Best friends, men document powerful story of life with sickle cell disease
ATLANTA - Omar Beach, 43, and Jaqai Mickelsen, 40, have been close since they met at their San Diego high school back in the early 1990's.
Beach has sickle cell disease, a group of inherited disorders that cause the body's red blood cells to contort and become sickle-shaped. The cells, which should be round, carry oxygen throughout the body. But, because of their sharp edges, they block blood flow to the joints and organs, triggering severe pain crises and damage. When Mickelsen asked Beach to let him tell the story of his battle with sickle cell disease, Beach initially said no. He didn't want sickle cell to define him.
"The last thing I want is pity or sadness, and stuff like that," Beach says.
Mickelsen eventually convinced Beach to share his story in the documentary "Spilled Milk."
"I had no idea what I was getting myself into, by the way," Mickelsen says.
As a teenager, Beach had shared very little about his medical condition, disappearing for weeks at a time in the hospital.
He joked with friends that he was on vacation.
"I kept most people at sort of an arm's length from it," Beach says.
A decade later, when Beach moved to Georgia to live with his mother, Mickelsen quit his job and moved here, too. That's when he started following Beach with his camera. At the time, Mickelsen says, he didn't fully comprehend what his friend was going through.
"It was almost like an out of sight, out of mind thing," Mickelsen says. "Like, 'Omar is in the hospital; he'll be back.'
And that was just the rhythm we got into. But with this project, it was like, 'Omar is in the hospital, and I'm there with him. And this is excruciating "
In one scene in the film, Omar shows all the medications he takes. In another, he's in the ER, writhing in pain, while his mother describes her helplessness.
"It does something to you to see your adult son crying out in pain, and there is nothing you can do, because you can't rub it away, and make it feel better," she says.
It took time for both friends to get used to the camera between them.
"It's an interesting sort of dichotomy," Beach says. "Because, on one hand, my best friend is there, so, therefore, I have some sort of comfort level. But, at the same time, a photographer is there."
The moments in the hospital, during Beach's repeated pain crises, were the hardest.
"My instinct was, "I want to put this camera down and go comfort him,'" Mickelsen says. "But, the reality was that is some of the most powerful footage we got."
The day of the film's premiere, Omar Beach landed in the ICU of an Atlanta hospital, in a medically-induced coma with sepsis. Mickelsen stands at his friend's beside, surrounded by equipment.
"We all joined hands and we prayed, we prayed for Omar," he says.
Beach pulled through. A few months later, at a surprise 40th birthday party, friends gathered to screen his story. He says Mickelsen got it right.
"I think it's great," Beach says. "I think Jaqai made something amazing."
In the United States, approximately 100,00 people have sickle cell disease. The Centers for Disease Control reports the disease occurs in 1 out of every 365 black births and 1 out of every 16,300 Hispanic births. It's worth noting 2 million people have sickle cell trait. People with the trait typically don't have sickle cell disease symptoms, but they can pass the trait on to their children.
To view the documentary, visit SpilledMilkMovie.com.