MOMENTS AFTER DAWN ON APRIL 17, Michelle Carew died as she had lived—fighting all the way. During a seven-month battle with leukemia, the 18-year-old daughter of baseball Hall of Famer Rod Carew had come through so much adversity—including kidney failure, temporary blindness and seven debilitating rounds of chemotherapy—that nurses at Children’s Hospital of Orange County, Calif., dubbed her the Comeback Kid. With her parents, Rod and Marilynn, both 50, and sisters Stephanie, 20, and Charryse, 22, huddled at her bedside to say goodbye, Michelle’s failing pulse spiked upward once, twice….
‘Go, Michelle, go!’ Charryse recalls shouting. “Her heart kept beating—it seemed like forever. But then…then her blood pressure just dropped to nothing, and then she was gone.”
She had made her mark, though. Last November, at her insistence, Michelle’s intensely private family mounted a campaign that has highlighted the critical shortage of minority donors to the bone-marrow transplant program that might have saved her life. (African-Americans are less than half as likely as whites to find suitable matches. Michelle’s genetic heritage—her mother is of Russian-Jewish descent, her father West Indian and Panamanian—narrowed the donor pool even more.) Scores of Americans have responded. “We have had over 70,000 calls to our 800-MARROW2 hotline because of the Carew family effort,” says a spokeswoman for the National Marrow Donor Program in Minneapolis. That, according to Rod Carew, is what his daughter wanted. “When people ask me how a quiet person like myself could go so public,” he says, “I have only one answer: Michelle. She said, ‘Daddy, you’ve got to let people know about this. Not just for me, for all the kids who need transplants.’ ”
It was the first time Michelle had urged her father—a seven-time American League batting champion, now a hitting coach with the California Angels—to act like a celebrity. And the self-effacing Carew responded to try to save his youngest child. “She was very much one of the gang,” says Lance Eddy, her softball coach at Canyon High School, from which she graduated in 1995. Friends describe her as easygoing but always ready to stick up for the underdog. “Michelle was a simple person,” says Crystal Aldaco, 19, who hoped to join Michelle at Cypress College in Cypress, Calif. “She always wanted to go out and look at the stars.”
Last Sept. 11, Michelle was at home writing an English paper when she slumped forward on her computer, complaining of head and neck pain and blurred vision. Within four days the terrifying diagnosis was official: acute non-lymphocytic leukemia—a particularly deadly form of the disease. Michelle’s doctor explained that a bone-marrow transplant might dramatically increase her chance of survival, but that finding a suitable donor was unlikely.
With that, the Carews’ battle began. Rod called on old baseball friends, including Minnesota Twin Kirby Puckett, to help publicize Michelle’s plight. Both Stephanie and Charryse dropped out of college to work full-time finding a donor. “Something had to be done to save our sister,” says Charryse. Meanwhile, Marilynn and Rod spent almost every night in their daughter’s hospital room, catching a few hours of sleep in reclining chairs when they could. Michelle’s friends kept her supplied with Hot Tamales, her favorite candy, and orders of ribs and chicken so she wouldn’t have to eat hospital food.
For a few months last winter, Michelle regained enough strength to spend four hours, a day at the Carews’ sunny home in Anaheim Hills. As Stephanie was driving her back to the hospital one cool, clear day, Rod recalls, “Michelle said, ‘I want to feel how great this is. I may never feel such wonderful air again.’ ” Sadly, within weeks Michelle was back in a sterile hospital room, her body weakened by chemotherapy, trying to fend off an unremitting array of infections. As a last resort, doctors in March performed a rare umbilical-cord blood transplant, but it came too late. “Her organs had essentially shut down,” says Rod. “We said goodbye and wished her a safe journey. We were caressing her arm and telling her we would never forget her.”
“Some people might say we had seven months to prepare for this,” says Marilynn, who can’t bring herself to go into Michelle’s silent all-white bedroom. “But we never thought it would happen. Never did we think Michelle would lose. She fought so hard.”
PAMELA WARRICK and LYNDA WRIGHT in Los Angeles