James Suarez, a Shoreham-Wading River High School student who has wrestled since he was a seventh grader, was looking forward to his senior season. This past summer he trained in earnest for his big opportunity. Suarez had a good chance of winning a place in Shoreham’s lineup, perhaps at 152 or 160 pounds. He wanted to be ready.
Then life intervened.
Suarez, 17, had to step back from his wrestling family so he could come to the rescue of his actual family.
Suarez’s sister, Kaitlyn, 22, a former Shoreham-Wading River athlete, has been battling Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a form of cancer of the lymph nodes, on and off since May 2008 when she was a high school freshman. She underwent chemotherapy treatment that year. Then, in November 2008, she relapsed and was subjected to more chemotherapy and radiation. In December 2010, she relapsed a second time. She underwent a bone marrow transplant using her own stem cells in March 2011.
Then, more bad news. In August she received a diagnosis that after three years in remission, she suffered her third relapse. The disease had returned.
Now Kaitlyn and her Wading River family is facing a fourth round of battle with the disease. This time she is getting a big helping hand from her brother.
Kaitlyn’s two siblings were tested for their suitability to be bone marrow donors. Her sister, Kristen, 20, had desperately wanted to be the donor, family members said.
On the first day of school this past September, James learned that he was a 100-percent match to be a donor for his sister, something their parents, Joe and Kalli, were told was rare. (Kristen was found to be a half-match.)
It meant that Kaitlyn would not have to have to be put on a national registry waiting list, with no assurance when or if a 100-percent match would be found.
Kaitlyn had made what she thought would be a regular checkup visit when a doctor told her the good news about her brother’s match.
“I literally jumped out of my seat screaming,” she said in a phone interview Sunday. “I was crying because it was tears of joy. There’s no words for what a blessing that is. We’ve been dealing with this for seven years. We knew the significance.”
Kalli called it “the best-case scenario for a horrible thing.”
Because Kaitlyn’s immune system had become compliant, the hope is that once the transplant takes place, James’ immune system will take over. That way, if cancerous cells creep back into her system, his cells will attack them.
This gesture on James’ part has cost him his senior season with the wrestling team. If he suffered any head trauma, it would rule him out as a donor, so James didn’t hesitate to forfeit his final high school season. Some things are bigger than wrestling.
“I wouldn’t expect anything less from him,” Joe said. “It’s his nature. It’s his character. His heart is as big as they come. There was never a hesitation at any time. I’m extremely proud.”
Kaitlyn said James “has the kindest heart you can ever imagine.”
Ray Lopez, a senior on the team, has known James since they were in kindergarten. As Lopez sees it, this act is in keeping with James’ character.
“It’s a huge sacrifice, one of the greatest things that you could do,” Lopez said. “He pretty much saved his sister’s life.”
Shoreham-Wading River coach Joe Condon said: “That’s the kind of person he is, James Suarez, and that’s why we’re proud to have him as part of the team. … This would have been his year to be a starter. I know he’s doing something that’s much more important. He’s a hero. He’s really a hero.”
A hero? James doesn’t look at himself that way.
“I don’t see it as heroic myself,” he said. “I mean, if there was anyone else on that team, I’m sure we would have the same sort of conversation with someone else. It was just that I was blessed to have this opportunity.”
Although James hasn’t wrestled this season, he remains a member of the team, attending practices, matches and tournaments. James was among the Wildcats recognized in a Senior Day ceremony before Shoreham’s home match against Westhampton Beach on Friday. After Condon, microphone in hand, made special mention of what James is doing for his sister, fans applauded as James, wearing a navy blue Shoreham-Wading River pullover, presented his parents with flowers before posing for photos.
“I wanted … to be a part of this,” James said after the match. “I didn’t want to miss out on everything. I wanted to be here for as much as I could because I love everyone that’s in that room right now. They’re a part of me.”
Kalli said: “It was sad that he didn’t get to wrestle. I know that he sacrificed that for us and there’s no way to ever repay that, but sometimes in life you got to do what you got to do.”