12 Years Old at Diagnosis
It’s almost baseball season. That means spring is on the horizon, and the majority of baseball fans have yet to have their hopes dashed. Some of my favorite memories growing up were watching and playing baseball. One particular baseball memory from my childhood still resonates with me today. The lessons I learned from that experience still guide and shape my life today.
That particular baseball season I was probably better suited for the “disabled list.” It was the fall of 1999, and six months earlier I had been diagnosed with cancer; specifically leukemia just before my thirteenth birthday. I had always been a “Type A” kind of kid – lots of energy, always on the move, and I loved to play sports. That all changed the minute I heard the words…”you have cancer.”
I spent the next two weeks on the third floor of Children’s Hospital in Washington DC. Over the next six months I received a nasty cocktail of chemotherapy drugs. I lost my hair, my coordination, and thanks to the steroid Prednisone I was as chunky as the Pillsbury Doughboy. The poisons and procedures – Vincristine, Methotrexate, spinal taps, although necessary to destroy the cancer sometimes made it hard to walk, much less run. I was determined however to get back on the baseball field.
That fall my intramural baseball team was mid-way through their season. Although I was still very sick, I had convinced my parents to let me play in the next game. My team took the field while I happily watched from the bench. The first inning ended with our team failing to get a hit – three up and three down. Our problems at the plate continued. We went hitless in the second and third innings. We were now down 3-0 and we had yet to get a hit. Even though I had yet to play in the game, I was just happy to be sitting next to my teammates. That changed quickly. The fourth inning began and my coach yells, “Zach, you’re up.” So I grabbed my helmet, placed it over my bald head, and walked to the plate.
I was nervous. The first pitch whizzed by me – strike one. I stood in the batter’s box ready (or so I thought) for the next pitch – strike two. Before I knew it I was one pitch away from striking out. I became angry that this pitcher was throwing a “no-hitter” against us. If the next pitch looked good, I was going to swing at it. The pitcher delivered and I swung as hard as I could – Crack! The ball floated over the second baseman’s head. I felt as though I was trudging through water as I ran (or hobbled) to first base. I finally made it to my destination – safe! I had gotten the only hit for my team, and successfully broken up the no-hitter. For those few moments I felt like a normal 13 year-old kid again.
What did I learn from this experience? First, you cannot be afraid to take risks in life. I was nervous stepping up to the plate that day. I was risking injury to my body and my self-esteem. However I never would have had the opportunity to succeed if I didn’t put my jersey on and play that afternoon. Second, you have to try and see a bigger picture in life. When stresses at home or work are weighing me down, I think to myself “it sure beats being a human pincushion all the time.” Lastly, for baseball fans everywhere, if a 13 year-old cancer patient who can barely walk breaks up a no-hitter in the most improbable of circumstances, then even your team has a shot at winning the World Series this year.