Ronicia Otey, who goes by Ro, is a 28 year old educator, mentor, councilor, and Sickle Cell Warrior. She has been battling a host of health challenges all her life including Sickle Cell Disease (SS), Sarcoidosis, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Asthma, Arteriovenous Malformation, Glaucoma, Uvitis, Epilepsy, PTSD, Anxiety and Depression. Many of her illnesses are a result of Sickle Cell and its wide-reaching effect on the body and mind. Despite the challenges her health presents her with, Ro maintains a positive outlook on life.
“These conditions are what I have not who I am. My philosophy is not to throw in a bad hand but to find a royal flush”.
This is the mindset she shares with the women and girls she mentors as a counselor for Sista Keeper and NIA Group. NIA stands for Nurture Inner Awareness, and Ro seems to have mastered this skill. Ro says she was raised at St. Louis Children’s Hospital for a third of her life. Now that she’s “been on both sides of the bed”, she wants to keep helping the girls of Sista Keeper to channel their inner worth. Her philosophy is similar as a clinical health worker for the Sickle Cell Association where she works to help people with the disease understand themselves in relation to and beyond their illness. Ro has been able to turn traumatic events into opportunities for learning for herself and her peers.
When Ro was raped in college, she had to withdraw from school at Lincoln University where she was studying nursing. When she was ready to return to school, she was told she had to go back on the waiting list for the nursing school. Unfortunately, tough re-enrollment rules often bar people who have experienced trauma or other extenuating circumstances in their college careers from entering the medical profession. Ro changed her major to Psychology. She believes, “everything happens for a reason within its limits”. Now, she is almost finished with a Masters in Education and Agency Counseling with a Certificate in Mental Health. She knows this is the direction she is meant to be taking.
Ro transcends her health conditions, yet many of her experiences have still been shaped by the health care system in Missouri. She has lived her whole life here, between Florissant, St. Louis, and Jefferson City, where she has family. When she aged out of her parents’ employer provided health insurance plan, she qualified for Medicaid, which she is currently on and which has uncertain benefits and costs especially for mental health coverage. For example, there is a specific type of eyedrop she needs that MO HealthNet will only pay for if it is prescribed for a limited set of diagnoses. This means that her ability to access the treatment depends on a technicality in the way her doctor writes her prescription. She trusts and has seen her doctor for a long time, but many people with Sickle Cell and other complex medical conditions don’t have that luxury. The subjectivity and lack of control in these situations is highly stressful.
Ro uses a metaphor of a teacup and a saucer to describe self-preservation and her capacity to help others. She thinks of herself as a teacup that “has to be full before it can spill over onto the saucer”. “The saucer is for other people,” she says. This is a difficult and important balance to strike for many health care justice advocates. Ro has it figured out.