‘This is God’s journey,’ says woman known as ‘Mother of Sickle Cell’

RICHMOND, Va. — As long as she can remember, Florence Neal Cooper Smith has always cared for others.

From her blind childhood dog, to strangers living with a potentially deadly disease, the Richmond native has been waging war for decades against a disease she read about in a medical book as a little girl.

“It hit me and I was like, ‘What is it?'” Cooper Smith said. “It said sickle cell anemia. I can see it as if it was yesterday.”

Florence Neal Cooper Smith

Florence Neal Cooper Smith

Sickle cell is an illness more prevalent in African-Americans. In fact, one in 500 in the community are living with the disease that blocks oxygen from reaching vital organs which can lead to strokes.

“It is very important you know you have the trait,” Cooper Smith said. “I want to see a cure. I want to see people not suffering.”

Even without a personal connection, Cooper Smith vowed to fight the silent killer through awareness and research.

“Yes, it did hit me that it was a part of me,” Cooper Smith said.

Florence Neal Cooper Smith

Florence Neal Cooper Smith

In 1972, the medical technician, along with Dr. Robert Scott, founded one of the nation’s first sickle cell screening clinics. In 1989, Cooper Smith said with the help of Governor Wilder established mandatory testing of the disease in all newborns. She even helped organize summer camping trips for sick children.

“It makes me feel blessed,” Cooper Smith said. “I really feel that this is God’s journey.”

Despite the milestones, the 86-year-old said the disease is no longer getting the attention it deserves.That trend troubles the Richmond native.

“People just stopped talking about sickle cell,” Cooper Smith said.

Looking back, Cooper Smith could not count how many strangers she has helped.

“It is what life is all about, being there for one another,” Cooper Smith said.

Florence Neal Cooper Smith

Florence Neal Cooper Smith

Moving forward she would like nothing more than sickle cell to be eradicated once and for all. Until then she plans to fight the disease that has defined her life.

“I can’t seem to let it go. I can’t let it go,” Cooper Smith said. “You’re going to do for your family, when you feel the need to be there for others. It makes a difference. It makes a difference.”

There is a campaign underway to raise $1 million to help fund sickle cell research and an endowed chair in Cooper Smith’s name at VCU Medical Center to celebrate her legacy.

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