'Happy Because He Has Hope'
Leukemia Patient Fertitta Steals the Show at Mitchell Classic

By Walter Gabriel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 14, 2005

At 11 a.m. Friday, ecstatic 9-year-old Paul Fertitta bragged to Redskins Hall of Famer Bobby Mitchell about his golf score. It was an unforgettable moment for Fertitta, a leukemia patient who was recognized at Mitchell's annual golf fundraiser benefiting the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

A couple hours earlier, Fertitta, who is in remission after a year of treatment, told the audience at the annual Bobby Mitchell Hall of Fame Classic that he had taken more than 2,000 pills to battle leukemia, which according to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society is the leading cause of cancer death among children under 20.

More than 40 Hall of Famers, including Bill Russell, Gale Sayers, Sam Huff and Sonny Jurgensen, donated their time for the three-day fundraiser at the Lansdowne Resort that culminated Sunday with a golf tournament. A group of four golfers paid $6,500 to play a round with one Hall of Famer.

"You get emotional when you see them," said Huff, who played linebacker for the Giants and Redskins. "When you see a young kid who has no idea how long he can live, to get up behind a microphone and to be happy and tell you about his illness and tell you about how many pills he takes a day, it tells you about his experience fighting leukemia."

The tournament raised $680,000. Over 15 years, the event has raised more than $4 million. The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society has raised approximately $411 million since 1949, with the money going toward research and to help transition children such as Fertitta back to school. Fertitta returned to Floris Elementary School in Herndon after approximately eight months of treatment.

"As a parent there's a lot of decisions you have to make in a very short time. It's overwhelming. The Leukemia Society helped us through all of it," said Pamela Fertitta, Paul's mother.

On Sunday, Mitchell's team won the tournament with a score of 53, two shots ahead of Lenny Moore's group.

At the barbecue afterward, Mitchell paused more than once to fight tears as he spoke of Saturday night's banquet where those in attendance viewed a film detailing progress in research. The film reported that five-year survival rates are 86 percent, up 82 percent from the 1960s. Then the screen showed faces of 10 children and asked the audience which two it was willing to let die.

"I used over 10 tissues after watching the video," Paul Fertitta said.

Fertitta was living the normal, active lifestyle of an 8-year-old last year, enjoying his summer, participating in sports and outings with family and friends. His parents, however, couldn't ignore how yellow his skin looked against his white tae kwon do uniform. He got occasional fevers and grew tired easily.

Fertitta also had grown used to dealing with constant nosebleeds by himself, but then there was one that wouldn't stop. It prompted a trip to the doctor's office, where he had blood tests. On July 20, 2004, Fertitta was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia, the most common form of leukemia in children. More tests, hospital visits and chemotherapy followed.

"He's one of our success stories so far," said Donna McKelvey, executive director of the national capital area chapter of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. "He still has to take his medications, and he still goes in to the doctor's office. He looks healthy, but he's still got 18 months to go."

Fertitta was initially uneasy with the treatment, which includes many shots and pills, but he appreciates the work that others have done for him. After the event Sunday, Fertitta was showing off the golf ball that Jurgensen gave him. The family also was presented a trip to France at Saturday's auction after the winning bidder, who spent $17,000, gave the prize to the Fertittas.

"You see the work of Bobby, the money that's [used] for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, and the people that come to this thing," Jurgensen said. "You see the money is doing some good. You see how much they are appreciative of it."

When Mitchell finished his speech on Sunday, he handed Paul Fertitta his golf bag. It was another gift to a child who had endured much in a year.

"He still smiles, and he looks at you, and he's happy because he has hope," Huff said of Fertitta.

"What we're doing can help [others with the disease]. That's his hope."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company