Admit it, you probably take more things for granted than you realize. Very few of us, when confronted with continuous obstacles and adversity, wouldn’t ask “why me?!?” and drift into a cycle of self pity. Tyrone Mack does not rank among this cohort. This is a man who, since he was 12 years old, has been confronting obstacles that would likely break most of us in short order.
Tyrone is a 54-year-old Philadelphia native with 30+ years working as a building engineer. I entered his home expecting to be flooded with details about his [very] recent cancer diagnosis. Instead, I was impressed by his overwhelming, nearly palpable love for his family, which eclipses all else, even himself. We spoke for nearly 45 minutes before he mentioned his own serious health issues. Tyrone began our interview by showing me his family photo wall, proudly pointing out and naming each of his kids and his wife (Sandy). Then he showed me a weathered painting of a huge influence on his life, his father, who was a jazz musician. “I got my work ethic from my father. He worked until he was 89. Work hard, play hard, play hard, work hard. That’s what he taught me.”
That spirit has carried him a long way. He was 12 when his mother died from multiple myeloma. ”Then it was me, my dad and my sister” and his grandmother moved in after she’d had her legs amputated due to illness. With his father fighting lung cancer, his older sister stomach cancer, and his grandmother disabled, Tyrone assumed the role of caretaker before he was even a teenager. “I would come home from school and clean. My sister and grandmother would teach me how to cook by telling me what to put in the pots. My sister would cry, saying “you’re my little brother, you shouldn’t have to change me. You’re not having any type of childhood.” and I said “You changed my pampers when I was little; I’ll change yours. You’re my sister, I love you; and I’m going to take care of you.”
Tyrone took care of his sister, grandmother and father until they passed; then came another obstacle when his second daughter, Mackiya (pronounced mack-eye-uh) was born with Tetralogy of Fallot—a rare heart condition caused by a combination of four defects which require multiple corrective surgeries over the patient’s lifetime. Mackiya’s first surgery came mere days after her birth. Tyrone and Sandy were rightfully nervous about bringing home and caring for a child who required constant monitoring. Tyrone recalls the first time her pulse-ox monitor went off in the middle of the night, “My wife and I jumped up; she turned left, I turned right and we bumped into each other in the dark.” Mackiya is now 9 years old and Tyrone has become a hyper-vigilant father who gets just 4-6 hours of sleep nightly—and has for the past eight years. “My mind doesn’t let me sleep…I toss and turn, thinking I gotta check the pulse-ox…gotta check it.”
He and Sandy forged ahead with this new hyper-vigilant parenthood until their son, Tyreek, was born two years later. For the first six years of his life, all seemed normal. But in April 2021 they noticed that Tyreek wasn’t himself. Something was off. He’d lost interest in food, lost a lot of weight. They took him to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). Tests were run and came back normal; Tyrone, Sandy and Tyreek were sent home. But something was still off; so they took him back for more testing. One day when Tyrone was at work, he got a call from Sandy saying “you need to get Tyreek back to the hospital right away!” That’s when the doctors broke the news that he had leukemia. “That kinda blew us away. I said to myself “Wow, what else could happen?!?”
Tyreek is undergoing chemotherapy and will require 24 months of treatment. He’s currently in the maintenance phase of treatment. Tyrone submitted FMLA (Family Medical Leave Act) paperwork for the 2nd time—the first time was for Mackiya. Tyrone had been saving his vacation and sick time because he didn’t know when Mackiya would need more surgery. After Tyreek’s diagnosis, they were back and forth to hospital four times a week. Tyrone explains “Tyreek had to have a port access put in for chemo. So far he’s had to have six spinal taps and four bone marrow…” Tyrone chokes up, tears welling in his eyes. He apologizes for crying. “I cry everyday, you know? It’s overwhelming.”
