Story by: Jeff Greer on October 7, 2022
A conversation with Joseph Mallard needs to last only 60 seconds to understand why
he is nicknamed “Sunshine Joe.”
He shares the vivid life advice his father and grandmother gave him when he was a young boy growing up in the Jim Crow South. “Persevere, push forward, keep fighting.”
He details his relentless approach to establishing connections with others, reaching out to five people a day to give an encouraging word or push young people, especially Black boys, to look up, be hopeful, work hard.
He speaks to others living with sickle cell disease (SCD), offering himself as a living example of his advice: Don’t let the disease rule you, don’t be afraid to seek treatment when you need it, and by golly, live life when you come out of the painful episodes associated with SCD.
These are the threads of rich yarn that make up Joseph’s life tapestry. They do more than just give him his nickname. They sustain him. They uplift others. And they are why he has become a local legend and nationally recognized figure in his life’s true passion: stitchery and textile art.
“This is the only way I know how to live my life,” Joseph said. “It is the only way I want to live my life.”
The Norton Healthcare Adult Comprehensive Sickle Cell Program, in collaboration with Norton Children’s Cancer Institute, affiliated with the UofL School of Medicine, offers care for all aspects of sickle cell disease, from acute crises to long-term management.
Joseph’s sickle cell disease story began as many do — with a scary episode. He remembers driving home to Louisville from nearby Oldham County and feeling listless. He will never forget the most startling part: waking up sometime later in the driver’s seat of his car, which he’d parked along the side of the road. The sudden and consuming exhaustion brought on by SCD had so zapped his energy that he blacked out while driving.
The Air Force veteran was diagnosed with a variant of SCD called sickle beta plus thalassemia by doctors at the Louisville VA Medical Center, the first time Joseph had heard of the ailment.
“It’s not uncommon for people with Mr. Mallard’s variant of sickle cell disease to go undiagnosed until adulthood even though it is a blood disorder they are born with,” said Shawn D. Glisson, M.D., hematologist with Norton Healthcare’s Adult Comprehensive Sickle Cell Program. “Babies now are screened for SCD shortly after birth.”
The pain crises started coming more regularly a few years later. His joints ached. Throbbed. Nothing could be done to prevent the crises. Instead, he’d have to seek immediate treatment whenever he experienced symptoms.
“Sickle cell trait is the most common inherited hemoglobin disorder,” Dr. Glisson said. “It gets its name because the red blood cells are shaped like a ‘C,’ or sickle, when there are other associated traits. The misshapen cells can get stuck and block blood flow, causing pain, infections and blockages to some organs.”
“I was determined that it wouldn’t define me,” Joseph said. “I would not be defeated by this sickle cell.”
Don’t just take Joseph’s word for that, either. Take some illustrations of that persistence, like the time he embroidered a denim shirt for then-President Jimmy Carter. Frustrated that no local contacts could help get the gift to the president, Joseph bought a round-trip bus ticket to Washington, D.C., and decided he wouldn’t leave until he found a way to the president. The first person he met with, Raoul Cunningham, who worked for U.S. Sen. Walter Huddleston and later became president of the Louisville branch of the NAACP, stepped in to help. By the time Joseph he returned home to Louisville, the story of his beautiful gift for the president was already in the Courier Journal. The shirt is now in the National Archives.
He became so good at his art that he quit his job to pursue his passion, even stitching a commemorative tapestry after President Barack Obama’s first term. These days, much of his time is spent hosting workshops that stitch together sewing skills with life skills. He is a regular speaker in classrooms across the country.
Back home, when Joseph faces a pain crisis, he knows he can head to Dr. Glisson’s office for personalized treatment of episodes. He also visits before long trips for an extra boost of hydration.
Historically, it’s been difficult getting prompt and appropriate care for SCD. Norton Healthcare recognized a need for patients to have a medical home and established the Adult Comprehensive Sickle Cell Program as a place to turn for both everyday management and in times of crisis.
The program is, Joseph said, “lifesaving” for him.
“They’ve provided an avenue for me to call Dr. Glisson and they can get my treatment started immediately,” he said.
When he is again able to get out into the world and spread his message of love and positivity, Sunshine Joe likes to read young students a poem he wrote:
Life is beautiful and it can be real
It all depends on your free will
Going places and doing things
Just naturally spreading your wings
Being honest and being real
Is the only way to give yourself a fair deal
Keep your mind open and your spirit high
You can do anything, even touch the sky
It only takes a short while to learn why Joseph’s message touches so many.
“I [turned] 79 years old on the 19th of June,” he said. “Even though I’ve had these crises that have been very demanding and very painful, I have still managed to live a vibrant life. I walk five miles every day. I try to get my rest and have a proper diet. I am not going to submit or succumb to these crises. I have to live through them and move on. I’m determined. I may be down for a while, but I’m not out.”
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