Dec. 18, 2001
By Jack Williams – Graduation Day last Saturday didn’t exactly go as planned for Georgia Tech’s Michael Isenhour. While other seniors received diplomas at mid-year exercises, Isenhour spent two and a half hours at a hospital emergency room where doctors worked feverishly to bring his rapid heart beat under control.
“It was a big disappointment,” Isenhour said later. “I had planned to be at the graduation. But I awoke at 6 Saturday morning with a very fast heart beat. At the hospital, I learned it was 190 beats a minute. Doctors solved the problem with medication, but it took a while.”
Life has been a series of setbacks lately for Isenhour. He’s the Georgia Tech basketball center who was diagnosed two months ago with a form of leukemia known as ALL – acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
It’s been one treatment after another ever since. He undergoes two chemotherapy treatments every Thursday and takes 40 pills a day. He’s lost all his hair and the weight of the 6-8 athlete has dropped from 250 to 204.
But make no mistake about it. There have been no sad songs in the life of Michael Isenhour, no self-pity. No way. In fact, Isenhour has turned his illness into a crusade to help others with cancer. In the process, he is helping himself.
“The chemotherapy clinic at Emory Hospital is a very sad place,” Isenhour said. “I stick out like a sore thumb there because I’m perhaps the youngest patient. So many of the patients are older. I try to go there with a very positive attitude, always up-beat, and spread as much joy as I can. This thing is 70 percent mental. I can’t help the other patients medically, but I can help lift their spirits. I talk to the older people about their children and grandchildren and try to take their minds off the treatment.”
Isenhour is extremely optimistic about his own illness. “They tell me it’s curable, and that’s all I need to know,” he said. “Through the first cycle of treatment that I had at the hospital, they had killed 99.9 percent of the leukemia cells. Unfortunately, the last 0.1 percent is the toughest. But I’m going in the right direction.”
The loss of his hair is a blow for Isenhour as it would be for any handsome collegian. “But it’s a lot worse for girls,” he said. “When I go to the clinic and see all those women with no hair, I can’t really complain.
“I look totally different, all skinny and skeleton-like. People who knew me before and see me now, it takes me two hours to convince them I’m OK.”
Isenhour finds great comfort in the fact that so many people are pulling for his recovery. “I’ve received more than 400 e-mail messages on the Georgia Tech internet site,” he said. “I’ve heard from every ACC team and every ACC player. I received more than 300 messages, which were posted for me on the Duke Basketball Web site. Duke sent them to Coach (Paul) Hewitt and he gave them to me. I even heard from one basketball fan in Spain.”
Coach Hewitt has been one of Michael’s biggest boosters. “He’s been absolutely great,” Isenhour said. “I hear from Coach on a daily basis.” Isenhour says he has not seen his teammates as often because he can not drive a car at the present time, and they are busy with practice, games and classes.
“I miss one of my favorite past-times, beating Tony Akins in video games,” he said. “I kind of had his number.”
Isenhour has seen the current Tech team in action only once, a loss to Georgia in Athens. “The five freshmen are so gifted,” he said. “They are such incredible athletes. Just wait and see how good they are in time. This is a whole new ball game for them. In high school, they were the big stars who could out-run and out-jump everyone. That’s all changed now.”
Isenhour had expected this to be his shining hour in Tech basketball. “I had high hopes,” he said. “I was co-captain, it was my senior year. It was my turn. No one will ever get to see it, but I can play the game a little bit. And I could have brought this team experience and leadership on and off the court. I learned all about leadership when I spent my freshman year at the Air Force Academy.”
Isenhour played in 27 games for the Yellow Jackets last season, contributing valuable minutes in reserve of big Alvin Jones. Michael’s height and experience would have been a tremendous boost to the current squad.
It was while he recuperated from off-season leg surgery that Isenhour first experienced the symptoms of his present illness this past summer and fall.
“In rehab from leg surgery, I spent a lot of time in the pool, trying to get stronger physically,” he said. “Then I noted that my body was not responding. I knew I should be getting stronger, but found that I was not. There were three real symptoms. I ran a fever part of the time. My lymph nodes were swollen and I was tired all the time.
“Dr. (Angelo) Galante, the team physician, asked me to undergo some blood tests. He saved my life. The tests revealed that I had this disease.”
Battles with cancer are nothing new to Michael. His mother Cheri, battled the disease for 10 years before dying last May at the age of 50. She was the reason he came home to Lawrenceville, Ga., from the Air Force Academy, and walked on at Georgia Tech.
Isenhour pays his mother the most glowing tributes. “She was the most selfless person I’ve met in my entire life,” he said. “She was literally on her death bed and her friends would come over and share their problems with her and she would make them feel better. It was just amazing.”
Michael speaks in glowing terms, too, of his girlfriend of three and a half years, Lori Pendergraff.
“Lori is a kindergarten teacher at Sewanee Elementary School,” he said. “She works a long day there, teaching little kids and then comes to my home and helps take care of me. That’s tough, really tough. She has been my biggest booster through all of this.”
Michael currently lives with his father, Charlie, in Lawrenceville. His brother, Mark, is an outstanding basketball player at LaGrange College.
Michael has joined a leukemia support group where he hopes to cheer up the lives of some other patients. “The group meets the first Tuesday of every month,” he said. “I was not enrolled in time for the December meeting, but I’ll be there in January.”
Meanwhile, Michael takes special pride in his degree in mechanical engineering from Georgia Tech. “I grew up a Tech fan so this is a great accomplishment for me,” he said. “In fact, it’s a great accomplishment for anyone. This is not an easy school. It took a lot of hard work. Now, I’ll feel better when I have that degree in my hand.”
And when will that be?
“Dr. (Wayne) Clough, the Tech president, has been so very nice to me,” he said. “He may want me to receive it in a ceremony of some sort.
“Of course, there’s always the spring and another graduation exercise. And hey, my hair may even be grown back by then.”