With college basketball back, South Carolina’s head coach Dawn Staley is picking up where she left off. For the first time in the school’s history, Gamecocks started the year as the country’s No. 1 team. South Carolina is currently 4-1 and ranked No. 5 (AP / Coaches).
Throughout the season, Staley will share his thoughts with The Undefeated, narrating a season that will be unlike any other in the history of college basketball. In this issue, Staley discusses her sister’s help in her battle with leukemia after she was diagnosed in May.
In March, my sister, Tracey, went to the doctor’s office with a cough. They gave her a cough suppressant, but it didn’t work. She had another appointment, was given another medication and told to take a COVID test – which was negative. She kind of felt better, but on Mother’s Day weekend she felt really bad.
At the beginning of the following week, she said to me: I need to go see someone. I called our doctor in South Carolina and said, ‘My sister doesn’t complain, but she needs to see someone right away. Her glands were swollen and she had pain in her throat and groin. He immediately brought her in to see one of his colleagues, and they told us to go to the emergency room for tests.
The next day, they said she had leukemia.
She was hospitalized for 30 days. She had to do all kinds of tests to see what kind of leukemia it was, what kind of mutation was present. She ended up having what is called an FLT3 mutation, which is probably the worst. We learned then that she needed to have a bone marrow transplant.
I had to practically put the press in full court over doctors across the country. I knew that in Columbia, they don’t do bone marrow transplants. I was treated at the Cleveland Clinic for my pericarditis, so I called my doctor there to see if he could get me in touch with an oncologist who handles bone marrow transplants. I called [former UNC women’s basketball coach] She and Sylvia Hatchell have been an angel – a true, true angel. She suffered from leukemia, not bone marrow, and was able to explain to me what we needed to do. She put me in touch with the people who had her treatment at UNC. I called General Martin Dempsey [chairman of USA Basketball]. I got in touch with Coach K. I talked to Duke’s doctors and someone from MD Anderson. These are the main people who deal with leukemia and bone marrow transplants.
Everyone talked about how close to home is the key to recovery, so we had to decide who it would be. My sister wanted me to deal with all of this and just bring back the information so she could decide where she wanted to get her treatment. Everyone I talked to knew all the doctors I talked to. I was changing the name because I wanted to let them know that I was serious about where my sister would be treated and that I would be her lawyer. Ultimately, I felt that the Duke doctor did a great job of explaining it to me. He just told me about it. It all came down to being close to home. With Duke three hours away, my sister decided on Duke.
My three brothers had to audition for my sister to see what kind of combination we would be. One of my brothers was a 2/10 match. I was a 5/10 game. My older brother was 10/10. After they found out he was a perfect match, my sister had to do another round of chemotherapy before we went to Duke to settle in and do the transplant.
My sister never complained. When she had a bone marrow transplant, they wanted chemotherapy. They wanted to give her four rounds of chemotherapy. This chemo kicked your ass. I would see her, she would have a big mouth wound on the outside of her lip. I know it hurt, I know it hurt – she never complained. After the third treatment, she did not want to do the fourth, said that the fourth would end it. They saw where she was and decided not to give her that room. It helped her to see the light a little earlier, because that room was weighing heavily on her mind.
#teamtracey in full force … these are the day shift nurses along with the night shift team (not pictured) who worked hard to get my sister through. Thank you for everything you do and will do for so many! #God be the glory pic.twitter.com/x3ElAIWOIr
– dawnstaley (@dawnstaley) June 11, 2020
In a strange way, the pandemic really helped in this situation because it gave me the time I needed to take care of my sister. I would have taken care of her anyway, but it felt like I had a lot more time to do what I needed to do. Our team was training at the time. I was in Raleigh with Tracey throughout September and much of October. We spent two months there for her to treat herself every day.
My sister and I, through this experience, talked much more now than before. It was nice to meet her that way – sharing that space with her driving to Duke or when we were in Raleigh, and now. We had a lot of fun. This took me back to my childhood, when we shared a room.
One perspective I gained from this experience is that sometimes you need to stop what you are doing and prioritize. This can be done with proper communication. Every step of the way, I would tell our team, the players, that this is what I need to take care of. I would check with them, we would make Zoom calls. They prayed and told me to take care of what I needed to take care of. They were happy to see me when I went back to practice for a day or two.
I believe that God covered me and my family in such a divine way. They told my sister in May that if she hadn’t been seen by a doctor, she would be dead in a month. This gives you perspective.
I am also very blessed to be in a position where I have people I can turn to for immediate help. Everyone does not have access to this. Everyone has access to be defenders of themselves and their loved ones. If I can get anything out of this experience, it is being a lawyer. I want people to know how important it is for you to pick up the phone and talk to people, ask questions and make sure everyone is saying the same thing. It’s just calling people blindly.
I don’t feel comfortable asking people for help. I don’t feel comfortable asking for anything, but it wasn’t really about comfort. I just had to put on my hat because it had to be done. I have to ask these questions, I have to talk to these people, I have to make the best decisions for my sister so that she can receive the best care – and I did. That’s my perspective on that.
The two mottos I live by: you have to do what you don’t want to get what you want, and a disciplined person can do anything. I know that when I say these things, it applies to sports. Sports have been most of my life. But it applies to this situation, in real life situations, and I just feel like I’m very happy for what sports have given me to activate when you need to, outside of what you love and have done all your life. It was really cool to see it evolve into something that I just don’t speak to other people – applying and seeing and really thinking about it and knowing that I armed myself with things that really work outside the basketball court and basketball life.
My sister was released from Duke a month ago, five days earlier.
Through prayers, laughter, our women’s basketball FAMs. All of these things were a great help in helping you through.