Milos Holan reported for his preseason physical with the Mighty Ducks in September full of excitement about the season ahead--a season destined, he was sure, to be his best yet. Instead, he learned within weeks that he has a slow-progressing form of leukemia.
Twenty-two years ago, Minnesota Twin shortstop Danny Thompson entered a doctor's office with the same sense of anticipation about the baseball season.
The two young athletes had the same mind-numbing experience: a routine blood test, an alarmingly high white blood-cell count, more tests, a diagnosis of chronic granulocytic leukemia, disbelief. Surely someone had switched the vials.
Both were at the prime of their youth, but both had a silent disease that without treatment would one day turn deadly.
Both also were determined to keep playing. There is no medical reason not to. Thompson played four seasons after his diagnosis. Holan has scored two goals and added an assist in six games since returning from a frustrating, monthlong stint in the press box while management wondered whether his medication or the overwhelming emotional burden was keeping him from playing at his best.
Twenty-odd years ago, it was much the same for Thompson.
"Sometimes I wanted to shout, 'Listen, I can still play this game!' " Thompson wrote in "E-6," a book chronicling his 1973-75 seasons. "I'm not going to die this year. Hell, I might make the all-star team!"
So much about their cases is strikingly similar, but 20 years of dramatic medical advances have given Holan, 24, something Thompson didn't have: a cure.
With a successful bone marrow transplant, Holan can beat his leukemia and live a normal life. When Thompson's condition was diagnosed, the treatment was still in its infancy--and was not even attempted on patients with his form of leukemia. He died in 1976 at 29.
"Someone like [Thompson], if he were alive today, we'd look first at his family to see if there was a donor and then you'd look at the international registry to see if there was a donor," said Dr. Stephen Forman, director of hematology and bone marrow transplantation at the City of Hope Medical Center in Duarte.
First attempted in 1956 and performed successfully in the late 1960s, marrow transplantation was a dangerous procedure that failed far more often than it succeeded. Because of that, it was usually tried only in the advanced stages of the disease and wasn't even considered for patients in a chronic phase.
Today, early marrow transplants are the definitive treatment for patients such as Holan, and a successful transplant before the leukemia turns acute can produce a cure.
The advances have been remarkable, and many have occurred in Holan's lifetime. Early transplants were performed on patients who received marrow from an identical twin, providing hope for only the few so blessed. Later, doctors learned to match patients with close relatives, and then with complete strangers, performing the first successful transplant from an unrelated donor in 1979.
That was a significant advance, since only 30% of patients who need transplants have a relative whose marrow closely matches their own. Holan is one of the other 70%: He and his only sister, Radka, did not match. But with the 1987 establishment of a well-organized registry of 1.8 million potential donors run by the National Marrow Donor Program, about 65% of those patients now eventually find matches.
Holan is becoming a walking public-service announcement for the marrow registry, and this week in New York he answered the same questions repeatedly with openness and warmth as television crews lined up five deep to speak to him.
He would like the questions to be about hockey, but he knows that every interview he gives might lead to the registration of the donor who matches him or another patient. He and Angel coach Rod Carew have lent each other's cause support, urging potential donors to register as the Carew family searches for a match for Michelle Carew, 18, who is hospitalized with an acute form of leukemia.
Holan's teammates have all been tested, and the Ducks are holding a public drive to register potential donors for patients in need of marrow transplants today from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the National Sports Grill at 450 N. State College Blvd. in Orange.
"Bone marrow is an organ too, and you can give bone marrow while you're still alive," Duck Coach Ron Wilson said. "It's not something you put on your drivers' license. I'm aware of that now, and I'm in the pool. Hopefully some day I can save someone's life. If not Milos, maybe someone else's."
Now Holan is playing a strange waiting game. The initial search of the U.S. registry did not produce a match, though three prospects have been located in Europe, where more people share the genetic heritage of Holan, a Czech. He longs for the phone call that can save his life, but he cannot dwell on it, because the fear would overtake him.