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Around the San Gabriel Valley

The Rowland High family responds when a little girl needs help.

October 15, 1989|Mary R. Heffron

Rowland High School was just a year old when Dick Ferrell, fresh out of college, began teaching there in 1965.

"Back then," he said last week in his office in a portable classroom, "you could have shot a cannon down Colima."

Now, Colima Road is lined with fast food outlets and gas stations and strip shopping centers, and behind them are houses and apartments and garages that spew people and cars by the thousands onto Colima and Nogales and all over Rowland Heights to the Pomona Freeway.

There are 2,500 students at Rowland High now, and more than 100 teachers. One of them is Paul Nuccio, who with Ferrell is a 1960 alumnus of Glendale High School.

This is a story of friendship and hardship. The friendship goes way back, as far as the Little League for two men now well into middle age.

The hardship is more recent. It has to do with Nuccio's little girl, Danielle. Danielle has spent five of her 8 years ingesting medicine and chemicals and radiation in an effort to kill the disease inside of her before the disease, leukemia, kills Danielle.

For a while, the chemotherapy appeared to be working. She went almost four years without a relapse, which increased her chances of complete recovery, before she suffered a major seizure last year. So, Danielle went back to the City of Hope Medical Center in Duarte for more chemotherapy and radiation.

Nuccio and his wife, Sharon, handled much of the chemotherapy at home, giving Danielle the nauseating medicine on Fridays so the little girl could recover and be back to school on Mondays.

Then, just after she started the second grade at Sellers Elementary in Glendora, Danielle suffered a seizure at school. The chemotherapy wasn't taming the monster anymore, and the monster was taking over Danielle's body.

Now, the doctors say, Danielle's only hope is a bone marrow transplant. Her parents, sister Victoria, brother Steve and other relatives all had their blood tested. Usually, there's a one in four chance that a family member will have the proper blood type to donate bone marrow.

The odds weren't with the Nuccios. But something more important was.

"She's just such a special kid," Ferrell says of the girl with big brown eyes who likes Barbie dolls and "The Cosby Show" and who cheerfully endures needles and vomiting and the loss of her hair. "She's just used to wearing a little wig and going to school. . . .

"We like to think of ourselves as a family, everybody in this school district. Whenever there's a need, a communication comes out. Someone in the Rowland family needs help."

This time, Ferrell put the communication out. He's organized two blood tests already to find that stranger--the odds are up to one in 20,000 now--whose blood will show a marrow that could match Danielle's.

About 70 people, predominantly from the Rowland Unified School District--since donors must be 18, most students weren't eligible--were tested during those two days. None of them matched.

So now, Ferrell and others at the school are planning a third drive, from 1 to 7 p.m. Wednesday at the school, 2000 S. Otterbein St. The school district is

publicizing the drive, and Rowland High is taking appointments for blood tests at (818) 964-2355 or 965-3448. Appointments aren't required; they're just to give the testers an idea of how many people will be there.

In addition, there's another drive from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. today at the Nuccios' church, St. Dorothy's in Glendora.

The drives are coordinated through Life-Savers Foundation, a marrow match operation set up by Dr. Rudolf Brutoco of Covina that taps into a nationwide network of donors. Brutoco started the foundation after his wife was stricken with leukemia; she got a marrow transplant and was cured.

With a transplant--a simple, half-hour procedure for the donor, in which a needle extracts the liquid marrow from the hip bone--survival rate for leukemia victims goes up to 70%.

Through his family 's involvement with Life-Savers, Nuccio has gotten to know other children in Danielle's predicament. "Even if we found two or three donors for Danni today, I am going to try to stay active in the Life-Savers, because we're not fighting just for Danni's life but for the girl at Walnut High School and the boy in Brea," Nuccio says.

He is calm, hopeful, with only the occasional gulp as he talks about his youngest child's ordeal. When he and his wife were told to take the chronically sick Danielle to City of Hope for tests five years ago, he says, they panicked.

"My wife's cousin's 12-year-old son had died of leukemia. . . . When she was diagnosed, I thought my world was coming apart."

Then came the long remission, and happy times. Last summer, for instance, the Make a Wish Foundation, which grants wishes to sick children, gave the family a trip to Walt Disney World in Florida. "We were feeling a little guilty," Nuccio says, "because she was doing so well. But then I talked to them and they said, no, go when she's well.

"I couldn't afford it with two kids in college, and I figured I could pay them back later. It was a beautiful vacation for the whole family.

"We came back and she started school. Midway through the second week, she had a seizure in class. . . . "

While she's waiting for a marrow match, Danielle still goes to school. She still draws happy faces and rainbows and pictures of her home and family, sometimes even while she's waiting out the chemotherapy.

"When she's well, it's a very uplifting time for my wife and I," Nuccio says. "When she's sick, it's back on the roller coaster for us.

"She hasn't really known very many well days."

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