series of tests, he was summoned to the hospital. The biggest red flags were the results of his chest x-ray and concern about possible HIV infection. This sent Anwar into a tailspin. This was far more alarming than his recent emergency room visit, which resulted in a diagnosis of possible stomach flu.
Anwar was admitted to the hospital and placed in quarantine. By this time, veins in his forehead were visible. One of his lungs had collapsed, and a chest tube was inserted. The next morning, the doctor came in and asked Anwar, “Which do you want first, the good news or the bad news?” Anwar wanted the good news first, and the doctor told him, “You do not have HIV. The bad news is you have Sarcoidosis.”
The first thing Anwar wanted to know was “is it contagious?” (It is not.) The next question Anwar had was “is it curable?” Sadly, there is no cure for Sarcoidosis. Anwar worried that he could have acquired the disease from being in poorly constructed rooms during his college days, but this wasn’t the case, either. And unfortunately, there were more difficulties to come. Anwar developed asthma and started getting lesions and bouts of fatigue. His lungs had been badly scarred, and his doctors’ next step was to get him on the transplant list.
Thankfully, Anwar was able to slowly rebound over the years. He learned to adjust to episodes. He’s gained the weight back. He was able to do some of the things the doctors predicted he wouldn’t, but he still battles to breathe sometimes. He’s been a postal worker for over twenty years, but no longer carries mail; he’s a clerk now.
Anwar has always had a zest for life and a love of sports, so he didn’t want this disease to get the best of him. I asked him if the scarring and lesions on his legs and face lower his self-esteem, and he quickly replied as only Hank (his nickname) would, “Oh, no! I still wear shorts—hell, there are some people who have no legs!” He does struggle with decreased energy and trouble breathing, which he believes comes from his asthma. He has also developed a rapid heart rate (known as tachycardia). Covid-19 is an increased concern for him because a flare-up of Sarcoidosis may mimic symptoms of Covid-19 (and other conditions).
So what does Hank do? His love of basketball has made him a self-proclaimed expert on the game, and he will argue you down about stats and who was the best point guard. Or he will post his favorite scenes from the Godfather movies and engage in deep discussions about them. His outlook is still the same: enjoy life to the fullest and laugh at it. He doesn’t give up or give in, which makes him an even more spectacular and down-to-earth person. If there’s any advice he’d give anyone, it’s to not delay seeking medical attention. Kicking health issues down the line can lead to further damage or misdiagnosis.
To learn more about Sarcoidosis, visit this NIH website. Also, be sure to see your doctor for annual checkups and be proactive with your health.
- Martti Peeples