Will Rodgers finds purpose through personal liver health initiative
What is your purpose?
It was in July 1998, as a child, that NASCAR driver Will Rodgers began the fateful path to his goal.
At this time, the countryside of Easton, Maryland was home to the Rodgers family. Will had just become a big brother with the birth of a sister. The family had recently moved to the Maui, Hawaii area a year prior due to a new job opportunity for his father, Bill. With a new area to explore and a new family member, the jubilation seemed great for the Rodgers family. However, this excitement was subdued when Will began to suffer from lingering symptoms of otherwise common childhood illnesses.
The energetic 3-year-old was not as active as usual and his typical eating habits started to deteriorate.
“Will wasn’t having fun and was jumping around like a toddler should,” his mother Shari said. “It was very unusual. We knew something was terribly wrong. »
As fate would have it, Dr. Ali Mehrizi, a highly respected pediatrician in Easton, who co-authored two books including Congenital heart disease and Major problems in clinical pediatrics, was the Rodgers family’s pediatrician.
During a physical examination, Dr. Mehrizi felt something disturbing.
“He turned white as a ghost and said, ‘I can smell Will’s liver,'” Shari said. There was no known liver disease on either side of the family.
Dr. Mehrizi rushed Will to Johns Hopkins Hospital to see Dr. Kathleen Schwarz, chief of pediatric hepatology.
The coming weeks and months would be hectic for Will and the Rodgers family, with countless blood tests and liver biopsies to determine the cause of his illness.
Rodgers was confirmed to have primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC), a chronic liver disease.
Specialists from around the world were called to Johns Hopkins Hospital to help with treatment and diagnosis.
“Will’s case was obviously very rare, and they really wanted to investigate it,” Bill said. “Will was a bit of a poster child at (Johns) Hopkins. One of the doctors told me that he thought Will was very lucky because many pediatricians might not have diagnosed PSC in a child. Therefore, he may not have received the necessary treatment.
There is no current cure for PSC and the emotional distress was increasing for the family.
“We were told in so many words that there would be no guarantees and that we had to consider preparing for the worst,” Bill said. “It’s incredibly difficult with a toddler and a newborn at home. It was extremely difficult.
The treatment continued for two years that seemed endless to her parents. It was in the early 2000s when Shari and Bill could start breathing easier thanks to a remarkable turn of events.
After two years of treating symptoms, Dr. Schwarz examined 5-year-old Rodgers. Much to the delight of the specialist and his parents, his symptoms eased and his prayers were answered.
This milestone was a celebration for her parents and her team of doctors. Schwarz told Rodgers she hoped never to see him again in his professional career, signaling the end of his care. Rodgers burst into tears, not realizing that it wasn’t an insult but a celebration.
A few years later, work brought the family back to Maui where their son’s running journey began to take shape.
After being introduced to karting at the age of 8, he won the Hawaii State Championship in karting, in 18 months.
Family work opportunities and some racing opportunities for Rodgers brought the family of five to California. Will has raced virtually anything with a motor, from motorcycles to all-terrain vehicles. He became regional champion in motocross racing, stadium series champion in off-road UTVS and 2015 NASA West Coast champion in sports car racing. In 2016, Rodgers became the winningest driver in the Pirelli World Challenge Pro B Spec class.
Rodgers’ accomplishments and experience paved the way for NASCAR. He would go on to become an ARCA Menards Series East (2017-2018) and ARCA Menards Series West (2018) winner.
In 2018, Rodgers personally earned sponsorship to compete in the ARCA Menards Series and was named to the next NASCAR class (2018-2019). In 2019, Rodgers earned a sponsorship and made his NASCAR Xfinity Series debut, becoming the only active NASCAR driver in Hawaii.
Along with running, Rodgers has made it his mission to raise awareness about liver disease and cancer. He adopted a “liver-healthy lifestyle,” with a high-quality diet, rigorous fitness routine, and limited alcoholic beverage consumption.
The Maui-born driver found racing a passion, but his life purpose was about to come true when a trip to the West Coast revealed a new path.
Rodgers had the opportunity to race with Levine Racing in the ARCA Menards Series West race at Sonoma Raceway. After flying to Tucson, Arizona to meet the team, a sticker on the car caught the eye of a crew member.
“He turns to me and says, ‘Will, what’s this deal with the American Liver Foundation on the car this weekend,'” Rodgers explained. “So I gave him a complete rundown of who I am, where I come from and what I tried to do.”
After Rodgers shared his story, the crew member revealed to someone he had just met that he had been diagnosed with hepatitis C. The conversation sparked a unique bonding moment as the crew member The crew had previously not disclosed the diagnosis to anyone due to the stigma attached to the disease.
Just before entering the fabrication shop, the team member said to Rodgers, “Will, this probably won’t affect you the way it affected me, but I need you to know that you have changed my life forever.”
A surprised Rodgers didn’t understand what those brief moments together meant for the crew member, but it wasn’t until qualifying in Sonoma on Saturday that the true power of Rodgers’ story would be showcased. . The crew member told Rodgers before his race that he finally had the confidence to tell his friends and family about his diagnosis and that he had received nothing but support from them. The development also led the crew member to start proper treatment for hepatitis C. Twelve weeks later, the crew member was officially declared free of the disease.
“It was pretty amazing because we barely tried,” Rodgers said. “We pretty much just put logos on the car and went racing, and we changed somebody’s life because of it.”
The experience motivated Rodgers to take his goal to the next level. After looking at other liver health organizations, he realized there was a gap that needed to be filled. Will established the Will Rodgers Liver Health Foundation in 2020 to help achieve his goals and visions. Rodgers formed the nonprofit and worked tirelessly to advance it and his racing career.
“They’re very focused on the research and the patient side — getting patients all the information they need during the therapy process,” Rodgers said. “We really focus on the awareness and education part, making sure the message can get out to millions of people.”
The foundation is now launching “Care Connection Tactics,” with interactive fan experiences at select race events and community events to encourage others to take their liver health seriously. In the near future, fans will have the opportunity to get their finger pricked with hepatitis C and see the results within minutes.
The foundation’s effort, led by Rodgers, culminates in its overarching vision – an all-new philanthropic HCV awareness campaign – RaceToEndHepC.com.
It was these stories, similar to those of the crew member, that drove Rodgers to begin building a new initiative.
“A major component of the Race to End Hep C initiative is the field and community activation space,” Rodgers said. “It is important to reach communities affected by hepatitis C, in person, to communicate the importance of education, testing and treatment. Together with our supporting partners, we will provide a step-by-step process for anyone who wants to learn more about hepatitis C and how we are working to end it.
The new project is backed by some big names in the medical field, including GoodRx, OraSure Technologies, and more to come.
Through his personal experiences, Rodgers is a professional athlete who brings a unique voice and actionable platform to the liver health community. With the help of the NASCAR national platform and partnerships with dedicated sponsors, Rodgers and his Will Rodgers Liver Health Foundation are committed to bringing awareness, treatment and medical advances to defeat the diseases. liver.
To join Rodgers in racing on and off the track, visit us at RaceToEndHepC.com.