When most of us take a vacation, we expect to come back with a tan and a newfound appreciation for the land we just explored. In 2014, Michele Hensel embarked on a trip that would change her life and ultimately grow her family. A visit to the Caribbean Island of Roatán left the Hensels with so much more than Instagram-worthy shots of cool blue waters.
Michele and her husband, Dr. Jack Hensel, stay busy as owners of Lowcountry Plastic Surgery, but both admit that to continue to be successful, downtime is a must. In June of 2014, the Hensels visited Bananarama Dive and Beach Resort. Upon arrival, they were picked up by travel guide Steven Hamilton and got the chance to meet his daughter Rihanny. What followed were days of rest and relaxation, where the Hensel children included Rihanny in sand castle making and dips in the sea.
“We have traveled all over, but this was the one place that we really fell in love with,” said Michele Hensel. “The people and the place just seemed so inviting. At the end of our week, we exchanged info and promised to keep in touch.”
A few months after the Hensels returned to the States, tragedy struck when Michele’s father lost his life in a motorcycle accident. The Hensels packed their bags and returned to Roatán, looking for peace and serenity. On this trip, they learned young Rihanny had been struggling with her health since birth. Her symptoms were being treated, but she remained undiagnosed.
The Hensels returned to Mount Pleasant, but Steve and Rihanny remained on their minds. After completing a 2015 mission trip to the mainland of Honduras with their church, the Hensels learned Rihanny’s health was declining. They made it a priority to once again travel to Roatán to take her to get the proper testing necessary to uncover just what this ailment was. Extensive lab results revealed Rihanny had sickle cell anemia.
“When we arrived back to work, we were telling our story, and our medical aesthetician informed us that one of our patients was a sickle cell specialist,” said Hensel. “Come to find out she was not just a specialist – she was the director of the pediatric Sickle Cell Department at MUSC.”
The Hensels felt the overwhelming call to help this little girl and started to take the necessary steps to bring Rihanny to the States both for treatment and schooling.
“This is such a treatable disease in our country but not in Roatán,” said Hensel. “Her doctor stated that there was nothing else he could do for her there, but he would write a letter to the embassy to see about getting her to the States for medical care.”
The Hensels quickly went into action mode, writing letters to help Rihanny secure a passport to come to the United States. While many of her days in Roatán where marked by hospital visits, she now is improving, growing stronger and adjusting to life in the Lowcountry.
“Since her treatments have started, she has only had to be hospitalized once, and her lab level and overall health have improved dramatically due to the new medication she has been on,” said Hensel.
“The most positive impact is knowing that you are helping someone remain healthy and happy,” she continued.“The negative impact is that we are unable to get any type of insurance for her, so all of her hefty medical expenses are out-of-pocket. We have searched high and low for a way to get her insured, but have not found any resources.”
The Hensels also have a goal to find sponsorship to help Steven come to the United States.
“The true angel in this story is Rihanny’s father,” said Hensel. “He loves her so much but was willing to sacrifice seeing her daily to help her get well and be educated.”
While Rihanny looks forward to the day she can be reunited with her dad, for now she cherishes living the life of a typical Mount Pleasant 8-year-old, playing with her siblings and splashing in the waves on Sullivan’s Island.
“It feels really good to make a positive impact in someone’s life,” said Hensel. “I pray that when my children are older, they will learn from what we do for others and pay it forward.”
By Kalene McCort.