Milos Holan reported for his preseason physical with the Mighty Ducks in September full of excitement about the season ahead--a season destined, he was sure, to be his best yet. Instead, he learned within weeks that he has a slow-progressing form of leukemia.
Twenty-two years ago, Minnesota Twin shortstop Danny Thompson entered a doctor's office with the same sense of anticipation about the baseball season.
The two young athletes had the same mind-numbing experience: a routine blood test, an alarmingly high white blood-cell count, more tests, a diagnosis of chronic granulocytic leukemia, disbelief. Surely someone had switched the vials.
Both were at the prime of their youth, but both had a silent disease that without treatment would one day turn deadly.
Both also were determined to keep playing. There is no medical reason not to. Thompson played four seasons after his diagnosis. Holan has scored two goals and added an assist in six games since returning from a frustrating, monthlong stint in the press box while management wondered whether his medication or the overwhelming emotional burden was keeping him from playing at his best.
Twenty-odd years ago, it was much the same for Thompson.
"Sometimes I wanted to shout, 'Listen, I can still play this game!' " Thompson wrote in "E-6," a book chronicling his 1973-75 seasons. "I'm not going to die this year. Hell, I might make the all-star team!"
So much about their cases is strikingly similar, but 20 years of dramatic medical advances have given Holan, 24, something Thompson didn't have: a cure.
With a successful bone marrow transplant, Holan can beat his leukemia and live a normal life. When Thompson's condition was diagnosed, the treatment was still in its infancy--and was not even attempted on patients with his form of leukemia. He died in 1976 at 29.
"Someone like [Thompson], if he were alive today, we'd look first at his family to see if there was a donor and then you'd look at the international registry to see if there was a donor," said Dr. Stephen Forman, director of hematology and bone marrow transplantation at the City of Hope Medical Center in Duarte.
First attempted in 1956 and performed successfully in the late 1960s, marrow transplantation was a dangerous procedure that failed far more often than it succeeded. Because of that, it was usually tried only in the advanced stages of the disease and wasn't even considered for patients in a chronic phase.
Today, early marrow transplants are the definitive treatment for patients such as Holan, and a successful transplant before the leukemia turns acute can produce a cure.
The advances have been remarkable, and many have occurred in Holan's lifetime. Early transplants were performed on patients who received marrow from an identical twin, providing hope for only the few so blessed. Later, doctors learned to match patients with close relatives, and then with complete strangers, performing the first successful transplant from an unrelated donor in 1979.
That was a significant advance, since only 30% of patients who need transplants have a relative whose marrow closely matches their own. Holan is one of the other 70%: He and his only sister, Radka, did not match. But with the 1987 establishment of a well-organized registry of 1.8 million potential donors run by the National Marrow Donor Program, about 65% of those patients now eventually find matches.
Holan is becoming a walking public-service announcement for the marrow registry, and this week in New York he answered the same questions repeatedly with openness and warmth as television crews lined up five deep to speak to him.
He would like the questions to be about hockey, but he knows that every interview he gives might lead to the registration of the donor who matches him or another patient. He and Angel coach Rod Carew have lent each other's cause support, urging potential donors to register as the Carew family searches for a match for Michelle Carew, 18, who is hospitalized with an acute form of leukemia.
Holan's teammates have all been tested, and the Ducks are holding a public drive to register potential donors for patients in need of marrow transplants today from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the National Sports Grill at 450 N. State College Blvd. in Orange.
"Bone marrow is an organ too, and you can give bone marrow while you're still alive," Duck Coach Ron Wilson said. "It's not something you put on your drivers' license. I'm aware of that now, and I'm in the pool. Hopefully some day I can save someone's life. If not Milos, maybe someone else's."
Now Holan is playing a strange waiting game. The initial search of the U.S. registry did not produce a match, though three prospects have been located in Europe, where more people share the genetic heritage of Holan, a Czech. He longs for the phone call that can save his life, but he cannot dwell on it, because the fear would overtake him.
"I can't be every day like, 'Oh my God, they didn't find anyone,' " Holan said. Hockey is his escape, but when he was out of the lineup, he didn't have that outlet. Being on the road was the worst.
