By KATHY ROPP
Four months ago, Jahriem Smith weighed 250 pounds; today he weighs in at 180.
He wasn’t trying to lose weight and with his 6-feet, 6-inch frame he wasn’t overweight.
In fact, he was a fit athlete spending most of the time he wasn’t working playing basketball.
A former member of the Conway High School basketball team, who spent one year playing basketball for Brunswick Community College in Brunswick, N.C., the resident of the Bucksport area perhaps didn’t realize how much potential he had, according to his high school coach Michael Hopkins.
“When we first got him at the high school he was a real quiet kid, didn’t say much,” Hopkins said, adding the he just loved playing basketball.
“We used that to just keep him motivated to do what he needed to be doing…As I got to know him more I got to understand where he came from,” Hopkins said.
Later he said, “He’s a good person. That type kid’s not going to go out and try to hurt anybody.”
After Hopkins learned that Smith’s mother died from a type of lupus when he was only 13-years-old and he was taken in by his mother’s close friend, Shonda Wilson, he said they developed a better relationship.
Then Hopkins’ attitude was, “Okay, I understand now.”
But after learning that Smith’s physical condition had worsened in recent months, the coach said he’s willing to do whatever he can to help.
No question, according to Wilson, Smith needs help!
Around the first of February, the 26-year-old had a tooth pulled. Shortly after that he began having blisters in his mouth and couldn’t eat. He, Wilson and doctors thought the problem was related to his oral surgery.
He followed their prescribed treatment for about one month.
“As I was treating that, I started noticing I was getting scabs and blisters on my elbow and those were getting bigger and bigger,” Smith said. “That’s when Shonda saw it and she pretty much made me go to the hospital again, and they pretty much didn’t know what was going on either.”
He describes his skin as looking similar to that of a burn victim. With open raw skin and bandages all over, he compared his looks now to a mummy.
The pain became intense and every time he moved his body his wounds hurt.
He was at his third hospital, after several transfers, before a dermatologist in Charleston finally diagnosed his condition as an autoimmune disease, known as pemphigus, a rare group of blistering diseases. There is no known cure, but symptoms can be remediated some with steroids and other medications.
Since he’s been using those medications, Smith said he’s better than when the disease first began and he experienced such terrifying conditions such as waking up and not being able to see because his eyes were covered with scabs.
Although he is eating and talking without as much pain, he is still bedridden most of the time.
“It’s very strange. I’ve never heard of this until now. This right here is attacking my nervous system all the way from my toes, to eyes, fingers and hands. I can’t hardly open anything now because I have these blisters on my hands. It’s all over my body,” he said.
A self-proclaimed “gamer”, Smith says he doesn’t play his videogames much now because his hands just hurt too much.
He watches a lot of YouTube just trying to keep his mind off of things.
Just about the only thing that gets him up, even for only a few minutes now, is using the bathroom or “If I have enough energy, I’ll get up and fix my own food or something like that.”
Before he injured his leg in a pickup basketball game, he worked six days a week and played basketball any time he could.
“Before this happened, I was pretty much, all I did was work…like six days a week. On my off days all I did was play basketball really…Some off-time I hang with my brothers…I don’t do clubs, drink, party or none of that stuff,” he said.
Smith said when he was in high school he loved football and played on the CHS team for one year.
“I always loved football growing up and I still do, but around here It’s hard to [call people and say] let’s get together and play football,” he said, adding that it’s much easier to get a group together for basketball.
Overly conscious about his height, he said, “I never liked this height because I’m a quiet person. I don’t like attention that much. I mean my height brings attention. I can’t walk into a store without people asking how tall I am…I always wish I was a little shorter.”
Wilson didn’t just take in Jahriem when he was a young man, she also took in his younger brother and she already had two boys of her own.
Although she never actually adopted the two boys, she says she’s treated them as her own.
She says they call her “Mom,” “Angel” or “Auntie.”
“I don’t know what happened with this, he just woke up and this happened,” she said.
Although the antibiotics and steroids are helping, they have been told that he can’t take the steroids too long because they can cause side effects.
“He,” the Charleston dermatologist, “just told him straight out most people die…because we haven’t found a treatment for it. What they doing now is not a cure,” said the longtime Horry County School District substitute teacher and employee of the hospitality department of a beach resort.
She says his problem is related to lupus, the condition that took his mom at age 31, and Stevens-Johnson Syndrome, so she wonders if it’s genetic. They do know that it isn’t contagious.
She says she’s been reading a lot about the condition and knows now that it just comes out of the blue.
“It really got scary when his eyes melted together, when the skin came off his eyes,” she said, adding that his entire body looked like he had suffered serious burns.
“I’m just saying, ‘In the name of Jesus, in the name of Jesus, you got to heal this stuff. We got to help him.’ It’s got to be painful all of your skin peeling off of you like this,” she said.
His condition eliminates showering because it removes his skin.
They’ve been able to get a nurse and a caseworker to come to the house. They check his vital signs and his temperature, but getting a blood pressure is hard because it’s hard to find a spot where it can be taken.
Doctors in Charleston are straight with Smith that they can’t cure him, but there is a four-part treatment that can help him, according to Wilson. Smith likened the treatments to chemotherapy where a patient goes for five or six hours at a time and takes an IV infusion.
The problem is each treatment costs $40,000 and he needs four, and he doesn’t have the money to pay for them.
He’d like to get them all, but says if they could just get enough money for the first one, he’d see that as a good start.
Wilson says she has pursued every idea and every avenue known to her to try to get money to get his treatments started, but all she’s gotten so far are denials.
“A cure could be years, or months from now,” Smith said. “Hopefully they find something now that actually cures it and not slow it down. I wouldn’t wish this on nobody.”
Wilson and Smith attend Mercy Baptist Church in Conway where, they say, Pastor David Avant has tried to help them.
Despite losing his health, his job, his car and just about everything else he has, Smith said he knows the Lord isn’t going to desert him.
He encourages himself using a popular quote that says the Lord gives his toughest battles to his strongest soldiers, although he doesn’t remember the exact wording.
As for the help Shonda has given him, he said, “She’s done a great job. She’s a blessing…She’s doing everything she can, literally.”
She said from the time she took the two boys in she has leaned on the Lord for help. She worked three jobs and went to school, eventually earning her bachelor’s degree from Coastal Carolina University in 2017.
Smith says he misses having his own money and doing what he wants to do.
“I just want my regular life back now. I just want to get my strength back and have my regular life,” he said, adding that at the top of his list of wants are playing basketball and working.
Wilson has set up a GoFundMe page for Smith. Although contributions are coming in, they aren’t enough and she encourages people who are able to make a donation.
Editor’s note: Along the way Smith has had a brush with the law. His court-appointed attorney Brad Richardson says but for the delays in court due to the coronavirus, he believes Smith’s charges would have already been dealt with. He’s talked with the prosecutor and says he thinks when they get to court the charges will be worked out in Jahriem’s favor.