January 17, 2011

Blood's Thicker: After Saving Mother's Life, Dutton-O'Hara Ready to Return

by Jac Coyne | Lacrosse Magazine Online Staff | Coyne Archive | Twitter

When Renee Dutton-O'Hara was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma, it was her son, Ryan, who put his lacrosse career on hold to save her life. Now Ryan is ready to return to the field with Michigan.

As he waited at the elevator bank in the Johns Hopkins Hospital, Ryan Dutton-O'Hara felt drained. Drained in the most literal sense. Not only was his left hip screaming at him – the after effects of a two-hour surgical procedure that siphoned the bone of its marrow – but the general anesthesia hadn't quite faded. He wanted to hop in bed for a month.

Sleep would have to wait, however. Laying a couple floors away was the reason he endured this. There, on a sterile bed, was Renee Dutton-O'Hara, Ryan's mom, her body ravaged by both Hodgkin's lymphoma and chemotherapy.

Chemo is the ultimate double-edged sword, a nasty cocktail of chemicals that not only fights the blood cancer, but also wipes out nearly the entire immune system of the patient. Renee had just concluded a second intensive treatment, known by the unnerving acronym "ICE" (for ifosfamide, carboplatin and etoposide), as the transfusion of stem cells from her son was about to begin.

One look at his mom, and Ryan's hip pain and fogginess went away. He knew, relatively speaking, he got off easy.

"They go down a much tougher road than anyone else does," Ryan said of cancer patients. "It's something you can look past immediately knowing what the outcome could be, and who it's going to."

"He insisted on coming up to check on me before he left Hopkins to go home and recover himself," Renee said. "He never let on, but I know he was worried that the transplant wouldn't work, and maybe he personally couldn't save me. Certainly, it's a lot for an 18-year-old, or anyone, to go through."

'It seemed like a good idea'
It was about a year earlier when everything seemed to fall into place for Dutton-O'Hara. He had just completed his final season at Urbana High School, where, as a burly (6-foot-2, 211 pounds) left-handed attackman, he helped lead the Hawks to the Maryland 4A title game in his last two years.

Knowing that his father was a Queens, N.Y., native, his paternal grandparents still lived in the borough and his sister was performing in Manhattan, he set his sights on joining the St. John's lacrosse program.

"It seemed like a good idea," Dutton-O'Hara said. "It was a really convenient way to spend my college career playing in the Big East and at a school near a lot of my family who I am very close with."

The Johnnies had already taken a look at Dutton-O'Hara. Seeing him produce for a good team, especially as a lefty, St. John's gave him a shot.

"When he started the recruiting cycle, I'm not sure if he was a top guy on our list. But as we went through it made sense if he really wanted to come here," said St. John's head coach Jason Miller. "I've always felt that during the recruiting process you always have to have guys who want to be here. Things just came together."

While Dutton-O'Hara knew his mother had come down with some kind of ailment, his parents didn't seem too concerned about it. Like with any teenager heading off to college, mortality was a foreign concept.

"His senior year he knew I was sick, but didn't know much more," said his mother, who was already at Stage 4 when she was diagnosed. "We just didn't want to ruin [his] day-to-day life. I didn't start any treatment until after he graduated from high school."

Dutton-O'Hara fit in seamlessly with his St. John's teammates. While it would be a challenge to get any playing time during his freshman season, the fall was a great experience.

"I was really close to the guys on my team and made some very good friends," he said. "I liked being a part of the program and playing against great competition at the Division I level."

Before Dutton-O'Hara left for the winter break and returned to his home in Mount Airy, Md., he filled out an informational worksheet for the St. John's athletic communications office. On the line after the question, "Who have been the most influential people in your life?" Dutton-O'Hara penciled in his parents, "for always being supportive."

In just days, it would be his parents seeking their son's support.

'He was always the choice'

There wasn't too much emotion when Ryan arrived home for Christmas break and was told that six months of chemotherapy had failed his mother.

"She and I had a discussion that she was going to need a bone marrow transplant because [the cancer] was further along than what chemo could solely treat," Ryan said in his typical, matter-of-fact tone. "It was something you never say no to. It wasn't much of a question. My mom and I sat down and talked about it and I was going to be her donor."

While there were other donor possibilities – Ryan's sister, Meaghan, along with both of Renee's parents – the strapping youngster who was used to taking a beating on the lacrosse field was the primary target.

"He was always the choice," Renee said. "No one else was even tested. You could have a lot of people, any number of siblings, and you test them all, but [doctors] just said go with the 18-year-old. Ryan was the only one who went through testing in my family to be a donor, and he had no hesitation."

Mother and son could not get too emotional about the gravity of the situation they faced for one important reason.

There was no time.

With the bravado of a teenager, Dutton-O'Hara not only undertook the challenge of curing his mother, but decided he was going to play for the Johnnies. He practiced for the first month in the spring, playing in both preseason scrimmages. Before the season opener, Dutton-O'Hara headed back to Hopkins for a battery of tests in preparation for the bone marrow procedure, which was scheduled for mid-March.

It was at that point that his paternal grandfather – the one who lived in Queens – passed away.

"I was on kind of a streak of bad luck, I guess," Dutton-O'Hara said. "It just kind of made it more difficult, because my dad was dealing with the loss of his father, and he was trying to make sure things worked out for my mother at the exact same time."

Dutton-O'Hara managed to return to St. John's for the season opener, a 9-8 win for the Johnnies over Holy Cross.

