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When a Little Leaguer has cancer

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This story out of Haverstraw, N.Y., about an 8-year-old Little Leaguer with leukemia brought back from strong memories for me, because two years ago I was managing a team of kids around that age in a similar, difficult situation. From the Journal News in White Plains, N.Y.:

Sean DePatto ran onto the Haverstraw Little League field Friday with the energy one might expect from an 8-year-old ballplayer.

But what impressed the parents, coaches and players before the Haverstraw Devil Rays took on the Haverstraw Phillies Friday night was that Sean ran out onto the field after rushing back from Manhattan, where he had just undergone six hours of chemotherapy. …

Like the manager of the Haverstraw Devil Rays, I knew before my 2008 season of managing the 8- and 9-year-old Cyclones softball team in Oak Lawn, Ill., that one of my returning players would be recovering from leukemia. That’s because the girl, Olivia, lived just down the block and was good friends with my daughter, Grace.

In midsummer 2007, soon after my then-8-year-old daughter’s first softball season, my first as an assistant coach, and after Grace and Olivia had both played in their league all-star game, Olivia was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia.  Her mother feared the worst when she noticed Olivia’s lethargy and an unusual amount of bruising on her legs. Olivia’s family was told that while the five-year survival rate was 80 percent, it would take two-and-a-half years of treatment, including intense chemotherapy, before she would be back to anything resembling normal.

When we told Grace about Olivia’s sickness, we didn’t use the c-word, cancer. With the prognosis for recovery good, we didn’t want to scare her that she would possibly be losing a friend. Later, Grace came home from a visit to Olivia’s house (often the visits were brief because of Olivia’s lack of energy, a combination of the leukemia and the therapy) and asked us if we knew Olivia had cancer.

As adults, you get worried about how your child is going to take bad news from you. It never occurs to you that their fellow child will deliver it, and do so in a way that’s a lot less scary than your tiptoeing around.

It got to the point that, at least as far as Grace and Olivia were concerned, her disease and treatment routine became a matter-of-fact kind of thing — to them, anyway. For us adults, Olivia’s ability to handle so much struggle with so much ease was much more amazing. Olivia’s hospital gave her an award for her courage in the face of leukemia and all it entails. Then again, Olivia had never shown herself to shirk away from trouble. Grace and Olivia first met at age 3, when as her parents walked her down the block after just moving in, Grace — who then as now towers over Olivia — put up her dukes and chirped, “You wanna play fight?” Olivia didn’t say yes — but she didn’t back away, either.

When her hospital gave Olivia the award, the press release that came with it said that because of exhaustion, she could have to curtail her favorite activities, such as dance and riding her scooter.

Softball wasn’t mentioned, but as the 2008 season approached, I, as manager that year, fully expected Olivia not to play, even though her parents had signed her up the previous October, quite an act of positive thinking only a few months after her diagnosis. Olivia’s mother told me she would miss pre-season practices because of an especially intense round of treatment, but that she would be available for games. I went overboard emphasizing that it was up to her and Olivia, and that I wanted her guidance on what Olivia could handle. She said she would give it to me, and that, by the way, she’d also like to be the snack parent again this year.

I also explained to the team and the league what was going on with Olivia. With the team, as my wife and I were with Grace when we first learned of Olivia’s diagnosis, I was more circumspect about the c-word. I explained that Olivia had been sick and was getting treatment, and that they shouldn’t be surprised about Olivia’s lack of hair. Instead of a visor, Olivia would wear a cap given to the managers and coaches that her mother cut up and sewed so it would fit her head. As an added touch, she colored the white lettering on the black cap green so it would match the color of the lettering of the black visors worn by her fellow Cyclones.

Unlike Sean DePatto’s teammates in Haverstraw, neither my girls (nor their coaches) shaved their heads in support. That’s a great idea, and I thought about whether to suggest it. However, I figured that might be a lot to ask to a group of girls, particularly on a team which had members going through their Catholic First Communion during the season. Plus, I got the sense that the last thing Olivia wanted was attention as the Sick Girl, and having a team full of bald heads would only make that more plain.

Unlike Sean DePatto, Olivia by this point was well enough to go to school. But I think this statement by Sean’s mother, Kim, applies to Olivia as well, or any sick children who, if they don’t understand how serious their illness might be, understand the frustration of being told you can’t do your favorite things, and the determination to be able to do them again: “For him to be able to participate with the baseball team is giving him such a rush … It really makes a tremendous difference for him.”

I did not realize until the season was close to the end that Olivia sometimes would come straight to the game from, say, a spinal tap. All I knew was, Olivia, except for her jury-rigged cap, looked no different from the girl who played the previous year. Between her small stature and her quick bat, she was a tough out. And she again was one of our best pitchers. She could pitch two straight innings without getting frustrated or distracted, even if she got herself into a jam.

The only signs of Sick Girl were when the brother of an opposing team member tried to rip off her hat, and my constant asking of Olivia whether she was all right, which I asked so often she probably wondered whether something was wrong with me.

Otherwise, she ran with her teammates, played catch with her teammates, and sang the same interminable cheers that softball girls appear to know without anyone ever having taught them. I chose Olivia as one of our team’s all-star representatives because she was one of our best players. (In the picture to the upper right is Olivia, on the left, and Grace on the right.)

Sean DePatto’s coaches and teammates say that they are all better for having had Sean on the team, and I can say the same thing about myself and Olivia’s fellow Cyclones. I’m not sure how those girls will remember the experience. Maybe it’s because Grace and myself knew Olivia long before she got sick, or maybe it was her own determination to play well no matter what. But I don’t recall any overly emotional moments related to her being ill. All I remember is a kid who played hard on a team I had fun managing. I suspect in later years Grace will crystallize and share with my wife and I more of her own memories, and that they will probably have a lot more to do with the one-on-one time she spent with Olivia at her house during the worst of her therapy and illness, and not so much about the softball.

The next year, Grace and Olivia moved up an age group in their league, and they ended up on different teams. I switched to managing my son’s T-ball team, leaving Grace’s softball training in much more capable hands. Olivia ended her treatments for leukemia and is cancer-free. She also got back her head of hair. In 2010, she’s not playing softball, favoring instead theater and dance — as well as making videos with Grace, like the iCarly-inspired piece below.

[youtubevid id="rujunJSHVQA"]

And, in case her old hospital would like to know, when Olivia comes over to see Grace, she’s riding her scooter.

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