CLEMSON, S.C. — The cells — Mike Kent’s own cells, the donated stem cells now coursing through his stricken brother’s body — are working just fine. That’s what they tell him. His family and the doctors are careful to shield Mike, just 21 years old, from most of the bad news regarding Matt’s battle with Hodgkin’s lymphoma — and lately there has been plenty of it. But they always make sure to tell him: “Your cells are doing great.”
It can mess with your head, being a stem-cell donor to your own brother. If something goes wrong, it is only natural to wonder if it was your fault. Were your cells bad? And Mike Kent, a 2009 Washington Post All-Met selection at West Springfield High, has enough on his plate right now — not just Matt’s three-year fight with cancer, but also his own baseball career at Clemson — to be saddled with all that guilt. Clemson opens play in the NCAA regionals at Columbia, S.C., on Friday.
Because now, Matt’s liver is failing, the veins breaking down from the high doses of chemotherapy and radiation. He floats in and out of consciousness in the intensive-care unit at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore, unaware of his surroundings.
“I’ll be honest: I’ve asked them, ‘Is he going to survive this?’ ” said Susan Kent, Matt and Mike’s mother, a look of sheer resolve on her face. “Of course, the doctors won’t answer.”
Such an awkward spot for a mother who had raised two boys on her own. One of them, a college sophomore, is playing out his dream, preparing to pitch in college baseball’s national championship tournament, his life spread out before him. The other son, 26 years old and a late-bloomer who was just starting to get his life in order before the diagnosis, is fighting for his life.
How do you handle such a fate? You play up the positives, that’s how. You visit Matt in the hospital — Matt being the one who taught Mike the game of baseball, in the absence of a father — and you tell him, in great detail, about all of Mike’s solid outings at Clemson: the scoreless relief appearances, the saves. And you spare him the gory details about the ugly ones — the three-run homers, the bases-loaded walks, the losses.
And you give Mike the barest of details about Matt’s setbacks: There are some complications. Some side effects. But while Mike knows most of the more pertinent information — the liver failure, the ICU — you emphasize what is important, the thing Mike needs to know: Your cells are doing great.
The injections, the doctors told Mike, would make him feel like he had the flu. The drug, Neupogen, was being given — in eight doses, spread over four days — to produce and stimulate white blood cells in his body in preparation for the stem cell transplant. One thing he shouldn’t try to do, they told him, was play baseball.
This was in late April, in the heart of Clemson’s ACC schedule, and the team, by coincidence, was playing at Maryland, roughly halfway between the Kents’ Springfield home and Matt’s hospital room in Baltimore.
On Saturday morning, hours before Clemson and Maryland would play in a doubleheader, Mike left the team hotel and drove to Baltimore for his third and fourth injections of the drug. He had two injections the day before, and would have two more on Monday and two more on Tuesday, the day of the transplant.
When Mike showed up at Maryland’s baseball stadium later that morning, the coaches, having been briefed at length about what Mike was going through that week, asked how he was feeling. He told them he felt fine. But he told his catcher something different.
“He told me, ‘Ah, I feel pretty bad,’ ” said Spencer Kieboom, who doubles as Kent’s roommate. “But Mike is the last person to complain.”
As that first game wore on, it was becoming clear Clemson would need its bullpen. They asked Kent, a redshirt sophomore in the midst of a fine season as a middle reliever, to get warmed up, keeping a close eye on him and asking him again how he felt. The answer again: “Fine.”
“I watched him throw a little bit and thought he was dialing in,” said Dan Pepicelli, Clemson’s assistant head coach and pitching coach. “I told [head coach Jack Leggett], ‘The kid says he feels good.’ So he says, ‘Well, let’s do it then.’ ”
So out of the bullpen and into the game jogged Mike Kent, with chemically induced flu symptoms taxing his body, and for whom a bone marrow donation awaited on the other side of the weekend.
“I didn’t feel well,” Kent recalled. “Fatigue. My hips were aching. Running was even tough. My body wasn’t feeling normal. Feverish.”
Oh, and the bases were loaded with two outs, with Clemson protecting a three-run lead.
What followed became perhaps the emotional centerpiece of the Tigers’ season.
Kent gave up an infield single, on a chopper to shortstop, that allowed one runner to score, but struck out his second batter to end the Terrapins’ threat. He then came back out for the seventh, then the eighth, then the ninth.
“As soon as you see him with that first batter, you could tell he’s got it going on,” Pepicelli said. “And in the back of your mind, you know what’s going on in his life — and if he wants to stay out there and go with it, let’s let him go. It was just one of those moments. You could sense it was a moment.”
The result: 31 / 3 scoreless innings and a well-earned save in a 5-3 Clemson win in the middle game of what turned into a three-game sweep.
“When he came off the field,” recalled Susan Kent, who was in the stands that day, “a bunch of [his teammates] came over and hugged him. Because they knew.”
After Saturday’s second game, after his teammates packed for the flight back to Clemson, Kent drove back to Springfield with his mother. There were still two more days of injections and the stem cell donation itself to go. By Tuesday, Mike’s flu-like symptoms were intense.
When the notion of a transplant was first broached with Mike over winter break, his mother put it in dire terms. The chemotherapy hadn’t worked for Matt, nor had the injections of his own stem cells.
“The doctors were telling us that if this [transplant] doesn’t work, we don’t know what else to do,” Mike recalled. “We’ve tried a lot of things, and this could be it for him. My mom was in tears. She was worried about me, too. She didn’t want to put too much on my plate. I said, ‘Look, Mom, I’m a grown man. I can handle this.’ ”
On the day of the transplant, April 24, Mike sat on a hospital bed for six hours with a needle in each arm, hooked up to a machine that drew his blood out of one arm, filtered out the white blood cells it needed, then pumped the red blood cells back into the other arm — a process known as apheresis.
When it was over, Mike had only about a half-hour to kill before he had to rush to Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport to catch his flight to South Carolina. (Clemson, as Susan pointed out, paid for not only that flight, but also two others that Mike needed to take to meet with doctors regarding the transplant.) Mike went to his brother’s room, and for a few moments it was just the three of them — Susan, Matt and Mike.
“I came in, and [Matt] just started to cry and said, ‘I’m sorry,’” Mike recalled, his eyes welling up. “I said, ‘Look, this is something we’ve got to do.’ He was pretty upset, [and] my mom was pretty upset. I said, ‘Look guys, we’re a family here.’ ”
“Everyone has their own struggles, their own problems,” Mike continued. “This is my own struggle. [With] this disease, you never know. There’s never a guarantee he’s going to get better. Every minute I spend with him is precious time. [But] I never feel overwhelmed. This is the hand that was dealt to me.”
That day, after the transplant, Mike Kent made his flight back to South Carolina, and he hasn’t been back home since.
He hasn’t seen his brother in more than a month now, although they spoke by phone or texted with each other frequently, before the liver problem cropped up and Matt was sent to ICU.
Four days after the transplant, Mike pitched again — getting the win with five sterling innings of relief against Georgia Tech. A curveball specialist with impeccable command, he carries a 3.76 ERA into the NCAA regionals, along with the lowest walk rate (2.3 per nine innings) on Clemson’s staff.
He’ll get home again in another week or two — maybe three if the Tigers make it to the College World Series. He figures his first stop will be the hospital.
They will be closer now than ever, Matt and Mike Kent, the same blood coursing through their veins.