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In Loving Memory of Their Son : Teen's Parents Hope to Spare Others Pain Leukemia Causes

July 22, 1993|DANIELLE A. FOUQUETTE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

PLACENTIA — Carol Morris has so many memories of her son, Daniel, that when she talks about him, anecdotes spill out like pictures tumbling from an old photo album.

One minute, Morris describes how her 17-year-old son loved to pull practical jokes on friends. The next minute, she vividly recalls him as a little boy.

"When he was about 5, we asked him, 'What do you think your friends say about you when you aren't around?' " Morris said. "He thought for a minute, then replied, 'Gee, I wish Daniel was here.' "

Morris laughs at the memory, but adds softly, "It's so true now."

Last month, Daniel died after a 2 1/2-year battle with leukemia.

Hoping to reduce the odds of other parents knowing the pain of losing a child to leukemia, Carol and Herb Morris have done something. They've established two funds: the Daniel Morris Memorial Fund for Leukemia Research and a medical school scholarship for graduates of Valencia High School in Placentia, which Daniel attended.

As of Tuesday, the Morrises had collected $800 to divide between the two funds. Their goal is to award a $500 scholarship for the next five years to a Valencia senior planning to attend medical school. They want to donate an equal amount to a leukemia research fund in Daniel's memory.

After learning in October, 1990, that their son had leukemia, the parents were cautiously optimistic about his chances of surviving. His doctor said the disease had been detected in the earliest stages, and within a few months chemotherapy produced remission.

Daniel, too, seemed ready to tackle the challenge of beating a disease that was often, but not always, fatal. Instead of complaining about losing hair because of the chemotherapy, he simply shaved his head. In a show of support, several of his friends did the same.

Once he was in remission, Carol Morris said, her son was determined to live like a typical teen-ager. That included throwing large parties and pulling pranks, attending rock concerts and dating.

"He was very much a teen-ager," she said. "It's not easy to discipline a child with a fatal disease. I always considered his illness when we had run-ins, because I wanted to make him happy."

Daniel always loved music. But it took on a new importance after his illness was diagnosed. The balcony off his bedroom was turned into a music room by the Starlight Foundation, which grants wishes to terminally-ill young people, and he spent hours there practicing with a band he formed.

As months went by without a relapse, Carol Morris grew more convinced that her son would be cured.

"I always had complete faith he would live," she said. "I thought if I prayed hard enough . . . he would survive."

The prayers seemed to be answered late last year. A search for possible bone marrow donors turned up 12 perfect matches. Four of them were willing to donate their bone marrow.

But last January, it was discovered that the leukemia had returned. Doctors tried drug after drug, but were unable to produce remission. Finally, in April, Daniel was given experimental chemotherapy.

The treatment helped for awhile, but the disease won out, and Daniel returned to the hospital for the last time.

His mother can't remember a time when her son wasn't surrounded by friends. From the time he could talk, she said, her son seemed to gather people around him.

Still, she wasn't prepared for the number of people who visited Daniel in the hospital. He was never alone, and his visitors included neighbors, teachers and students.

"That was the first I knew how much my son had touched people," she said.

Eli Peralta, who was one of Daniel's high school counselors, said the boy's courage and optimism drew Valencia students to their classmate.

"He rallied so many times, each time more and more people became aware of him and his courage," Peralta said. "They saw how fragile life is, yet they also saw a lot of hope and courage."

Peralta realized the impact Daniel had on his fellow students at Valencia's graduation last month. Although he was a junior, the entire senior class wore white ribbons in his memory. More significant, Peralta said, was the lack of pranks that usually accompany graduation.

"This was the first year that we didn't have any incidents at graduation," he said.

Daniel hoped to be at that graduation, but just days before the ceremony, he suffered what proved to be a fatal setback.

On June 14, while sleeping in the hospital room next to Daniel's, Carol Morris heard her son gasping for air. She ran into his room, noticed he wasn't breathing and alerted a nurse.

After 45 minutes, the team of nurses and doctors had revived her son, but the lack of oxygen sent him into a coma.

By June 17, it was apparent that Daniel was not going to come out of the coma, and the family decided to remove the tubes and machines that kept him alive.

They waited until Daniel's father could get to the hospital that evening to move Daniel to another room, where they would turn off the life-support system.

Somehow, word had spread about the family's plans, and when the Morrises stepped off the elevator to wheel their son to the room, the corridor was lined with more than 200 of Daniel's friends.

"I'll never forget that sight," Carol Morris said. "They were everywhere."

At 7 p.m. June 17, Daniel was disconnected from the tube that pumped oxygen into his lungs. With his friends keeping a vigil in his room, Daniel lived for 24 more hours.

Just before many of his friends, including his girlfriend, Tracie Wilber, were scheduled to graduate on June 18, Daniel breathed his last.

"You know, he told me a few weeks before he died how much he wanted to beat that graduation," his mother said. "He said, 'If they don't let me out of here for Tracie's graduation, I'm going to leave this place and never come back.' "

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