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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

There’s no hole in his heart

WSU’s Swartz competes with leukemia

WSU sophomore Shawn Swartz practices the high jump at Mooberry Track. (KEVIN QUINN)

Here’s the deal on the hole in Shawn Swartz’s chest:

To administer chemotherapy intravenously and withdraw blood and do the things that must be done to treat acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a Hickman line was implanted – a catheter with three ports. Regular flushes and cleaning were required to guard against infection and blood clots, and yet he developed such a clot nonetheless. So the line had to be – and this is the technical term – pulled out. And now there’s a hole.

“But he tells everybody he got shot,” said his mother, Dianna Swartz.

It is not a strategy for everyone, dealing with something dark and sinister by taking it outside to play, but sometimes it works for Shawn Swartz. A practiced ignorance can also be useful. But most of the time, a simple counterattack is best, because there is the opportunity for gain and reinforcement – and, yes, we have an example:

Last week, on Monday, Swartz was in his Canadian hometown of Vancouver, undergoing a spinal tap and intravenous chemo, treatment he must endure every three weeks – on top of his daily oral dosage.

Five days later, in front of a small rooting section, the Washington State sophomore high jumped 6 feet, 7 1/2 inches, his best mark of the spring.

And yet his reaction ping-ponged between being wholly unsatisfied to highly encouraged, with a brief stop at resignation in between. For when he came to WSU in the fall of 2008, he had already jumped 7 feet, and by now he might have envisioned another four or five inches added to that, and a Pac-10 title and possibly even the championship of his country.

Of course, he didn’t expect to be diagnosed with leukemia, either.

“It’s been emotionally frustrating because I’ve never really struggled with the high jump before,” he said. “But with what’s happened, this is more than I could ask for. There are so many people that have it worse than me.”

This is undeniable, but the notion of relativity when it comes to cancer does not always give an accurate read.

“When people see him and they say, ‘Shawn is doing really well,’ well, yes he is,” said Dianna Swartz, “but it also makes it sound like it wasn’t that bad. It was that bad. He’s just rising above it.”

Tonight he’ll try to rise even higher in the Cougars’ annual meet against Washington in Seattle. Whether he ever scores a point in a dual or the Pac-10s is not irrelevant, but it will never quite measure the mark Swartz’s story will leave on those touched by it at WSU.

“I guess it’s about not taking anything for granted,” he said.

In the winter of 2009, Swartz had complained to his mother of the hard bed in his dorm room and how he was waking up with all manner of aches. That March, a bone scan revealed a “hot spot” and a blood test suggested anemia, so iron pills were prescribed and a follow-up ordered – which Swartz, not untypical of a 19-year-old, kept blowing off. Yes, there was pain, but the week before the Pac-10 meet he jumped 6-10 3/4, so how bad could it be? So Dianna Swartz phoned his coaches, and back to the doctor he went.

This time, the tests were more revealing.

And while the Cougars were flying to Eugene, Swartz was flying back to Vancouver for a bone marrow biopsy, his world “flipped upside down.” Or maybe not quite.

“I was a nervous wreck,” his mother said. “We’re in there for the biopsy and I’m crying – and he’s smiling. I think he was laughing at me.”

As Swartz recalled, “I was begging the doctor to let me go to the Pac-10s, but he didn’t know enough about the cancer to do that.”

When more was known, it was decided that Swartz would be a candidate – the first in Canada, as it happened – for an aggressive 2-year treatment protocol normally restricted to children and adolescents. For the first year, that meant as many as six trips a week to Vancouver General Hospital, sometimes six hours at a crack – radiation, chemo, shots, spinals.

The radiation gave him raging headaches so intense he could hardly be coaxed out of bed to return to the hospital. Dexamethasone made his face swell so badly he didn’t want to go out in public. One drug put him into anaphylactic shock. But other aspects of the treatment that normally cause patients pain and problems had no effect, possibly because of his strength and fitness – and possibly because he tuned out.

“I didn’t want to know symptoms and side effects,” he said. “I didn’t want to mentally create reactions. I didn’t want to imagine negative outcomes. The mind is a strong healing factor, if you make it one.”

His mother, naturally, read everything, and often would feel sick when he was supposed to – to the point that her hair began falling out before his did.

There is an obvious bond between Dianna Swartz and the youngest of her three children, though it is not always so serious. After cautioning that “she’ll talk your ear off,” Swartz phoned her up to tell her he had ratted her out in advance. Perhaps in payback, she told the caller of the “awkward situation of accompanying your 20-year-old son when he had to bank his sperm” in advance of the treatments.

But if she “couldn’t get that far ahead” to envision his return to WSU and resume jumping, she didn’t try to temper his determination, either.

By January 2010, Swartz was making trips to his old high school to play basketball. In March came the first baby steps of high jumping. And in July, he returned to Pullman to take classes and train.

“I’m sure the doctors thought I was crazy at the beginning, or they’d just ignore me,” he said. “But I honestly think being so focused on coming back made me better.”

And in Pullman, he got something else he needed. The teammates who had sold crimson wristbands bearing, among other things, the initials A.C. – for “Air Canada,” his nickname – didn’t regard him as a cancer patient.

“Shawn’s a very proud young man,” said Matt McGee, WSU’s jumps coach. “He’s not someone who wants handouts or excessive help or treated as if he can’t do things on his own. Probably the biggest thing the kids did was not treating him as if he wasn’t the same Shawn.”

Actually, he’s not the same – stronger of spirit, more driven than ever, more appreciative of the people around him.

Seven hours away, Dianna Swartz marvels at the support he’s had at Washington State, elated that “this is his life right now” – even as she teases him about where this life has taken him.

“He hates lentils, you know,” she said. “I always ask him, ‘Did you go to the lentil festival yet?’ ”

Maybe he just will. This is no time to take anything for granted.