Hundreds Simply Hoping To Help Save A Life

WILLIMANTIC —

They showed up Tuesday at the Eastern Connecticut Sports Center. There were a hundred of them, students and student-athletes, and they wanted to help one of their own.

Then there were 200 of them, faculty, staff and administrators, too, and they stood there waiting in line for 45 minutes to register for the bone-marrow drive. On and on it went for six hours, the numbers swelled to 300, 400, 500. Most of them had never met Jon DeCasanova, most do not know the ECSU senior soccer midfielder from Glastonbury.

What they knew is they wanted to help save a life.

"You envision workers from the bone-marrow transplant center sitting in a room having an occasional kid come through and make a donation," ECSU athletic director Jeff Konin said. "And then what happened, well, I've been involved in athletics for 24 years. It was the most moving thing I'd ever seen."

"Amazing," ECSU coach Greg DeVito said, "just amazing."

By the time Tuesday had ended 624 people had registered, had the insides of their cheeks swabbed for precious DNA, looking to beat the long odds and be a match. They ran out of kits, in fact, and nearly 100 more names and addresses had to be taken so the kits would be sent to their dorms and homes.

"It was a big day for our soccer team, a big day for the Eastern community, very big," said senior forward Matt Furman, DeCasanova's roommate for three years. "When I talked to Jon afterward, he had a tough time expressing how grateful he was."

"It was an emotional day for me, knowing that I had that much support," DeCasanova said. "It was a great day."

For DeCasanova, it began with jaundiced eyes. Yet for the rest of us, there can be no jaundiced eye. As he sits in the Conklin Building at Hartford Hospital, awaiting a match for a bone-marrow transplant to combat a rare and life-threatening disease known as aplastic anemia, it is impossible to look at the overwhelming support he has received and at the uncommon grace he has demonstrated, and not be moved to register ourselves.

"Of course, we'd love a match," DeCasanova said. "But if those people aren't a match for me, they could be a match for someone else and save their life."

That's what Wesleyan junior tight end Matt Long did. In an unrelated case, Long missed the Oct. 13 win against Bates two days after his bone-marrow donation. He knew only three things about his recipient, the man is in his 30s, lives in the Midwest and has some form of cancer. Matt Long should know a fourth thing about himself. He is a generous soul.

DeCasanova knew something was wrong last June when his eyes turned yellow. DeVito had talked to Jon one morning in early July, he wasn't feeling well and that night he got a call from Jon's mom, Karen Plante, saying he had been taken to the emergency room. Headaches, fatigue, he was admitted to the hospital and diagnosed with hepatitis. In the process of recovery, he started getting nosebleeds. He returned to the hospital and was diagnosed with idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura, a bleeding disorder in which the immune system destroys platelets.

DeCasanova went home once more and one night he began urinating blood. He was admitted a third time on Labor Day and has been at Hartford Hospital since. A bone marrow biopsy showed aplastic anemia, a condition in which bone marrow does not produce enough blood cells. To this point, other treatments have not worked.

"It was shocking for someone this healthy and energetic to get so sick," said junior teammate Carl Stensland, who has known DeCasanova since he was 10, playing at Oakwood Sports Center in Glastonbury. "Jon's courage and optimism has inspired our team."

His teammates were the ones who passed out fliers for the bone-marrow registration. His teammates are the ones who wear inspirational messages on their shoes and wristbands. They have seen DeCasanova at his best and worst in the hospital, and, in turn, a psychologist was made available to help them deal with it all. They are the ones who have dedicated their season to DeCasanova.

"They are a special group," DeVito said softly.

There are slightly more than 20 million donors registered worldwide and 37 were found to be preliminary matches for DeCasanova. After a higher definition look was made, however, he found out a little more than a week ago that there were zero matches. Brothers and sisters typically are the best matches, but DeCasanova has only a half-brother. His father, Juan Carlos, is Peruvian and his native ethnicity poses challenges for a match. If time grows too short and the wait grows too long, there are possibilities of half-match marrow transplants with a parent.

"It's not uncommon you don't find someone right away," DeCasanova said. "I'm going to keep my head up. Someone will be my match."

In the meantime, DeVito, his team and Eastern have mobilized. They've reached out to Division III men's and women's teams and various organizations around the country. In the Portland Press Herald the other day, Southern Maine coach Mike Keller talked about how he was approached after a game by DeVito, tears in his eyes, asking for help. Moved, Keller turned to his players. Western Connecticut, Southern Maine, MIT, Centenary in New Jersey. …

"It's amazing to see how many people have reached out to us to start a drive," DeVito said.

CHICAGO