"Too much time to think," Holan said. "It's better when I'm at home with my wife. We can talk about it a lot."
The struggles of a professional athlete rarely remain private, but because of their visibility people such as Holan and Thompson often find there are others--strangers to them--who want to help.
Holan has received plenty of mail from fans, including some who are young and ill--patients at the Children's Hospital of Orange County.
"I had a lot of letters from people who had this," he said. "I like that because I can talk to them about how it was in the hospital, ask how they felt after the transplant and then how they felt afterward."
Thompson's mailbox overflowed too.
"I look for your name each day in the box score," a woman wrote. "Knowing you're playing with leukemia helps me fight my illness."
Reading that used to make Thompson feel like a hero, even if he went 0 for 4 or made two errors.
Just as Thompson did then, Holan undergoes blood tests once a week, even when the team is on the road, to monitor his blood counts.
But Thompson soon began undergoing unsuccessful experimental treatments--he alternately called himself "a pioneer" and "a guinea pig." The treatment, an early attempt at immunotherapy, involved the injection of live leukemia cells from another patient. The shots sometimes caused violent reactions, and created festering sores that made Thompson's arm so tender he feared congratulatory slaps when he hit a rare home run.
Holan takes only hydroxyurea, a drug to lower his white blood-cell count whose main side effect is slight nausea, though Holan has had little.
Like Thompson, Holan has battled the stress of his condition with an irrepressible sense of humor. Wilson teased Holan that he could be so lucky if Wilson, a high-scoring defenseman when he played, turned out to be his marrow match, somehow imparting his scoring touch. Holan countered quickly: "I'd prefer Ray Bourque," he said, choosing the Boston Bruin star.
"It's a good idea to joke with me and keep my mind positive," Holan said.
In Thompson's own words, "I didn't want to make an error and have people say, 'Well, you can't blame him, he has leukemia.'
"If I strike out with the bases loaded, or make an error that costs the team a run, I hope someone yells from the stands, 'Thompson, you're a bum!' "
Incredibly, in June 1976, the Twins traded Thompson to Texas, along with pitcher Bert Blyleven, even though Thompson was receiving treatment at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
"That hurt me for a number of reasons," Hisle said. "Back then, unlike today, owners didn't think about players the way they do now. We were just assets to hope fully make them money.
"I know today that never would happen. The team would have shown support for him and his family and keep him there to make his situation as easily bearable as possible."
Thompson finished the season as a utility infielder for the Rangers, batting .222. But he began to awaken more and more with a pain near his stomach, an indication of a swollen spleen that meant his white blood-cell count was up. That November, he went in for a checkup. His spleen was removed. On Dec. 10, 1976, Thompson died.
"Danny was the type of person, I say this in all sincerity, if he needed a bone marrow transplant and the only people who could give it to him were his fellow professional athletes, I guarantee everyone who played with or against him would have been in line," Hisle said. "I'd have been right at the forefront."
Holan's teammates have been there already, and the NHL is urging league-wide voluntary testing, but the search goes on. Holan has read a stack of books about his condition, and he knows he has a chance people didn't have 20 years ago. "But I still have to find a donor," he said.
Once one is located, Holan will undergo the transplant shortly thereafter, ending his season and beginning a different struggle. Marrow transplantation is still a dangerous procedure because of the risk of complications such as infection and a type of rejection known as graft-versus-host disease.
The recovery takes time, with weeks of isolation in the hospital followed by close observation for the first 100 days.
"He could be back to a normal life within a year," Duck General Manager Jack Ferreira said. "But that's a normal life--that's not playing hockey. I'm not even thinking about that."
Neither is Holan.
"Right now I'm not thinking about my career first," he said. "This is hockey. I'll only play hockey 15 years of my life. It's just part of my life."
For information on registering as a potential bone-marrow donor for patients in need of transplants, call the City of Hope National Medical Center's Donor Center and National Registry at (818) 359-8111, Ext. 2286, or contact the National Marrow Donor Program at (800) MARROW2.