Rod Carew curls up on a family room sofa with the young woman they call "Miracle Child," 18-year-old Michelle Carew, a leukemia victim and the youngest of Rod and Marilynn Carew's three daughters. Michelle, clutching the peach-colored blanket her grandmother crocheted, nestles into her father's arms, her back to his chest, their bodies forming a capital "S" and lower-case "s." Rod's hands, strong hands that gripped a baseball bat so masterfully during a 19-year major league career, pull Michelle close, evoking two powerful images--a father trying to protect his daughter; a father refusing to let his little girl go.
"Parents aren't supposed to bury their children," says Carew, the 50-year-old Angel batting instructor. "In November I said, 'I can't do this. How am I going to bury my child?' If something happens to her, I don't know how I would handle it. I keep telling My Friend Upstairs, 'She's a great kid, give her more time.' "
Marilynn Carew, a tirelessly devoted mother who spends most nights at Michelle's side, sleeping on a fold-out chair in Room 306 of the Oncology Intensive Care Unit at Children's Hospital of Orange County, cherishes each moment with her daughter. "Not a day goes by without thinking, 'What should I say? What should I do?' because you don't know how much time you have left," she says, dabbing at tears. "But I can't picture life without her, so I refuse to believe that can happen."
More than 61,000 calls to the National Marrow Donor Program have been generated by publicity from Michelle Carew, and the donor registry increased to 2 million in February--up from 1.5 million the previous year--thanks in large part to the Carews' efforts to raise awareness.
But a potential donor who could provide life-giving bone marrow to Michelle has not been found. Her genetic background--she is the daughter of a black man with West Indian and Panamanian roots and a white mother with Russian-Jewish roots--makes it extremely difficult to find a match; Carew has likened the search to "finding a needle in a haystack." In a bitter irony, Carew's other two daughters, Charryse, 22, and Stephanie, 20, are a perfect match for each other, not Michelle.
Is there still time for a transplant? "Absolutely," says Dr. Mitchell S. Cairo, director of bone-marrow transplantation and hemotology/oncology research at CHOC. "But we need to make a decision in the next few weeks."
Although Michelle has been in remission for more than three months, doctors are in a holding pattern as they wait for a fungal infection in her sinuses to clear. If no donor is found or if the infection lingers, Cairo said he will probably treat Michelle with more chemotherapy and immune therapy, in which proteins are used to stimulate the immune system and kill leukemia cells.
If the infection clears and her white blood cell count rises, another option is an Autologous transplant, in which Michelle's own marrow is harvested, treated with antibodies to kill leukemia, frozen and stored, and then returned to her body. Cairo said the success rate for the procedure is 30% to 60%, or about the same as a transplant with an unrelated donor's marrow, though the risk of relapse is higher.
Michelle's chances of survival dwindle each day a donor is not found, but the Carews are buoyed by the fact that, since Feb. 9, Michelle has felt well enough to come home for about four hours a day after spending five months in a sterilized hospital room. And that she has improved after enduring some 14 operations, one that saved her vision in September.
And that she survived two bouts with a killer known as septic shock, sidestepping death both times, and defied doctors who at one point gave her 48 hours to live. And that she emerged in December from a five-week period in which she was critically ill and needed round-the-clock care for serious complications such as respiratory failure, heart failure, liver and kidney failure, and extreme fever, with nothing more than a slight hearing loss.
Most of all, there is a prevailing belief that in Michelle Carew, an outgoing, unselfish, brave young woman, the deadly disease known as acute nonlymphocytic leukemia (ANLL) may have met its match.
"I've gone through so much stuff, if I didn't beat this I'd be [ticked]," Michelle Carew says. "So I am going to beat it."
Michelle Carew was writing a paper for a Cypress College freshman English class Sept. 10 when Marilynn found her slumped over her computer. Michelle complained of blurred vision, back pains and a headache. Rod and Marilynn thought her allergies were acting up; they gave her Tylenol and put her to bed.
The next day a family physician ran some blood tests. An infectious disease specialist was called. The Carews sensed something serious when Charryse noticed a slip of paper on the doctor's desk. "Suspect leukemia," it read. Blood tests were sent to more labs, and the diagnosis was confirmed: ANLL, one of the most aggressive strains of leukemia.