It takes more than courage to cure cancer

 

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August 18, 2009
The Red Sox are good for what ails you — even cancer

During his childhood cancer fight, Dan Pardi's passion for the Red Sox helped him through his treatment. Dan is now a student at Westfield State College.

During his childhood cancer fight, Dan Pardi's passion for the Red Sox helped him through his treatment. Dan is now a student at Westfield State College.

It was easy for the nurses to find Dan Pardi when it was time for his latest round of chemotherapy. He was the kid sitting in the middle of the Jimmy Fund Clinic playroom at Dana-Farber, wearing his ever-present Red Sox cap and sifting through baseball cards.

At 7 years old, Pardi didn't really understand what cancer was about — he figured it was something all little kids had to go through. His treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) included weekly chemo sessions as well as radiation and painful spinal infusion taps. The frail young Norwood resident was often out of school, and spent weeks at a time as an inpatient at Children's Hospital Boston, Dana-Farber's pediatric oncology partner.

Baseball, however, proved a wonderful diversion. This was back in the mid- 1990s, when the Red Sox had yet to break through with their recent run of regular season and World Series success. Still, players like Mo Vaughn, Nomar Garciaparra, and John Valentin were heroes to Pardi, and following their exploits was a way to take his mind off his own situation. Even when hooked up to infusion equipment, Dan could look at his cards or watch the Sox on TV from his hospital bed or living room couch.

"Loving baseball helped me get through," says Pardi, now cancer free and a 21-year-old student at Westfield State College. "Going through cards, looking up stats, watching games, that's what took up my time at home or in the hospital. Ken Griffey was my favorite player, but the Red Sox were always my favorite team."

This was to be expected. Dan's parents, Bill and Patricia Pardi, were native Bostonians and diehard Sox fans who had passed that love down to Dan and his older siblings, Bill Jr. and Julie. During their youngest child's cancer fight, it was like the team was paying them back for their devotion just when they needed it most.

Dan couldn't wait to go to Dana-Farber for his regular visits, Bill Pardi remembers, because he knew Jimmy Fund Clinic Activities Coordinator Lisa Scherber would be there with (he hoped) some new cards for him to pore through. "From the first day he was here, he looked at each of those baseball cards like they were gold," recalls Scherber, still on the job as the clinic's beloved "Play Lady." "Every kid has one thing he or she needs to help face cancer, and for Dan it was baseball."

Former Sox Stars Pedro Martinez and Nomar Garciaparra are two of Dan's heroes whom he was able to meet through Dana-Farber.

Former Sox Stars Pedro Martinez and Nomar Garciaparra are two of Dan's heroes whom he was able to meet through Dana-Farber.

Back on the field

Pardi's treatment lasted two-and-one-half years, and during that time, because of his love of the game and the unique relationship between the Red Sox and Jimmy Fund — an official charity of the team since 1953 — many special things happened.

His baseball cards came to life as Pardi was able to meet Vaughn, Garciaparra, Valentin, and other Red Sox players during their visits to Dana-Farber, located just up the street from Fenway Park. Due to the generosity of fans who would drop off tickets at the Jimmy Fund Clinic, his and other clinic families were able to enjoy occasional forays to see the Sox in action. Dan even got to bat on the sacred Yawkey Way diamond himself during Jimmy Fund Fantasy Day at Fenway Park, when young patients took their cuts at pitches tossed by none other than former Red Sox second baseman and Jimmy Fund Chairman Mike Andrews.

"In so many ways, baseball kept him alive," says mom Patricia Pardi. "He had such a passion for it, and even when he was too sick to take part in the other things kids his age were doing, he could follow the Sox all year long starting in spring training."

Once the worst part of his cancer regimen was finished, Dan regained enough strength to make it back to playing regularly himself. His dad, a mail carrier who coached his kids' teams when his route schedule allowed, can laugh at the memories now of what was a tricky transition back then. "I'll never forget this one T-ball game when Dan had a catheter attached to his chest, where they would hook up his IV for chemotherapy. He slid into second base, and this big kid fell on top of him. Mother [Patricia] just about leaped out of her chair, but Dan just got up, brushed himself off, and yelled, 'It's OK, ma, I'm OK!'"

This zest for life made Pardi a natural to step out as a "spokespatient" for the Jimmy Fund after being declared cancer free, and here again baseball played a part. At Dana-Farber donor events held at Fenway during the off-season, the then 10- or 11-year-old would be called up to the dais by Red Sox broadcaster Joe Castiglione and interviewed about his treatment and recovery. Inevitably, these discussions would turn into Hot Stove sessions about the upcoming Red Sox season, Pardi peppering those players and coaches also in attendance with probing questions that would make any sportswriter proud. By this time Pardi had his own baseball cards, made for him by the Jimmy Fund, and during one evening he was approached by a sharp-dressed young man who wanted his autograph: Nomar Garciappara.

Still a fan

Dan and the most famous Dana-Farber patient of them all: Einar Gustafson, the original "Jimmy."

Dan and the most famous Dana-Farber patient of them all: Einar Gustafson, the original "Jimmy."

Nearly 15 years have now passed since Pardi's treatment. His dad is working the same mail route in Chestnut Hill, but he no longer needs to worry about carrying an overnight bag in his trunk in case he needs to rush to the hospital to meet up with his wife and son. Pardi's cancer treatment now consists of only annual trips to the clinic for check-ups, but the experience is never far from his thoughts. His family has participated in the Boston Marathon® Jimmy Fund Walk nearly a dozen times to raise money for Dana-Farber, and last year Dan volunteered at Fantasy Day — where he watched other young patients taking their turns at-bat. He's even done an internship with the Jimmy Fund.

Moviegoers got to "meet" Pardi and his parents this summer when they starred in the latest film trailer produced for Dana-Farber as part of the Jimmy Fund/Variety Children's Charity Theatre Collections Program. It was actually the third such trailer Dan has appeared in for the program since 1996, as audiences have had the chance to watch him grow up on screen as they plunked their coins and dollar bills into Jimmy Fund canisters passed up and down the aisles. In past years, the Pardis were sometimes among those volunteers distributing the canisters.

"The first time I saw this year's trailer, and the announcer said it was Dan, my mouth just dropped open," says Andrews of an early screening. "I remembered this little kid with huge glasses who loved Ken Griffey and the Red Sox, and here was this big college guy. I couldn't believe it." Andrews didn't notice, but there was one tell-tale sign that it was indeed Pardi he saw up on the screen, riding the trolley and laughing with his friends in the library.

The Red Sox cap on his head.

— Saul Wisnia
saul_wisnia@dfci.harvard.edu

This story appears in the August 2009 issue of Red Sox Magazine.