Column: Former football coach Jim Fenwick battling through second bone-marrow transplant

Kyleigha Fenwick poses with her grandfather, retired football coach Jim Fenwick.
Kyleigha Fenwick with her grandfather, retired football coach Jim Fenwick. She donated bone marrow for a transplant.
(Tyler Fenwick)

Family means everything on Thanksgiving, and retired football coach Jim Fenwick has a story to tell about what family means to him.

It was 17 years ago that Fenwick was diagnosed with leukemia and was saved when his son, Casey, donated bone marrow to send his father’s illness into remission with a transplant. Call it a miracle No. 1.

After retiring as athletic director at Los Angeles Valley College last December, Fenwick intended to spend his time traveling to Oklahoma and hanging out with his other son, Tyler, the football coach at Southeastern Oklahoma State.


Then came news from his doctor leukemia had returned. That just doesn’t happen after 17 years.

“They’ve never seen someone relapse with a time stamp of 17 years,” Fenwick said.

It was back to the drawing board trying to find a donor match.

“Through the miracle of science and what they’ve learned through the years, my granddaughter was a match,” he said.

Kyleigha, 15, a tennis player and Tyler’s oldest child, volunteered to be the donor. She was a 50% match like Fenwick’s previous donor.

“When we found out he had leukemia again, she [said] ‘Can I help?’ I said, ‘Wait, that’s not possible,’” Tyler said. “As we got closer, it was, ‘Yeah, let’s test your daughter.’ They could have used me but they wanted her because she was younger.”

In late September, Kyleigha traveled to Southern California from Oklahoma with her tennis racket and school books to spend three weeks preparing to have her stem cells transferred into her grandfather’s body. When the day came, the vein in her arm proved to be too small. They inserted a port in her chest.


“She handled it very bravely and calmly,” her grandfather said.

Fenwick, 69, spent 46 years as a coach and administrator. He was head coach at Cal State Northridge, Eastern Oregon, Pierce and Valley. He was an assistant at Miami (Ohio), New Mexico, Pacific and Occidental College. There are so many former players who would have gladly volunteered to donate bone marrow if that would have helped. But it was family once again that Fenwick turned to.

Every day from his hospital room for more than a month at City of Hope in Duarte, he thought about the past and looked forward to the future. Friends, former players and former coaches called. He thought about 2004, when he had his first bout with leukemia.

“Being outside in the sun is something you truly miss,” he said. “There’s things you take for granted.”

City of Hope has performed more than 17,000 transplants and has one of the largest programs in the nation. Fenwick has been part of a clinical trial that saw two drug therapies used — blinatumomab and inotuzumab.

Dr. Ibrahim T. Aldoss said of his patient, “He’s wonderful guy, always motivated, always optimistic.”

One thing people take for granted is that extra blood is always around to help patients. Except there’s a critical blood shortage, with City of Hope patients needing more than 37,000 units of blood and platelets each year. Donations are always needed.


The stem cells from Fenwick’s granddaughter must now do their work to help him get rid of the leukemia once and for all. The two drugs enabled him to go into remission before the stem cell transplant could take place. He has moved to a nearby outpatient village near City of Hope so that he can be close by.

“There’s still complications that can happen and we have to monitor him closely,” his doctor said. “Only time will tell if the transplant will work. He has done OK given his age, but we’re hoping.”

Life goes on. Tyler’s football team finished 8-3 after going 1-10 in 2019. Kyleigha is back playing tennis and she brought home a new iPhone 12 as a gift for her stay.

“I’m thankful I got to help and my Nonno is getting healthy,” Kyleigha said.

On Thanksgiving, Fenwick is grateful medical science is working its magic again.