As if things couldn’t get more complicated, Tyrone’s job called to tell him they were getting rid of the building engineers. His position was “no longer needed.” He called the union, they assured him everything would be fine and that was a formality, that he’d be transferred to a different department. With faith in the union, nine months of sick leave, and three months of vacation time Tyrone thought he was fine so he focused all his attention on his kids. “I would get on my knees and pray everyday. For my kids, for all kids. There shouldn’t be any sick kids. I believe in helping everybody.” And he shares a story about a father from Virginia he befriended at CHOP. His child needed a heart transplant. He was staying at Ronald McDonald house over in New Jersey. Tyrone sacrificed a coveted sleeping room at CHOP so that his friend wouldn’t have to deal with the added stress of traveling back-and-forth between New Jersey and Philly.
Consumed with worry about Tyreek, mounting bills, and spending inordinate amounts of time at the hospital, Tyrone was shocked when he discovered that his paychecks had stopped coming. “I called human resources and they asked if I’d filed for unemployment. I told her I don’t need unemployment since I still have a union job.” She pressed, and he took her advice, applied, and discovered that someone had filed a fraudulent claim under his name. With his unemployment case still under investigation, and no money coming in, Tyrone wondered what his next move could be. The easy, flexible answer was to drive for Uber.
No sooner had he decided to Uber than someone stole the catalytic converter from his car; and thanks to supply chain issues, it took nearly two months to get a replacement. Less than 30 days after its installation the new catalytic converter was also stolen. Another three months would pass before the new one would arrive. He and Sandy were trying to figure out ways to make ends meet. Sandy started crafting and has been making port shirts for the hospital.
“I’ve never questioned why. But then Tyreek started asking questions that I couldn’t answer. “Dad, how come I’m always sick? We go to the hospital everyday and I’m not getting better.” Your kids look up to you like you’re superman. And I have to tell him that Superman can’t fix this one. And yes, Superman does cry. Then Tyreek hung his head down and I asked him what’s the matter? and he responded “Dad, I’m not gonna have a good life, because I’m always gonna be sick.” “I didn’t know how to respond to that.”
Christmas morning he noticed that Tyreek was sad, even after unwrapping a new bicycle. “I asked him what was wrong and he answered, “Santa Claus didn’t get me what I wanted. I just want to get better.” “That just broke me down…..like I said, I cry every day. I try to figure it out and make sense of this. I try to help other people…always try to do the right thing. But it’s just one obstacle right after the next, right after the next. So I keep my head up and I say, “I can do this. My father lived 25 years post-op, after having his lung removed from Stage IV lung cancer. I can do this.”
In April 2022, even more weight was thrust upon Tyrone’s shoulders, when he began to experience unusual and concerning pain. When he could no longer ignore it, he went to the hospital and learned that he had colon cancer. “When they told me, my mind immediately went to my family. Are they going to be okay? Let me check my will and make sure everything is lined up.” The doctor said, “Wait a minute, you’re focusing on leaving us…” and Tyrone told him, he was just preparing for the worst, but hoping for the best. “When I got the diagnosis of colon cancer, my mind immediately went to what’s going to happen with my family? Do I have enough insurance? Some people call it morbid, I call it forward thinking. I mean, I’ve got a fire extinguisher. But that doesn’t mean I wanna use it. Plan for the worst, hope for the best. I just want to be prepared for my family.”
Tyrone has been the rock, the foundation of his family; but he confesses “Sometimes I kind of feel like there are some chips in the foundation. But I try to stay strong. Without the support of Legacy of Hope, I don’t know where I’d be. I was super stressed, facing shutoffs of utilities and piles of bills. They’ve been a life saver.”
To say that over his lifetime Tyrone has exhibited near superhuman grace under fire, an iron will, and unending selfless love would be a gross understatement. Few of us could match Tyrone’s fortitude if confronted with even a fraction of the challenges he deals with on a daily basis. Fortunately, Tyrone’s oncology social worker at Jefferson Health referred him to the Emergency Patient Support Network to provide assistance in the face of extraordinary circumstances. Toward that end, Legacy of Hope has organized a work day, on June 22, with local contractors and volunteers to do several home repair projects that Tyrone has been unable to address over the past several years, because of the inordinate amount of time he spent tending to Mackiya and Tyreek’s needs in the hospital. Now, with his own cancer battle to fight, he’ll be spread even thinner. You can be part of this important project, and help Tyrone keep the house that’s been in his family for over 50 years. Donate to the fundraiser for Tyrone and his family. Thank you.