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Love, Strength and Unity Replace Lack of Control : Disease: Acute non-lymphocytic leukemia, an aggressive killer that strikes 500 American children a year, invaded Michelle Carew's bloodstream in September. Now Rod Carew and his family ride a roller coaster of emotion and medical crises while waiting for a bone marrow transplant for Michelle--that rare genetic match, the gift of life from a stranger.

December 17, 1995|STEVE WILSTEIN | ASSOCIATED PRESS

Rod Carew muses wistfully about the snow his daughter Michelle has never seen, the falling flakes she's never tasted, the powder she's never scooped in her hands.

Is there a way, he wonders, to make it snow outside her window in Room 306 of Children's Hospital in Orange? Get some machine and let her watch the snow float down magically in the brilliant Southern California sunshine?

No, he says, she'd be wise to that, would tell him, "Daddy, it doesn't snow here, you have to go to Big Bear or Mammoth to see the snow for real."

He and his wife, Marilynn, share smiles that have become rare lately, thinking together about Michelle's way of talking, her jokes and her dreams.

"It's a simple thing that this kid wants to see," he says. Watery eyes. Voice cracking. Fingers twisting the chunky gold Hall of Fame ring on his right hand. "The first thing I'm going to make sure she sees when she gets well is the snow, I don't care where we have to go."

Acute non-lymphocytic leukemia, an aggressive killer that strikes 500 American children a year, invaded Michelle's bloodstream in September. Some rogue cell simply appeared in the bone marrow and triggered the disease. A college freshman, two months shy of 18. Healthy and lively until that night.

"A bone marrow transplant would do a couple of things," Dr. Mitchell S. Cairo, her oncologist, says. "One, is that we would eliminate the original cell. And when you use a foreign bone marrow from an unrelated donor, it reacts against the recipient's leukemia cells at the same time it's generating normal blood cells. You just do it once, and it stays, hopefully, forever."

They wait for that rare genetic match, the gift of life from a stranger. No matter that the chance is infinitesimally small, maybe impossible. How many people have a black father of West Indian and Panamanian blood, a white mother born of Ukrainian Jews?

So far, there's no match with any of the three million donors registered worldwide, not even her older sisters, Charryse and Stephanie, who matched each other but somehow not her.

"A lot of minorities aren't in the donor pool to begin with, let alone someone who's like Michelle," Marilynn Carew says. "In 1970 when we got married, interracial couples weren't very popular. So there aren't too many products of those marriages old enough (at least 18) to be a donor."

With a blood-related donor, her doctor says, Michelle's chances of a cure would have been about 75%. A non-related donor, 50%. No donor, perhaps 30 to 50%.

Carew desperately clings to the hope that someone who matches Michelle will call the National Marrow Donor Program at 1-800-MARROW-2 and try to save her. And if she can't be saved, Carew plans to go on urging people to save other children by registering as marrow donors. He's led donor drives so far everywhere from Planet Hollywood to a Panamanian grocery, hundreds of people lining up to give blood samples and sign the national registry.

He has teamed with Milos Holan, an Anaheim Mighty Ducks defenseman, in a donor drive sponsored by the team and Disney. Holan, 24, has chronic granulocytic leukemia. He, too, waits for a marrow transplant.

"No matter what happens, my fight's not going to end until the day that I beat this thing," Carew says. "Any time of day that they need me, I'm going to be there. I want Michelle to be able to realize her dream of becoming a nurse and saving someone's life. And I want the other kids who have this disease to be able to realize their dreams, too."

Rod Carew is a strong, proud, dignified man, unused to revealing his deepest feelings or letting the world into the cherished privacy of his family. Only now he's letting down the barriers he constructed as a player and seven-time American League batting champion. He's reached the point where the stony facade doesn't matter anymore. Emotions so raw, mind and body so weary, he's just given in to it all. He even wrote Dear Abby for help.

"The response we've gotten from people from all over the country has just been unreal," he says. "I never really opened myself up before. People portrayed me as aloof. I became an enigma to them because I was quiet. Growing up being an abused child, I protected myself, I kept to myself because I didn't want anyone to know me."

That didn't stop strangers from sending him hate mail during his career. They attacked his race, his interracial marriage, his wife's and daughters' Jewish faith. After he retired in 1985, he enjoyed the best six years of his life, staying away from the game, traveling from campground to campground with his family in a motor home. Michelle, ever ebullient, made friends everywhere.

"I protected our children from the limelight because there was so much stuff going on out there," Marilynn says. "We were in control, and now there's no control."

Their friend, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, came to pray with them, called them "a model family." In the absence of control, love and strength and unity help the Carews cope with each of Michelle's crises.

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