On a warm Saturday afternoon in April, members of the Shoreham-Wading River boys lacrosse team lined up near midfield wearing pink jerseys before the start of the annual Lax Out Cancer fundraiser game against Miller Place. Joe Kavanagh, one of the event’s organizers, took the microphone and introduced the four honorees.
Mr. Kavanagh called the names of three young boys and then a woman.
“She wasn’t supposed to be here today, but God opened up a window for her to be here and I’m so proud of this girl,” he told the crowd. “She’s one of the toughest, most courageous kids I’ve ever seen.”
With a mask covering most of her face, Kaitlyn Suarez of Wading River waved to the crowd.
Since 2008, Kaitlyn, 23, has been battling Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a form of cancer of the lymph nodes. A few days after attending the lacrosse game, Kaitlyn returned to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York to face the next step in her fourth round of battle with the disease. She first underwent chemotherapy treatment in 2008, then again in November of that same year after a relapse. In December 2010, she relapsed a second time.
Among the family members by her side at the hospital in April were her brother, James, the person who made the latest fight possible. About a month earlier, James had undergone a procedure to donate bone marrow to his sister. It was the beginning of another long, grueling process that has become the norm for Kaitlyn, who had already undergone a bone marrow transplant using her own stem cells in March 2011.
For James, the procedure came with its own price tag. A senior on the Shoreham wrestling team who was eager to earn a spot in the starting lineup, James sacrificed his final season to avoid any potential injury that might hinder his ability to donate bone marrow.
For his inspirational role in coming to his sister’s aid, his commitment to the team even in the absence of competing and by raising awareness to the importance of bone marrow donation, the Riverhead News-Review has chosen James Suarez as its 2015 Sports Person of the Year.
Out of more than 11 million people currently registered through Be The Match to donate bone marrow, only about one out of every 540 people will go on to donate, according to its website. Finding suitable matches can be difficult.
This past June, James helped organize a bone marrow drive at the high school along with Kevin Cutinella, whose brother Thomas died in October 2014 following an injury in a football game. James was later honored as one of five recipients of the 2015 Thomas Cutinella Memorial Foundation Scholarship in Thomas’ memory.
In September 2014, just as he started his senior year of high school, James learned he was a 100 percent match to be a donor to his sister. Their other sibling, Kristen, 21, was found to be a half-match.
“I literally jumped out of my seat screaming,” Kaitlyn said last year. “I was crying because it was tears of joy. There’s no words for what a blessing that is.”
Shoreham wrestling coach Joe Condon called James a hero, but James doesn’t see it that way.
“If there was anyone else on that team, I’m sure we would have the same sort of conversation with someone else,” he said last January.
The initial procedure went off without a hitch. James said 13.9 million cells were collected on the first day, surpassing a goal of 10 million.
In July, more than three months after Kaitlyn began her portion of the bone marrow transplant, she outlined in a blog post what had happened. She had just finished her 100th day of isolation on July 30 and doctors had informed her she had functioning T cells, which the immune system needs to fight infections.
“Isolation is no fun,” Kaitlyn wrote. “You are restricted from eating at your favorite restaurants, going to out to any stores or friends’ house[s] … You have to wear a mask in any public setting and you wash your hands a hundred times a day.”
In cases like these, even good news can quickly be followed by bad news. For Kaitlyn, the next month proved difficult. Shortly after being released from isolation, she was diagnosed with graft vs. host disease, a condition in which the donated bone marrow begins to attack the body. It set in motion another period of isolation, one from which she is now beginning to emerge.
Her father, Joe, said the family is hopeful since Kaitlyn has progressed enough to return to Union College in the next few weeks and will complete the final credits toward her degree in June.
“We’re right on the cusp,” he said. “We’re going back and forth with some of her medical conditions and we’re hoping that she’ll be able to maintain her medications and things of that nature at school.”
Kaitlyn now hopes to apply for a master’s program to continue to pursue her interest in geology.
“Life carries on,” Kaitlyn’s father said.
And it does so thanks in large part to the selflessness of her brother.
Photo caption: Shoreham-Wading River wrestler James Suarez with his parents Joe and Kalli. (Credit: Garrett Meade, file)