Red dots covered 11-year-old MaryAnn Lavelle’s flesh like pomegranate seeds on a white countertop, three-millimeter warnings that the little girl’s body was failing her. Lavelle’s capillaries were bleeding. Her blood was abnormal.
In March 2007, six years before she would don catcher’s equipment for Lee’s varsity softball team, Lavelle’s pocked skin prompted a visit to a pediatrician who offered more questions than answers. Chris Ann and Joe Lavelle took their daughter to Children’s National Medical Center seeking the origin of the abrasions snaking across their sixth-grader’s upper body.
Lavelle had petechiae, tiny round spots that signify leaks in the smallest blood vessels. Blood work revealed a platelet deficiency. A lump protruded in her throat and necessitated a biopsy, Lavelle’s first invasive procedure.
Shortly after surgery, doctors pulled her parents aside. MaryAnn Lavelle steadied herself for bad news as soon as she saw her mother’s face.
“They said I had Hodgkin Lymphoma,” Lavelle said.
Before the 2013 season, the girls at Lee voted 17-year-old Lavelle a team captain. The senior did not have a single varsity at-bat under her belt, but maturity blossoms under duress.
Lee is not a powerhouse. The Lancers are a 9-9 team this season with the No. 5 seed in the Virginia AAA Patriot District tournament, which begins Wednesday.
Lavelle calls the pitches. Her self-imposed obligation to uplifting others allows her the freedom to be blunt.
“MaryAnn doesn’t have very much tolerance for stupid,” Chris Ann Lavelle said. “She’s very honest, but she’s intensely loyal.”
As a captain, MaryAnn Lavelle’s duty is to maintain a grip on the team’s commitment. Lee Coach Suzy Willemssen said this year’s squad plays for passion. No matter the previous day’s results, the girls show up on time, practice intensely and do not tolerate “drama.”
“They don’t do it for the college scholarship,” Willemssen said. “They don’t do it to see their name in the paper. They do it because they love to compete and be with their teammates.”
With MaryAnn’s example at the forefront, the Lancers have enormous heart. Four of Lee’s wins were decided by one run, including a May 4 nail-biter against West Springfield won by the cancer survivor at catcher.
Like she did last year, Willemssen wanted to dedicate one home game to supporting cancer patients. This year she chose Leukemia as the cause. The players wore orange T-shirts and strung up orange balloons. More than $350 in profits from concessions went to Kyle’s Kamp, an organization that has raised more than $500,000 dollars for pediatric cancer treatment at Children’s National.
When Willemssen realized she had a former patient of the hospital on her roster, she asked Lavelle throw out the honorary first pitch.
Lavelle helped sing the national anthem before taking the circle and tossing a ball that sailed just outside of the strike zone.
She had better luck once she moved behind the plate.
After receiving their daughter’s diagnosis in 2007, the Lavelles sought aggressive treatment. Chris Ann Lavelle was a registered nurse before becoming an inspector at an engineering firm. She shepherded her daughter through the medical jargon and set a placid tone for MaryAnn’s comeback.
The lymphoma was classified as Stage IV under the Ann Arbor staging system, meaning the cancer cells had interloped outside of the lymph nodes and into other organs. According to the American Cancer Society, patients classified as Stage IV upon first diagnosis have about a 65 percent five-year survival rate. Lavelle’s low blood lymphocite levels put her chances slightly below that figure.
Lavelle had a peripherally inserted central catheter known as PICC line inserted in her upper arm and began a five-week run of chemotherapy. She trekked to Children’s National after school three days a week to have the noxious chemicals infused into her bloodstream.
Nausea afflicted her less than she anticipated. When her hair began to tug freely from her head, she decided to shear it off. Joe Lavelle shaved his scalp in solidarity with his daughter.
Chemotherapy sapped Lavelle of her energy, but her parents, her grandmother and her schoolmates salved her spirits.
“You know the old saying, ‘It takes a village.’ Our village was very well entrenched,” Chris Ann Lavelle said.
Dripping cancer combative poison into MaryAnn’s veins was the first phase of treatment protocol for Children’s National patients. After a grueling period of chemotherapy and screenings, Lavelle went to MedStar Georgetown University Hospital to receive focused radiation treatment that would eradicate cells in her neck, chest and abdomen over a period of about seven weeks.
The concentrated doses of radiation used to break DNA molecules inside the cancer cells also ravaged Lavelle’s thyroid. She will take medication for the rest of her life to compensate.
Throughout the recovery process, Lavelle’s support system projected confidence. Chris Ann Lavelle taught her to swear when waiting on test results tried her patience.
“Everyone knew exactly what they were doing,” Lavelle said. “Everyone knew how to do their job correctly.”
“It never dawned on me that I wouldn’t get better.”
On May 4, 2013, Lavelle’s defense kept Lee alive against West Springfield. With a runner on third Lavelle crouched behind the plate to receive a pitch, but the ball never arrived. A popup to center field landed in Meghan Cox’s glove, and Cox hurled the ball at Lavelle as the runner tried to score from.
She set her feet to block the plate and caught the ball as the runner bulled into her, sending the catcher to the dirt.
“I jump up real quick,” Lavelle recalled. “I show the ump that I have the ball.”
“It felt like an hour for him to announce that she was out.”
Charged by the play at the plate, Lavelle led off a seventh inning three-run rally to force extra innings. With two outs and a runner on third in the bottom of the eighth, Lavelle’s at-bat would decide whether the game dragged on into a ninth inning.
This was why she waited three years on junior varsity. Lavelle worked a full count and fouled off inside pitch after inside pitch.
Finally, her bat found the ball cleanly.
As the third baseman fielded her hit and attempted the throw, Lee’s runner crossed the plate. Lavelle’s teammates engulfed her in a mob.
Since completing radiation treatment in October 2007, screenings have found no traces of cancer in Lavelle’s system. Her checkups have shifted from once every six months to once a year and now once every two years.
The ocean of supportive gestures from strangers changed Lavelle. Every shot she has to impact someone else’s life is extra time worth spending. On Mother’s Day, she cooked Chris Ann a giant pancake with a side of bacon after presenting her with flowers. Later that day, the two planned to go shoe shopping for the senior prom.
Like her mother, who also played softball at Lee (Class of ’81), Lavelle plans to study nursing. Wednesday could be her last chance to lead her teammates onto the field. The memories from May 4 will never go into remission.
After the game of her life on a day commemorating a cause close to home, Lavelle was not struck by her own achievement. She reveled in the reaction of her teammates.
“That big smile that they had on their faces was amazing,” she said. “I helped accomplish that game, and it was amazing. That’s the only way to describe it.”