Nov. 22, 2007
By JACK WILKINSON
In a perfect world, Sara Keene would be spending Saturday afternoon thusly: In the north end zone stands in Bobby Dodd Stadium, sitting behind the Georgia Tech band and beside her boyfriend Ben Hollerbach and his Theta Chi frat brothers, rooting for the Jackets — Sara’s Jackets — to upset Georgia, once the team of her childhood.
But then, Sara’s world has been anything but perfect since March. Since that abrupt, middle-of-the-night hospital visit for Bells palsy on one side of her face revealed a far more perilous diagnosis: Acute myeloid leukemia. Cancer.
In a perfect world, Sara would be sitting in the Tech student section Saturday, cheering her pretty head off and rooting for her new buddy, Djay Jones. He reached out and touched someone — a stranger — with a phone call a month ago. Djay’s No. 23 in your Tech program, the dreadlocked defensive back and an even finer newfound friend than he is a free safety.
And Sara? In a perfect world, she wouldn’t be a 21-year-old sorority girl in a wig. But then, chemotherapy usually demands a wig.
Keene won’t be at Grant Field for Tech-Georgia. She’ll likely be back home at her mother Cookie’s Fayetteville house, or perhaps still in the hospital where she was readmitted Wednesday afternoon. The latest lab work indicated her liver enzymes were still up. That altered Saturday’s plans.
“Bless her little heart. She’s resilient,” Cookie said early Wednesday evening. “If I could only be half the person my child is. This isn’t drastic. We didn’t expect this, but she only went in for a diagnostic tuneup. It should only be two or three days in the hospital, and then she’ll be home.
“I know,” Cookie said, “that Sara would be at the game in a New York minute if she could.”
“I’ve always loved football,” said Keene, a fourth-year Tech student majoring in materials science and engineering. “Being raised in a Southern home, as soon as fall comes,…”
It was time for football. But, Georgia football. Her father and grandfather are both UGA graduates. Sara was 2 or 3 when she attended her first Georgia-Georgia Tech game. “That one’s near and dear to my heart,” she said. “Now, I’m a convert. Of course, I get crap from the family.”
Crap about being a Techie. “This year,” she said, “they may be nice, because I have cancer.”
As a child, Sara was fond of one Bulldog in particular. “”I was around in the Bobo days,” said Sara. “I loved Mike Bobo because of his last name. Now he’s an assistant coach [Georgia’s offensive coordinator].”
When Keene had to select a college, football figured into the equation. “I didn’t want to go to a small school where you had rinky-dink teams,” she said. “I wanted to go to a big school, where they play for championships.
“I feel I’m an even bigger, cooler fan,” Keene said, “now that I have an in with the team.”
The first phone call came two months ago. It was Shanny Burge, an adminstrative assistant in Tech’s football office. “Some of the football players want to come visit you,” Burge told Keene. “Djay Jones wants to talk to you and set it up.”
Keene’s reply: “THE Djay Jones?”
Yes. Jones grew up in St. Mary’s, in south Georgia. Keene’s father (her parents are divorced) lives there. Through Jones’ mother and a network of relatives and friends, he’d heard about Sara’s illness. They spoke on the phone. They hit it off.
“I was just trying to reach out to her and do anything I could,” Jones said. “I feel we’re student-athletes, but at the same time we’re all family. I just tried to cheer her up.”
“We talked. He wanted to know when it would be a good time to visit,” said Sara, who was back in Emory Hospital by then after a September relapse following her first auto-transplant. “I had to talk to the doctors first.
“He said all these players wanted to bring a bus. I was a little nervous when I heard that!” she said, laughing. “I said I’d rather meet all of you guys instead of five or six.
“It was really surreal, Sara said. ” I had to think about it for a minute: ‘Do you have the right person? Do you really want to meet me?’ Then Djay explained the connection.”
They were originally supposed to meet on Nov. 8th, at a dinner at the sorority house where Keene lived. Due to medical concerns, they finally met on Monday, Nov. 12th, at the “Cookout for Keene” organized to raise money for the Shirlock Foundation. The organization financially benefits the families of students who have leukemia; more than $4,000 was raised that night.
On the lawn of the Tech Tower, Keene met Jones and many of his teammates, after she’d just finished her chemo treatment for the month. “I was just walking toward her and, ‘Oh, Sara!'” Jones said. “There was a glow. She couldn’t wait for that day. It was just good to see her smiling.”
Many Tech football players showed up: Tashard Choice, Philip Wheeler, Taylor Bennett, Darryl Richard, many freshmen, Matt Rhodes and most of the offensive line. Bennett and some teammates grilled hamburgers and hot dogs. All paid $7 each. There was a D.J., and a rap group, and a warm feeling. Keene, and Jones, were particularly grateful.
“She’s a nice young girl,” said Jones, who usually speaks to Keene on the phone or text-messages her after each Tech game. “She understands her situation. She’s living day-to-day, because tomorrow’s not promised to anybody.”
“You see these guys play each week, and they are all great athletes,” Keene said. “From my standpoint, they’re like super heroes. You watch what they do, and watch it in awe. I just wondered what they were like.”
She was not disappointed. “They’re great,” said Keene, who has a football autographed by the team on her mother’s mantel, as well as a Tech mini-helmet signed by Jackets coach Chan Gailey.
And Jones? “He’s been a really good guy, and very supportive. A good guy to have in your corner,” Keene said. “He’s such a nice guy. He’ll walk up to you and give you a hug. He’s a genuinely nice person, and a person like the rest of us.”
By whatever means, Keene will follow the Jackets Saturday: On TV, or radio. Even on-line via GameTracker, as she has while working at the Barnes & Noble in Technology Square or while tending a concession stand at Russ Chandler Stadium for Georgia Tech home baseball games. Keene will pay particular attention to her dreadlocked friend, the free safety wearing orange Shirlock Foundation rubber bands on each wrist.
“It was awkward,” Jones recalled of their first phone conversation. “But once you heard the excitement in her voice, it was like you knew her your whole life: ‘Sara, this is Djay.’ I asked her about our connections. I said, ‘The important thing is I’m on the phone with you and we’re getting this thing straightened away.’
Once they finally met, Jones said, “I felt like I set off a spark in her life, just to show her someone else who cares…Leukemia’s not hereditary. It can [afflict] anybody.”
Now, with Sara’s stem cell transplant surgery scheduled for Dec. 11th, her doctor was taking no chances with the latest liver enzyme readings. Dr. Amelia Langston prescribed 24-hour hospital care, with a heavy regiment of antibiotics, the better to prepare Sara for her transplant.
“Please just pray,” Sara wrote in her CaringBridge on-line journal Wednesday afternoon, “that this is just a little blip on the radar and that everything is alright.”
Unlike her initial auto-transplant, Keene is very encouraged about this stem cell transplant. She has a donor this time, a 42-year-old male whom she knows nothing else about. Nothing, except the fact that he gives her genuine hope.
“I’ve been very optimistic,” Sara said. “Not only optimistic, but hopeful. Those two together keeps me going. You can get so bogged down with the numbers and [percentages] that you forget that things are hopeful.
“I have complete faith in my doctor,” she said. “I have confidence and faith in this donor. I feel it’s the right one.”
It’s felt like that since Oct. 26th, when Keene signed her consent form for the transplant. “I’m ready to get the ball rolling,” she said. “Ready to rock and roll.
“My Mom wants to see her 21-year-old daughter back, and her life restored,” Sara Keene said. “And I’m ready to have my life back again.”
And so on this day, for this belief much thanks.