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Former USC Star Playing a Bigger Game

February 27, 1996|Julie Cart

The sound of a squalling baby came across the telephone line, and to Leslie Allen-Selmore, it was sweet music. The infant was her daughter, Rachel, and her having breath enough to cry was worth celebrating.

Recently at her home in New York City, Allen-Selmore was juggling her current passions-- tending to her seriously ill 13-month-old daughter, and her campaign to increase public awareness about bone marrow donations. With a rueful laugh, she acknowledged her life now is a long way from her former, more selfish, concerns as a veteran on the pro tennis tour.

Allen-Selmore graduated from USC magna cum laude in 1977, having also helped the Trojan tennis team to a national championship. She turned pro and in 1981 became the first African American woman since Althea Gibson to win a tour event. She was ranked as high as No. 18 in the world.

Allen-Selmore left the tour in 1987, but didn't get far from it. She worked as an event manager for the tour's sponsor and later for the U.S. Tennis Assn. as a tournament director.

She and her husband, Kenneth, were delighted when their baby girl was born in January of 1995. She seemed healthy until April, when a persistent cold developed into something more. Rachel was admitted into pediatric intensive care with labored breathing. Blood tests revealed an astonishingly low hemoglobin count. Numbers between 11.4 and 14.5 are normal. Rachel's was 1.8. One doctor told the Selmores that he had never seen a living person with those numbers.

Within days, there was more alarming news. Rachel's red blood-cell counts were terribly low, as were her platelet levels--involving the blood's clotting factor. A small bruise might cause her to bleed to death.

Finally doctors surmised that Rachel was suffering from an exceedingly rare blood disease, of which they could find only 150 clinical cases--Hemophagocytic Lymphohistiocytosis, or HLH. The histiocytes in her blood responsible for attacking infection were out of control and destroying her red blood cells.

"The disease is so rare and dangerous that one doctor told us it's usually diagnosed during autopsies, not in living children," Allen-Selmore said.

She had recently sent pictures of her healthy baby to friends playing at the French Open and was told that Rachel might have only three weeks to live. Still operating on her tour player's calendar, Allen-Selmore thought, "She might not make it to Wimbledon."

Doctors were able to stabilize Rachel's condition through chemotherapy, but her only long-term chance is with a bone marrow transplant. In her case, Rachel will need a perfect six-out-of-six match with a donor. And, as an African American, Rachel's donor will probably have to be African American as well, which means a smaller pool of donors.

According to Katosha Belvin, spokeswoman for the National Marrow Donor Program, Rachel's chance of finding a match is about 30%, compared to a Caucasian, who would have a 70% chance.

"Minority tissue typings are smaller," Belvin said.

But that is changing. Thanks to the efforts of former baseball star Rod Carew, whose daughter, Michelle, needs a bone marrow transplant, Belvin said there have been 62,135 calls to phone banks specifically from African Americans who want to become donors.

From prospective donors, two tablespoons of blood are drawn, typed, then entered into an international data base. If found to be a match, a small amount of bone marrow is removed from the donor's pelvis. The donor's bone marrow will regenerate within days. The process begins with a call to (800) MARROW2, where the caller will be directed to a local donor center.

"Some people wait years for a match," Allen-Selmore said. "Some people die waiting."

Allen-Selmore's former opponents rallied to her side at the U.S. Open last summer. The WTA Tour players organized a donor drive, during which about 90 players, coaches and reporters donated.

Natasha Zvereva, who once fainted at the sight of blood while on a good-will visit to a hospital, gave blood. Amy Frazier donated after beating Mary Pierce in the third round, the biggest victory of her career. When technicians ran low on the allotted two vials per person, Mary Joe Fernandez and Steffi Graf's coach, Heinz Gunthardt, shared the remaining two.

Still, Rachel waits, still on chemotherapy and having celebrated her first birthday in a hospital.

"I have a baby and I can't save her life," Allen-Selmore said. "But a total stranger might be able to. I look at people and think, 'Just by sticking out your arm, you can save a life.' My focus is to get out the word. It may not help Rachel, but it will help others. The way I look at it is, I'm in the game. Just like with tennis, as long as we're in the game, we have a chance."


Tennis Notes

In memory of the late Pancho Gonzalez, the Mission Hills tennis complex in Rancho Mirage will dedicate a new grass court in a special ceremony March 26. Tennis director Tommy Tucker, in conjunction with Nabisco, has arranged a ceremony that will include an exhibition match featuring Rod Laver, Pancho Segura, Alex Olmedo and Ron Emerson. The chair umpire will be Tony Trabert.

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