Kim Brown’s daughter was diagnosed with Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia 1 week to the day they were scheduled to move to Dallas from Cleveland. (Sports Day / Dallas News)
Lori Warhop's daughter was diagnosed with an undetermined type of bone cancer two days before they were to board a flight to move from San Francisco to Cleveland. (SI.com)
Recently, I learned of a conversation between these two coaches’ wives (Lori and Kim). They were discussing their encounters with life threatening medical conditions experienced by each of their daughters. Fortunately, both daughters had a positive response to their treatments. Their respective stories have been told in the press (see links above), and these stories are eerily similar. In each instance the daughter’s diagnosis occurred as the family was preparing to move to a new team and new city. Both moms had to deal not only with the oversight and management of transferring households, but this heart-wrenching last minute crises.
One never knows one’s inner strength until faced with this type of unimaginable situation. In the minds of these women concession to the disease was not an option. They were determined to do everything within their power to pursue and engage optimal healthcare, ensure the well-being of their daughters, and at the same time continue to support their husbands and keep their families intact.
While this is not the typical experience of transitioning sports families, these stories are shared with the permission of these sports wives to illustrate how unanticipated life stressors can factor into the transitioning process. Life can change at a moment’s notice; accidents, surgeries and similar situations can occur at any time and may lead to short-term disruptions – or may be life altering. And these occurrences aren’t limited to spouses and children; this past season at least four NFL coaches were forced to miss games due to their own medical emergencies.
Don’t think for one moment that these personal crises mean the practice is cancelled or the game is postponed. However, the fact that the “show must go on” doesn’t mean that the members of the team family lack compassion. There are often strong bonds of unity - including between rivals - in support of an ailing coach, player or family member.
What do you do when the game plan is complicated by a family medical crisis? A coach is well acquainted with in-game adjustments due to injuries or illness. But when your child’s life may be on the line the decision is no longer game-altering, but life changing. There are no next games or next seasons for redemption. There’s only your child, whose life may depend on the decisions you make.
As Lori and Kim shared their experiences, they decided to put their heads together and outline key problem solving and coping strategies. The outcome is an insightful list of recommendations stemming from life lessons of the worst kind – a life threatening situation involving YOUR child.
Here is their list of recommendations to sports families on managing a medical crisis in the midst of a transition:
1. Understand it is a high alert, damage control time in your life. Know that, at some point, things will get better.
2. As parents, your relationship with your spouse is put on the back burner. If the crisis occurs during the season, your spouse will do what he can. Know that, most likely, he won’t be able to miss practice, a game or meetings. Both men left work and slept at the hospital in chairs next to their daughters to give their wives a break away from the hospital but there is zero time to recharge for either of you.
3. Respect each other’s coping choice and give your spouse or significant other some grace. Things are going to fall through the cracks. It’s inevitable. Let the small stuff go and focus on trying to create the best outcome for everyone. Whatever it is pales in comparison to getting through the crisis on the same side.
4. Unless you have consistent support, which neither wife did, there is always something that has to be done not only for the patient but for other members of the family. Grocery shopping, laundry, homework, doctor’s visits, etc. Be kind to yourself. Do only what is necessary, the best you can and move on to the next day.
5. It is difficult to explain to young children the seriousness of illness. It can be helpful to have them accompany their sibling to a doctor’s visit to see what the family is facing firsthand. This, in itself, is a type of explanation and will lead to questions that the child has that can be answered in an age appropriate way.
6. It is important to understand that children have not developed the ability to verbally express their feelings about situations. Both women expressed that their young children felt the child with the illness was loved more or more important to the parents because they were receiving so much attention. Only later did both women say they had conversations with their children about this time in their lives and then had the opportunity to discuss their feelings and frame it in a proper context. This is extremely important to do.
7. Make your school aware of what’s going on. It is very helpful to let teachers know as well as a school counselor, if one is available. They will be spending the day with your child and can make sure they are on track. If an issues pops up, they can notify you and work together.
8. Both women felt this was an important support piece and made a tremendous difference for the children, particularly since they were new to the school. Teachers and staff were able — and very willing — to observe if the child was making friends, looked anxious or worried and step in if needed.
9. Mindset is key. Find a way to be positive and don’t let the illness define you. Think of 5 things a day that you are grateful for in your life. Sometimes it’s as minor as a warm cup of coffee or as significant as your child no longer needs the morphine IV. You are in a situation that will have to run its course. Find the gratitude. It moves you forward in a positive direction.
10. Recognize that you will be put into a position of health practitioner once your child is home. You are now the eyes for the doctor, without the training, looking for infections, changes, fevers, etc. and that adds its own additional layer of stress. What requires a call? What warrants a trip to the doctor or hospital? Are you bothering the doctor? No self-judgment is allowed. You are your child’s best advocate. Do not be afraid to ask questions or feel intimidated by the situation. If you feel like something just doesn't sit right, don't be afraid to seek another opinion.
Interestingly, both families have used their experience to help others. Lori and her daughter are committee members of University Hospital Rainbow Babies Bratenahl Circle of Friends in Cleveland which helps raise money for pediatric cancer research. In addition, they support Camp Magical Moments, a cancer camp for children with cancer, siblings of those children with cancer, a Mothers Retreat and Fathers Work Weekend in Swan Valley, Idaho. Camp Magical Moments is founded and run by former Raiders coach, Tom Walsh and his wife, Ann Toomey-Walsh.
Kim and her family are heavily involved with BetheMatch.org which is a global leader in bone marrow transplantation and is also the National Registry for marrow donation. BeTheMatch.org conducts research to improve transplant outcomes, provide support and resources for patients, and partners with a global network. In addition, Kim and her family also work with TeamConnor.org to help raise awareness and money to fund cures for pediatric cancer.
When asked why they chose to get involved with these organizations, they replied simply, “Gratitude.”
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