Kevin Burke can sit up and smile about it now.
There is no trace of sadness in his voice as he tells about coming home to Silver Spring three weeks ago from Indiana University, complaining of sharp headaches and exhaustion, about how his mother, using her "gift of intuition," made him go to the hospital for a routine checkup.
He was told that he has leukemia. But Burke, a 20-year-old running back at Indiana, can smile because his hematologist, Dr. Harvey Katzen, said "to this point, he's done better than anybody I've ever seen." He adds that he expects to have good news for Burke as early as next week when the latest series of blood tests have been completed.
"People with this disease usually have 75 to 80 percent chance of getting remission," Dr. Katzen said. "It's important to get beyond one year without a relapse. After than, logevity increases."
Burke, a former all-Met at Northwood High, believesa he will beat leukemia, just as his mother beat bone cancer 11 years ago.
"The only thing that's really bothering me now is being cooped up in one room for so long." Burke said yesterday, in his Holy Cross Hospital isolation room in pajama bottoms, white T-shirt and pure gold cross. "And of course the hospital food. Bland. Just bland."
Burke is in astonishingly high spirits. Three days ago he contracted an infection that could complicate matters, and he has regenerated more than half the 50,000 white blood cells his doctors demm necessary for him to leave Holy Cross for his home, two miles away.
"I can't help but get out of here with all the help, the friends, prayers and good wishes I've been getting," Burke said. "I'm getting out of here soon. And I'll play football again."
Burke looks as if he could line up in the I-formation right now. His weight has remained around 202 pounds despite a week of intense chemotherapy. There is no indication he is suffering from as much as a common cold as he sits upright in bed, talking about college basketball and replaying the events of the past three weeks.
"I had gone to a disco the night before. I was feeling bad, but I went out anyway, and without enough clothes on, like a knucklehead," he said. "I had a headache, but none of the true symptoms of leukemia: high fever or dizziness.
"I was just tired, but I thought that was from taking five final exams in a row plus still recuperating from the end of football season. I was taking medicine for a pinched nerve I had suffered during the season, and the doctor said that may have been causing some of the headaches. So I stopped taking it.
"But the headaches persisted and finally, my mom made me go to the doctor. It was just mother's intuition. It was the day after Christmas, and I still didn't want to go because I was running 20 minutes late. Anyway, when I got there, the doctor said nothing was wrong with me.
"Then she said, 'Wait a minute, let me take a blood test.' But I knew that would prove nothing because I had taken blood tests during the football season and everything was fine. But the hospital called me in the day after Christmas and told me I had leukemia. It scared me half to death.
"The initial shock of hearing someone tell you you've got cancer of the blood is phenomenal. The first word you think of when you hear cancer is death. I just broke down.
"But my mother had been through this before -- to hell and back. She's fantastic. The first thing she said was 'Son, keep the faith, you'll be all right.' My mother had cancer and was given only two months to live. Everytime I went to see her I cried. Sometimes I couldn't even stand to go. The doctors had to remove part of her jaw and tie her tongue down. She was given only a couple of months to live. That was 11 years ago."
Alfred and Shirley Burke have five sons, four of whom play football. Kevin is the second oldest. His father, a former professional baseball player in the Pittsburgh Pirate farm system, watched his son complete a "drastic improvement" Wednesday night.
"It was unexplainable," Alfred Burke said. "The doctors checked the blood count again because they just couldn't believe it. But faith is very strong. We have good doctors but our basic faith is in God."
Burke is determined to play football again. His coach, Lee Corso, said the 1977 all-Met runner would be the starting tailback next year, after what Burke calls, "three years in the shadows."
"He'll whip it and come back," Corso said yesterday. "He comes from strong parents -- as fine a people as you'll ever meet in the world. He seemed so enthused when I told him on the phone about spring practice. There's no question he'll return and help us again."
"The chemotherapy killed off all the leukemia cells," Burke said, sounding every bit the biology major he is at Indiana. "You usually need two sets of treatment, but I told them I'm only needing that one blast. When those cells regenerate, the doctors will see if regular cells or leukemia cells are manufactured. They may check (Friday night or Saturday).
"This whole experience turned me around," he continued. "I never had a negative attitude, but just didn't have as positive an outlook as I could have.
"I think God was just telling me, 'Hey, man, hold up. Get yourself together. I'm in control here, not you. Don't take anything else including life, for granted.' From now on it's important to realize, that whatever happens is his will."