Hill District native Jovon Higgins-Mitchell passes away from ALS, a rarity in African Americans

JOVON HIGGINS-MITCHELL

by Rob Taylor Jr., Courier Staff Writer

Nate Mitchell, better known in Pittsburgh as Nate “Da Phat Barber” and the owner of two local barber shops, was going above and beyond the call of duty when he decided to attend a prom lineup featuring one of his clients, who was a high school senior.

After all, it was the high school senior’s big day—he was dressed up in his finest outfit, his date donning her best prom dress. Other prom participants were there, too, on this spring afternoon in 1998, as Mitchell, parents and other adults cheered and took pictures before the high schoolers attended the prom that evening.

One of the adults cheering from across the way was Jovon Higgins. She had just graduated from Virginia State University, a historically-Black college 25 miles south of Richmond.

Brett Banks, who attended the prom lineup with Mitchell, spotted his longtime friend, Higgins, and he introduced Mitchell to her.

Little did Mitchell know that going to a simple prom lineup for one of his clients would lead him to his future wife.

“She was beautiful,” Mitchell recalled to the New Pittsburgh Courier.

Months later, at a concert for the hip-hop group The Roots, he saw Higgins again, got her number, “and the rest was history.”

JOVON HIGGINS-MITCHELL, with husband, Nate Mitchell, and their daughter, Lauren, in this 2014 photo. (Photo by Courier Photogapher Emmai Alaquiva)

For the next 20 years, the two were inseparable. They got married in October 2011, raised their now 9-year-old daughter, Lauren, together (along with Nate Mitchell’s older daughter, Kamaria), bought a home in Penn Hills together, opened a business together in Lawrenceville…

“She was a loving mother, loved her daughter like no other, a loving wife, a mentor to many, personally and through business,” Nate Mitchell said about Jovon Higgins-Mitchell. “She was a true entrepreneur for sure, and she just loved life, she was all about life and being present.”

Nate Mitchell said although his wife was a Christian, she was very “mindful” of things around her, referring to a principle called “mindfulness” that’s derived from “sati,” an element of Buddhist traditions. He said she wanted to create a community center in Pittsburgh with “mindfulness and presence at its core and base.”

After all, her bachelor’s degree from Virginia State was in psychology, and she was pursuing a master’s in psychiatry from Point Park University.

But her life was cut short due to a disease that rarely affects African Americans—ALS.

ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. It’s more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, after the New York Yankees baseball player, a seven-time All-Star, whose career was derailed in the late 1930s due to the disease.

According to the ALS Association, in the human body, motor neurons reach from the brain to the spinal cord and from the spinal cord to the muscles throughout the body. ALS causes the motor neurons to progressively degenerate. When that happens, the ability of the brain to initiate and control muscle movement is lost. With voluntary muscle action progressively affected, people may lose the ability to speak, eat, move and, ultimately, breathe. The motor nerves that are affected when a person has ALS are the motor neurons that provide voluntary movements and muscle control. Examples of voluntary movements are making the effort to reach for a phone or step off a curb. These actions are controlled by the muscles in the arms and legs.

There is no cure for ALS. The average life expectancy of a person with the disease is two to five years from the time of diagnosis.

But it’s a disease that is not commonly found in African Americans. The National Center for Biotechnology Information reported that from 2009-2011, 5,883 unique ALS cases were identified, but just 9.3 percent were African Americans. Whites accounted for nearly 75 percent of the cases, 12 percent classified as an unknown race.

There are currently about 16,000 people nationwide living with ALS, with 93 percent of the current cases believed to be affecting Whites.

With ALS so infrequent in the Black community, that type of diagnosis was the last thing on the minds of Jovon Higgins-Mitchell and Nate Mitchell, who are Black, once Jovon Higgins-Mitchell started experiencing muscle twitching, muscle weakness and loss of balance four years ago.

The doctors tested Jovon Higgins-Mitchell for “everything,” Nate Mitchell said. “All these cancers, heart disease, HIV, everything under the sun. And if you come back with a clean bill of health,” then it could be ALS.

“You almost wish they could come up with something else to tell you,” Nate Mitchell said, rather than being diagnosed with ALS. “I personally feel like it’s one of the most reckless diagnoses you can give a patient, because you can’t see it, it’s all based off of symptoms.”

Jovon Higgins-Mitchell’s diagnosis came in late 2015. Nate Mitchell told the Courier the husband-and-wife team never let the doctors give her “an expiration date. We didn’t want that energy in our direction, even with a grim diagnosis. I feel like we got as much time as we did because we took that stance.”

Jovon Higgins-Mitchell passed away in the family home on July 20. She was 43. Her funeral was held at the family’s home church, Macedonia Baptist Church in the Hill District. But Nate Mitchell told the Courier that Jovon Higgins-Mitchell didn’t want her death to be a sad occasion. So, after the funeral, there was a big party/repast held at Tree Pittsburgh in Lawrenceville.

“Jovon was a magnificent spirit that trotted the earth with the love of arts tucked inside every pocket she had,” said mutual friend Emmai Alaquiva, a Gubernatorial Officer for the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. “With her needle of fashion, she had the ability to stitch the fabric of a community together.”

Jovon Higgins-Mitchell, a 1993 Schenley High School graduate who was raised in the Hill District, was well-known to Pittsburgh fashion gurus as co-owner of 720 Music, Clothing and Café in Lawrenceville. She produced fashion shows and had a clothing line called “720 Instant Vintage.”

Actually, “720” holds an important meeting to Nate Mitchell and Jovon Higgins-Mitchell. Not only was it included in the name of their business and Jovon Higgins-Mitchell’s clothing line, but according to Nate Mitchell, “she had exactly 720 posts on her Instagram…we purchased our home on July 20 (7/20), 2007…”

And on July 20 (7/20), 2019, she transitioned.

“My wife did everything in style,” Nate Mitchell told the Courier. “It wasn’t a sad thing (when she passed away). We all watched her suffer. She was definitely ready. She was at peace for sure.”

 

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