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"It's aplastic anemia…it can be fatal…"
As a senior staff writer for a prominent sports magazine, Kevin O'Brien possessed an extensive vocabulary. But the words aplastic anemia meant nothing to him. Fatal did.
Not five minutes ago, he'd been in his Houston loft packing for a trip after arranging a rare interview with a well-known pro-football player. Now his physician brother was pretty much telling him he could be biting the big one, reaching the finish line and every other clichéd description of death that came to mind.
No way could this be happening now. He had a great career that had been years in the making. He'd been involved in an eight-month relationship with a woman who had come to mean more to him than he'd ever thought possible. He was only thirty-five, and he still had too much left to do to die. But in light of the grave look on Devin's face, he might not have any choice in the matter.
Needing to sit, and fast, Kevin raked a newspaper from his favorite lounger and dropped down on the chair. "Are you sure about this?"
"I'm positive." After taking a seat on the sofa, Devin leaned forward and said, "You have a dangerously low level of red and white blood cells and platelets. That means you fall into the moderately severe range for the disease."
Kevin thought about how he'd lived life on the edge, driven to achieve prominence in his field, and how sometimes he would exchange sleep to get ahead. He'd also made more than his share of mistakes along the way. "What in the hell caused this?"
"It's idiopathic, which means no known cause. It only happens to about three in every one million people in this country annually."
Lucky me. "So do I just sit around and wait for it to kill me, or is there something you can do to treat this?"
"I'm an E.R. doctor, Kevin, and a relative, so I can't treat you. I only agreed to order the lab work as a favor when you started having the nosebleeds and fatigue. But I know a good hematologist who'll manage your care."
Kevin's anger began to build. Anger directed at his brother who was obviously bent on deserting him, which wasn't exactly logical. But he didn't have a firm grip on logic right now.
He pushed out of the chair and began to pace. "Can't you tell me anything about what I'm facing, Dev, or did Mom and Dad waste all that money on your training?"
His brother held up his hands, palms forward. "Calm down, Kevin."
If he had more energy, he'd put his fist through the wall. "You try remaining calm when someone just handed you a death sentence."
"It doesn't have to be a death sentence. You can have a bone-marrow transplant."
After inhaling a few deep breaths, Kevin reclaimed his spot in the lounger. "What does that entail?"
"You'll have to undergo a process to destroy all your bone marrow before the transplant. That involves roughly two weeks of chemotherapy. Post transplant, you're looking at six months to a year of recovery time. You'll have to limit your contact with the general public until your immune system is back to normal."
Aside from being tired as a dog, Kevin didn't feel all that sick. Therefore, he had no intention of letting this disease interfere with his work. "No way can I consider the transplant for at least three months. Preseason football starts in a couple of weeks and I have at least ten interviews scheduled. I have to make a living."
"Not if you're dead."
His brother's proclamation packed the punch of a right hook. "There's no medicine I can take to stop this?"
Devin sighed. "You could have transfusions for a few months, but that's only supportive care, not a cure. Eventually you'll have to have the transplant in order to survive."
At least that was something positive. But he still had questions. "Does this transplant come with a guaranteed cure?"
"Nothing is one-hundred-percent foolproof, Kevin. The transplant preparation itself poses risks. But if you want a shot at a full recovery, it's your only alternative. Fortunately, you have an identical twin who's a perfect genetic match as a possible donor."
Not an option. Not when he'd barely spoken to his brother over the past few years. "I'm not going to ask Kieran to do that, and even if I did, he wouldn't agree. Give me another choice."
"We could test the other siblings to see if they're a match and I'd be willing to be tested, too. Or you can search for a match through outside donor registries. But with either of those options, you're increasing your chances for rejection."
"I can't expect any of you to turn your own lives upside down for me, so I'll just take my chances and go with the donor registry."
Devin looked as frustrated as Kevin felt. "You're shutting out the family like you always do, Kevin. Don't be so damn stubborn."
"I'm being practical." Practicality had always served him well when it came to masking his emotions. And right now, his emotions were running the gambit from fury to fear. But fear was counterproductive and he vowed not to give in to it. "I don't have time to deal with this now. I have to catch a plane in less than two hours and I have an interview to conduct in about four." Anything to get his mind off the news.
"Cancel the trip and get someone to cover for you, Kevin. Until you see the hematologist and decide on a treatment plan, your immune system can't handle even the slightest infection. Airplanes are breeding grounds for those infections."
Great. Not only had he been presented with the prospect of losing his life, he could very well lose his job. "I've worked too damn hard to establish myself with the magazine to blow it all to hell now."
Devin nailed him with a glare. "A certain amount of denial is expected in this situation, but you'd better start facing reality—and soon. You're sick and you have no chance to get better unless you get the medical attention you need."
His mind wanted to reject that reality, but his gut told him he'd better heed his brother's advice. "I'll cancel the trip."
"Good," Devin said as he stood. "I'll call the hema-tologist and have him work you in tomorrow. In the meantime, you should talk to Mom and Dad because you're going to need all the support you can get, especially during the chemo phase. It's tough."
If he told his parents now, his mother would immediately warp into overprotective mode, exactly what she'd been doing since the day he'd been born the sickly twin. He preferred to avoid that scenario for as long as possible. "I'll wait to tell Mom and Dad until I know exactly what's going to happen next."