"To see them there, he and his dad, talking after the game and knowing his mom wanted to be there and couldn't? It was pretty tough to watch," Miller said. "His dad was always upbeat and Ryan was upbeat. I have a lot of admiration about how they handled the whole thing."

Two games later, when the Johnnies played at Georgetown in early March, Dutton-O'Hara remained in Baltimore to have the bone marrow procedure at Hopkins. With at least a month-long recovery ahead of him, he let the St. John's staff know he would take the rest of the semester off while seeking a medical redshirt.

"We said, 'Hey, Ryan, this is way more important,'" said Miller. "Take care of your family first."

"They were very supportive of him," Renee said of St. John's.

And then Ryan was slowly counting to 10, drifting off to sleep.

'Quality bonding time'

As Ryan's processed marrow – what looked like a bag of blood – dripped into Renee's body, he took his aching bones back home to rest. For the next month, he slowly regained his strength, and the pain started to subside. It was hardly the first thing on his mind.

"You can look past what I went through because you are, in essence, saving someone's life," he said.

Ryan's mom wasn't out of the woods yet. In addition to the looming possibility that her body could reject her son's stem cells, there was the daily inpatient, outpatient trip to the hospital for transfusions of platelets. It was a two-month routine that reached well into May of last year.

While watching his mother's rehabilitation – "We really had some quality bonding time," said Renee, using one of Ryan's favorite phrases – Ryan rethought his lacrosse career at St. John's. Queens seemed like a good fit at the time, but after everything that had transpired, he thought about pursuing his dream of attending a large, Big Ten-type campus and all that it had to offer.

Meanwhile, Renee started to show signs of improvement. "The nurses told [Ryan] he had 'Cadillac blood', as his blood type is the universal type," she said. She stopped her daily visits to the hospital and slowly graduated to weekly, and then monthly, appearances.

With his mother feeling better, Ryan broached the idea of leaving St. John's.

"I had spoken with my family, and they told me I could go ahead and pursue a new experience," Ryan said.

He dialed Miller in the St. John's offices and told him of his decision.

"[Miller] was helpful with any opportunity I wanted to pursue," Dutton-O'Hara said. "He was 100 percent behind me talking to other schools and did whatever I needed. It was a really big help and a really kind thing for him to do."

Michigan was Dutton-O'Hara's target. Wolverine coach John Paul was familiar with him, as the Michigan staff had reached out to Dutton-O'Hara when he was in high school.

"He decided to go to St. John's, and we lost touch," Paul said. "He reached out when it became apparent he was going to leave St. John's. He showed interest in Michigan, and we took it from there."

"Michigan was the place I wanted to be," Dutton-O'Hara said. "I knew I wanted to be here this winter, so I applied as soon as I was eligible to apply. I came back out for the Iowa football game and met some of the guys and Coach Paul, who was nothing but supportive of me the whole time it took to get here. The week I got back from my trip, it was October here and I found out I had been accepted, and I knew I was going to play."

Added Paul: "I knew him from watching him in high school, and knew what kind of player he was and what kind of person he was, so we didn't say you have to come and try out in his case. We knew he had a roster spot when his acceptance was official."

It was around that time that another issue became official.

"My system is completely replaced with Ryan's," Renee said. "Our blood is identical."

'A very smooth transition'

It's not a comfortable admission, but, like most cancers, Renee will not be officially "cured" of Hodgkin's lymphoma until five years after her first clean bill of health. But even with that reality, Dutton-O'Hara knows his mother is in a lot better place than she was last March.

"She basically has her life back," he said. "They have a somewhat significant relapse percentage, but she's doing well."

Dutton-O'Hara has taken that small bit of good news and run with it. He has immersed himself in the Michigan life and has yet to be disappointed.

"It has been a very smooth transition for me academically, socially and especially on the lacrosse field," he said. "It's truly a great group of guys and a great group of coaches. They are all very supportive; they've been nothing but welcoming. It's like a family, extremely close. That's something that made it a lot easier for me."

There will be a transition period in a new program and Dutton-O'Hara will compete for time with a deep attack unit for the Wolverines, but Paul likes what he sees so far. Dutton-O'Hara has come in lighter than during his St. John's days, and religiously watches practice tape.

"He's going to make a big impact right away," said Paul, who has guided Michigan to the last three MCLA championships. "He's a lefty, and we just graduated two lefty attackmen. He's got great character, he's got great hands, he's a great finisher, and he has great lacrosse sense. He just has to catch up on what we do."

"It is his dream school," Renee said. "I am so happy for him. He deserves it, and I'm sure he feels he can move on, as I am getting stronger all of the time. I look forward to seeing a game and the school for the first time in the spring."

It might be Feb. 19 for Michigan's home opener against Florida, or perhaps later in March, when the Wolverines have a seven-game home stand, but Renee will be there. For Dutton-O'Hara, the hesitancy of seeing his mother wasting away in a hospital bed a year ago will be erased by the elation of seeing her decked out in Maize & Blue on an Ann Arbor sideline.

When they finally embrace after the game, it will be the perfect day to put the past year behind them.

It will be the perfect day to be alive.

Ryan saved his mom's life, along with the great work by the doctors, nurses and team members in the IPOP unit at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Would you like a chance to save a life? Check out the Bone Marrow Registry's website to see if there is something you can do. For more information on Hodgkin's lymphoma, visit the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

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