THE DOCTORS AND NURSES AT ROYAL Marsden Hospital in London were only trying to cheer up Craig Shergold when they suggested in September 1989 that he go for a world record in get-well cards. Stricken with a brain tumor, Craig, then 10, was not expected to survive more than a few months. But the quest for the record didn’t just lift Craig’s spirits; it saved his life.
Craig needed to collect a million-plus cards to earn a listing in the Guinness Book of Records. This month the total was well over 33 million. His favorites include a card from Arnold Schwarzenegger, which reads “Keep on pumping,” and one from Michael Jackson, pictured with his chimp, Bubbles. But Craig is most grateful to Virginia media mogul John Kluge, reportedly the richest man in the U.S., who decided that a get-well greeting was not enough.
Instead Kluge, 76, hearing about Craig’s plight from a friend, brought the boy and his parents to the University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville for an operation that appears to have been successful. “It’s overwhelming,” says Craig’s father, Ernie, 52, a truck driver. “It’s a miracle,” adds Craig’s mother, Marion, 44, who quit her job as a waitress to care for him. A sweet-tempered youngster with a mischievous sense of humor, Craig has months of therapy ahead. He walks hesitantly and pauses often while he speaks. But his recovery so far has been dramatic. “The messages helped me,” he says. “When I think about them, they make me feel well.”
Craig’s medical odyssey began a few days before Christmas I 988, when he complained of a throbbing earache at his family’s home in Carshalton, Surrey. “He kept saying, ‘Oh, Mummy, the pain,’ ” recalls Marion. “He’s not the soil of kid to make a fuss.” Antibiotics proved ineffective. In mid-January, Craig became violently ill, and his mother phoned a local children’s hospital, only to be told it would be a week before he could come in for a checkup. “Look, I’m not waiting,” Marion replied. “If you don’t let us see a specialist today, I’ll go to every bloody hospital in England.” The hospital relented, and tests revealed that Craig had a large brain tumor. His parents were warned he could die before the night was over. Shortly after midnight they accompanied him on the 20-mile ambulance ride to Great Ormond Street Hospital in London for emergency surgery. “It was the longest journey we’ve had,” says Marion.
After an emergency shunt was inserted to drain excess fluids, surgeons removed a large portion of the cancerous tumor during a 10-hour operation. But the tumor continued to grow, and Craig was transferred to Royal Marsden Hospital in February 1989, where he returned periodically for radiation treatment and chemotherapy.
The following September, Princess Di heard about Craig and asked to see him. His parents took him to meet Di and Prince Charles after a gala on Sept. 19, but the royals were an hour late, and Craig was too ill from radiotherapy to wait for their arrival. The British press, which had taken note of Diana’s interest in Craig’s case, announced his desire to make it into the Guinness Book. In turn the London office of the Children’s Wish Foundation, which funds requests of terminally ill youngsters, spread the word about Craig’s dream to its chapters in Atlanta and New York City.
On Sept. 26, Craig was delighted when the local postman arrived by bicycle that morning and put some 50 cards through the mail slot of his family’s house. At noon the mailman returned on a moped with a huge bundle of cards. At 4 P.M. he showed up again, this time with a truckful. In the following months, London’s main post office commandeered two warehouses to store the torrent of cards that poured in from all over the world. (The recycling of stamps to collectors has raised more than $50,000 for leukemia research.)
Meanwhile Craig was in and out of the hospital for chemotherapy treatments, but his condition deteriorated. Finally, on Sept. 20, 1990, doctors at Royal Marsden told the Shergolds that Craig’s case was hopeless. “Take him home. Keep him happy,” Marion was told. “Let him die in peace.”
The very next day, however, the Shergolds received a letter by Federal Express from Dr. Neal Kassell, a neurosurgeon at the University of Virginia Medical Center, informing them that his friend John Kluge had offered to pay for Craig to come to the U.S. for treatment. Ironically, Kassell had been tring to contact the Shergolds for more than a month, but his letter had been buried in the deluge of get-well cards.
In November, Kassell examined Craig in Virginia. “Craig’s brain stem had been compressed by the tumor to the point where it was like a ribbon,” says Kassell, who scheduled an operation for after the holidays. Rather than opening the skull from the back, as British surgeons had done, Kassell and his team, in a five-hour operation on March 1, 1991, separated the two hemispheres of the brain from above and removed 90 percent of the tumor. “We think there’s a good chance he won’t have any more trouble from the tumor,” says Kassell. In late March, Kluge gave Craig his lucky two-headed quarter, saying, “You’re bound to win.” Craig prompted Kluge to break down in tears when he replied, “I’d kiss you all over if I could.”
Before returning to England in April, Craig expressed a sense of wonder at the attention he has received. “At first I thought I would get about 100 cards,” he said, pausing between each word. “I was very surprised. This is wonderful.”
ELIZABETH M. HOWARD in Charlottesville