"Fine, but don't wait too long, Kevin. And there's one more thing you need to know. You have a fifty-fifty chance of being sterile because of the chemo. If you're serious about your girlfriend, you need to discuss this with her. But since she's a doctor, she'll be able to help you sort through all the information."
Right now Kevin was on information overload, yet one thing had become all too clear. He couldn't burden Leah with his problems, not when she was so close to finishing her fellowship. Not when he might not be able to give her the one thing she'd always said she wanted—a lot of kids. More important, if the treatment failed to cure him, he didn't want her to watch him die. "Leah and I broke up." A lie, but he planned to make it the truth, and soon.
"I'm sorry it didn't work out," Devin said. "And I'm sorry I never got to meet her. I hear she's a nice lady."
She was more than nice. She was the best thing that had ever happened to him.
His brother walked to the exit but paused before opening the door. "I'll notify you later today when I have an appointment time. Try to get some rest and call me if you need me, even if it's only to talk."
"Thanks, Dev. I appreciate it."
"You bet. And one more thing. It's okay to be afraid."
When Kevin couldn't come up with a response, his brother walked out the door, leaving him alone to plan what he needed to do next, and that involved making several phone calls.
He thought about canceling his flight first and contacting the magazine after that. But one call took precedence over the others, and it happened to be the one he dreaded the most.
Better to get it over with now, before he had time to reconsider. He walked into his office and picked up the phone, clutching the receiver in his hands for a few seconds before he hit the speed dial that would connect him with the hospital where Leah spent most of her time.
After he waited several minutes for her to answer the page, she greeted him with her usual, "Dr. Cordero."
Just the sound of her voice filled him with overwhelming regret. "Hey, Leah. It's Kevin."
"I didn't expect to hear from you so soon. From what you told me this morning, I thought you'd be on your way to Dallas about now. Is your flight delayed?"
"No. I just wanted to talk to you."
"I'm glad you called. It gives me the chance to say goodbye to you twice in one day."
He was about to say goodbye permanently, and that was tearing him up inside. "I have something I need to tell you."
"Is everything okay, Kevin? You sound strange."
He was anything but okay. He might never be okay again. "Look, Leah, I've been thinking, and the truth is, my life is crazy right now, and so is yours. I've decided it's better if we take a break for a while."
A span of silence passed before she said, "A break? Or do you mean break up?"
He brought out all the old excuses that he kept on hand like a favorite pair of worn jeans. "It's getting too serious between us. I'm not ready to settle down, and I doubt you are either."
"I see. So this is the infamous break-up speech.
Might have been nice if you'd taken the less cowardly route and told me in person."
If he'd done that, she would've sensed he was lying, and he might have buckled under her scrutiny. "I'm busy, Leah."
"But not too busy to whisk me away on a four-day resort vacation a week ago?" She released a bitter laugh. "What was that, Kevin? A few last-minute screws just for grins? And all those things you said about how much you cared about me. I should've known better than to believe you."
At the time he'd meant every word he said. God, he still did. "I do care about you, Leah."
"And I hate you for doing this to me, Kevin."
He could hear the tears in her voice and despised the fact that he'd put them there. "I'm sorry." A totally inadequate statement, but the only thing he knew to say.
"I'm sorry, too. Sorry we ever met and that you turned out to be such a bastard. Heaven help the next woman who becomes involved with you."
When she hung up the phone, Kevin experienced an overwhelming sense of loss the likes of which he'd never known. Although he still believed he had no choice but to let Leah go, he couldn't help but wonder if he'd just made the greatest mistake of his life.
What life he had left.
O'Brien's Sports Scene June Edition
Over the past several months, I've learned one important lesson—facing death will definitely change your life…
He immediately highlighted the text and punched the delete button with a vengeance. He had no business personalizing a syndicated column targeting a readership focused on fantasy teams, play-off berths and trade deadlines. But the fact that he'd even considered revealing his life-and-death battle to the general public indicated exactly how much his life had changed. How much he had changed.
During his battle with the disease that had nearly killed him, Kevin had become much more introspective, more settled. Hell, he'd even bought a house in a Houston suburb. A year ago, he never would've envisioned exchanging cross-country jet-setting for a home office. If he hadn't gotten sick, he wouldn't have spent so much time contemplating his mistakes, either, and he'd made plenty. One particular mistake continued to haunt him daily, but he couldn't dwell on that decision now. Not if he wanted to make his Monday-morning deadline.
When the doorbell chimed, Kevin leaned back in his chair and released a rough sigh. Most likely his mother had dropped by unannounced to question why he hadn't attended the traditional O'Brien Sunday lunch, when in reality she'd come to make sure he hadn't suffered a relapse. As much as he appreciated her concern, he'd become increasingly annoyed by her obsession over his well-being. Then again, Lucine O'Brien had that obsession down to a fine art where he was concerned.
The bell sounded again and for a moment Kevin contemplated ignoring the summons. Not a good idea. His car was parked in the drive, which could cause his mom to panic and place an unnecessary call to the paramedics. Leaning to his right, he pulled back the curtain to the window facing the front lawn. But instead of finding his mother's minivan parked at the curb, he caught sight of another car. A very familiar car.
No way could it be her. First of all, she didn't know where he lived. Secondly, she hated him, which is what she'd said verbatim the last time he'd spoken to her by phone all those months ago. Then again, he didn't know another solitary soul who owned a cherry-red Volkswagen convertible.
Curiosity sent Kevin to the front entry to seek verification that his past had in fact landed on his doorstep.