It takes more than courage to cure cancer

 

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August 14, 2008
For teens with cancer, road trips offer baseball and bonding

Tim Wakefield didn't pitch in Chicago on Aug. 9, but he still made a big impression on one very special group of fans who traveled from Boston to see the Red Sox take on the White Sox that Saturday at U.S. Cellular Field.

Jimmy Fund Clinic patients are all smiles at U.S. Cellular Field

Jimmy Fund Clinic patients are all smiles at U.S. Cellular Field.

Wakefield was one of several Bosox players who met before the game with 40 teenagers, all of whom are in active (or recently completed) treatment at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute's Jimmy Fund Clinic. Vaulting the short fence separating the field from where the clinic contingent and their chaperones were gathered in seats near the visitor's dugout, Wakefield was talking with some of the young road-trippers when he noticed one 15-year-old literally hopping up about 10 rows of seats to meet him. It was Robby Coughlin of Framingham, who lost a leg in April as part of his osteosarcoma (bone cancer) treatment but was so anxious to see the knuckleballer that he didn't bother to grab his crutches before traversing the steps.

Robby Coughlin being carried by Tim Wakefield

15-year-old Robby Coughlin catches a ride with knuckleballer Tim Wakefield at U.S. Cellular Field.

"I wanted to get up there as fast as I could, but once I did I was kind of nervous, not knowing what to say," Coughlin recalled with a laugh a few days after the encounter. "We took a picture, talked a bit, and then he said to me, 'Do you need a ride?' I said sure, so he helped carry me back down to the front row. It was very cool; I was basically in shock."

Coughlin was already a Sox fan before the encounter, but now he's off the charts. Even more importantly, he had the opportunity during the toughest year of his life to not only meet some of his heroes, but also bond away from the hospital with other teens who are going through similar experiences that only they can fully understand. For the two days he and the other boys and girls spent hanging out at the ballpark, their hotel rooms, and on buses and planes, there were no needles, scans, or parents to worry about — just time to hang out like "normal" kids.

"Knowing what they go through in the clinic, it's great to see them so happy, just being themselves," says Brian Crompton, MD, a chaperone on this year's trip and the primary oncologist for seven attendees including Coughlin. "It gives us all a more profound appreciation for the challenges they face and what they are capable of doing."

Red Sox shortstop Alex Cora poses with patients in the stands at U.S.  Cellular Field.

Red Sox shortstop Alex Cora poses with patients in the stands at U.S. Cellular Field.

Dana-Farber's Jimmy Fund has been an official charity of the Red Sox since 1953, but it's hard to find a more powerful example of the unique bond between the team and the cancer center than these teen road trips — which include sojourns both to Florida during spring training and one away game in a different locale each regular season. Patients are all allowed to go on two trips, and expenses are paid thanks to the ongoing generosity of Michael Gordon and his family. Gordon, a member of the Red Sox partnership group, is also a Dana-Farber trustee who for years has been giving his own home tickets to the clinic for use by young patients and their families.

An annual ritual

Todd Schwartz and Derek Lowe

Todd Schwartz with former Boston Red Sox Pitcher Derek Lowe in 2002.

The trips were the brainchild of Todd Schwartz, a teenager from Westwood who was in the midst of his own cancer treatment when he decided to go with his college buddies to Baltimore's Camden Yards and see a Red Sox-Orioles game. As much as he loved his family and the staff at the Jimmy Fund Clinic, he found that getting away from his cancer for a few days was an exhilarating feeling. The next time he was at Dana-Farber, he sought out Clinic Activities Coordinator Lisa Scherber and told her she needed to take the clinic kids on a road trip.

"I told him he was crazy — there was no way we were going to take kids in the middle of treatment out on the road for two days," says Scherber, smiling in her cramped office filled with photo albums of events she's organized in 15 years on the job. "After Todd passed away at age 19 a few months later, I thought, 'We've got to do this.' We organized a trip for 20 kids to go to Baltimore that fall, and as soon as I saw the kids in the airport, I realized Todd was right. They were really connecting, because they were talking to other kids who looked like them and had the same stories."

Lauren Ciampa and Tori Rando

Tori Rando (right), a 19-year-old non-Hodgkins lymphoma survivor, was a junior chaperone to Lauren Ciampa and other current patients.

The trip became an annual part of the Dana-Farber calendar in 2003, and the list of ballparks visited now includes Atlanta's Turner Field, Detroit's Comerica Park as well as U.S. Cellular Field. "I was so scared on my first trip, but it was amazing," says Tori Rando, a 19-year-old non-Hodgkins lymphoma survivor. "Me and some of the other girls sat around laughing and crying, showing each other our scars. We talked about what we were going through and how we felt. It was relieving to get everything out. I felt like a new person."

Jimmy Fund Clinic patient Larry Theriault with trip chaperone Brian Crompton, MD

Jimmy Fund Clinic patient Larry Theriault with trip chaperone Brian Crompton, MD.

With her own cancer in remission, Rando — a veteran of trips to Baltimore and Atlanta — went back this year as a junior chaperone. There she had a chance to bond with the next generation of clinic kids like Larry Theriault, a 16-year-old who is nearly blind from two bouts of brain cancer but appeared to be cheering louder than anybody in the Chicago ballpark when David Ortiz cracked a three-run double in Boston's 6-2 victory.

"At school it feels like nobody understands you or may feel uncomfortable coming up to you because you're the kid with the cane," says Theriault. "Here you don't have to be cool, people just accept you for who you are. And the players couldn't be nicer."

Beautiful in green

Katiria Cabieles gets close to the action during warm-ups.

Katiria Cabieles gets close to the action during warm-ups.

Although doctors, nurses, other clinic staff, and medications are all brought along on the trips, they can be nerve-racking for families who are letting their sick children travel hundreds or even thousands of miles from home. Nobody who lets their kids go, however, ever regrets doing so. "It's a treasure he'll have forever," says Theriault's mom, Kathy. "Larry can't play sports, but this is something he can talk to kids about on the bus and feel proud of; we can't thank the Jimmy Fund or the Red Sox enough for letting him experience things he never would otherwise."

Ask Scherber and other clinic staff for one patient-player relationship that stands out from the trips, and they will immediately bring up Holly Young and Curt Schilling. While on the Atlanta trip in 2006, Young — who had a rare bone cancer called Ewing's sarcoma — was very conscious about her thinning hair and wore a green Red Sox hat and bandana everywhere she went. When Schilling met with the kids, he smiled at Young and said something along the lines of "There is nothing more beautiful than a girl in a green hat and bandana." For the rest of the trip, Young was beaming.

"Eight months later, we were flying to Florida for spring training, and Holly was really sick on the plane," recalls Scherber. "She kept saying, 'I wonder if Curt will remember me?' and of course we wondered too. Well, he not only remembered her, when he heard we were there he came right over and said, 'Where's my Holly?' He talked to her before any of the other kids. Afterward she said to me, 'Lisa, he made my life.'"

Young died a few months later, and Schilling posted a comment in her memory on his Web site, 38pitches.com, that stated: "Holly was one of those people you meet that no matter how beautiful they look on the outside you get a glimpse of the inner strength and fortitude, and it blows you away."

— Saul Wisnia
saul_wisnia@dfci.harvard.edu

This story appears in the sixth edition of Red Sox Magazine, available at Fenway Park in September 2008.