Team manager Michel’Le Daughtry was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia in July 2008 and then again this past September. She underwent a bone marrow transplant in January and is in recovery. Temple’s football team will hold its annual bone marrow drive Wednesday with her in their minds.
Every time Michel’Le Daughtry’s doctor told her she needed to stay in the hospital, Daughtry would tell him Temple’s training camp was starting in nine days. As one of the football team’s eight to 12 managers, she needed to be there, and she would be there no matter what. The doctors would have to finish her treatment within that timespan, she told them.
Finally, her doctor looked her point-blank in the eye and said the words that would change her life as she knew it.
“You don’t understand. If you leave now and make the five-and-a-half-hour drive from Virginia to Philadelphia, you will have three weeks, tops, to live.”
Doctors diagnosed Daughtry with acute myeloid leukemia, a blood cancer, on July 21, 2008. She had gone to the hospital with flu-like symptoms. But instead of leaving with antibiotics, she learned she had the fastest growing cancer out there. According to the American Cancer Society, 9,000 people died from AML in 2009. Adults diagnosed with AML have a five-year survival rate of 23.4 percent.
Doctors and researchers do not know what causes AML. It is most often found in children up to 19 years of age and adults 65 and older.
Daughtry was 18 when doctors discovered it in her body.
“I didn’t understand how or why I had it,” Daughtry said. “I’m a health freak. I go to the gym two times a day. I watch what I eat. I don’t smoke. I don’t drink. I don’t do drugs. There is no history of leukemia or cancer in my family. I didn’t understand how I had cancer when I more or less felt fine.”
Daughtry’s treatment began with aggressive chemotherapy, which was injected into her bloodstream. The chemotherapy killed every blood cell she had so her body could relearn how to make proper, non-mutated ones.
“Chemotherapy made me so weak, both physically and mentally,” Daughtry said. “Some days I physically could not take care of myself. I had days when I thought I could not fight it anymore. That was when I leaned on my friends and family, who told me I was going to be fine, I was going to make it. When you’re going through something like cancer, you need somebody to be there for you.”
Despite the distance, the Temple football players called often. They sent Daughtry get-well-soon cards. They sent her text messages. They maintained a connection with her any way they could.
“I have three sisters, and the players are like brothers to me,” Daughtry said. “When you have siblings, you get sick of them being around all the time. You want your own space. But if you take them away, you realize how much you miss them, and I missed the players a lot, so much so that words could not describe it. Their  season started, and I couldn’t be with them.”
As a first-time cancer patient, doctors performed an auto bone marrow transplant on Daughtry after she completed chemotherapy. Doctors harvested Daughtry’s own bone marrow, tested it to make sure it was cancer-free and then gave it back to her.
Daughtry recovered – for a while. That spring and summer, the psychology major started thinking about getting back to work as a manager, a job that entails everything from setting up equipment for practice drills to washing and drying laundry.
“Whatever the coaches and players need you to do, you more or less do,” Daughtry said. “Whenever the team is there, you’re there, even if it’s an off day or before a game. I love it.”
Daughtry served as a manager for her high school’s football team, and Park View High School’s coach, Waverly Jackson, advised her to look into it in college. She joined Temple football as a manager in 2007, her freshman year, and became a part of the team in her own way.
So, when coach Al Golden announced after practice last September that Daughtry’s AML had returned, the players were devastated.
“They kept telling me, ‘We need you. You can’t leave us again. We miss you. We love you,’” Daughtry said.
“It was definitely hard on me and hard on the whole team,” said redshirt sophomore tight end Matt Balasavage, who became friends with Daughtry through mutual acquaintances. “She’s friends with all the guys on the team. But pretty much right away it was, ‘What can we do to help?’”
This time around, Daughtry completed her treatment at Jeanes Hospital, a branch of the Temple University Hospital system, and the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia, so coaches and players like Balasavage could come visit her. One day, she received a text message from her boss, Athletic Equipment Supervisor Paul Kelley. The picture showed a Temple football helmet with a bright pink decal and the initials ‘MD’ on it.
“I texted Paul back and asked him whose helmet that was,” Daughtry said. “He told me it was on everybody’s helmet, and the idea and picture were courtesy of Al Golden, who’s done everything in his power to make me feel normal. He took time out of his schedule to visit me and tell me, ‘We care about you.’ It really touched my heart.”
Daughtry received a bone marrow transplant from an unrelated donor Jan. 28. The first time the doctors searched the national registry for a match, they found a perfect one. Unfortunately, they could not locate the person. The names of potential bone marrow donors are kept confidential. Potential donors simply receive messages that they could be matches. Daughtry could not figure out why she kept getting messages on her phone that she was a match for someone. “Don’t they know I have AML?” she said she kept thinking to herself. Eventually, doctors figured out she was the mysterious perfect match – for herself. Daughtry had registered during the football team’s annual bone marrow drive her freshman year.
Temple football began hosting its annual bone marrow drive in Spring 2008. That year, the team screened a collegiate record 630 potential donors for the National Marrow Donor Program. Last year, the number of people screened dropped to 218 individuals. Ryan McNamee, the director of player development, said the team hopes to screen 800 potential donors this year. The bone marrow drive will be held in Room 200 of the Student Center from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. tomorrow. The process takes about 20 minutes to complete. Potential donors, who must be between 18 and 60, fill out forms first and then get the four corners of their cheeks swabbed.
“One of the players recently said to me, ‘That’s what you have to get, right?’ [referring to a bone marrow transplant],” Daughtry said. “That’s what you do the drive for. It definitely hit home, and I think they know it matters, that it’s important, that it’s not a chore, but that it really does help people.”
Junior wide receiver Josh Hutchison will be one of the players helping tomorrow. In the past, he has manned the entrance to the Student Center and handed out information. This year, he hopes to walk around Main Campus and spread the word.
“Going forward, anybody could be affected by this, and you can really help someone,” Hutchison said. “Anybody could be a donor. The whole team has been swabbed already, and the new members will be swabbed Wednesday.”
“It definitely gives us an extra incentive,” Balasavage said. “We want to make this work and get everyone involved.”
Doctors have slowly decreased the number of Daughtry’s check-up appointments from three per week to two per week. Every time she comes in, they test her blood. She has already registered for Fall 2010 classes (she will be a junior) and has told Golden that she will be there for summer camp this year. If her health is intact, Daughtry hopes to help out at the Cherry and White game this Saturday.
“I feel back to normal,” Daughtry said. “The doctors just haven’t said that I’m back to normal yet.
“But my outlook on life is definitely different now,” Daughtry added. “I handle situations differently. [Cancer] affected what I want to do with my life. It opened my eyes at such a young age. At 18, you almost feel invincible. I didn’t think about dying.”
Jennifer Reardon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.