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Padecky: A family's toughest battle

  • Maria Carrillo football coach Jay Higgins, his wife Sonya, and their two children, Tyler, 10, and Josie, 7, pose at Glacier Point during a family vacation to Yosemite in June. (Photo from Higgins family)

The number is out there but Jay Higgins refuses to know it, and doesn't want to know it. The number, that percentage of time in which things will work out, is always connected to another number, one with the opposite forecast. Higgins can't go there because that negative number runs so contrary to the images he has about Dr. Sonya Vanderheiden, his wife, his soul mate, the mother of their two children.

“When Sonya was at Lowell High School in San Francisco,” Higgins said, “she went out for track so she could get out of physical education class.”

“But track seems much more arduous than P.E. class,” I said.

“It's not so bad,” Higgins said, “if you don't try hard. ... Her coach was always annoyed with her. ... Did I tell you she's really smart?”

Maria Carrillo's football coach had one of those big belly laughs that takes over a room. It came from a place of genuine affection, the kind of intimacy that can only come when two people have been together, really together, joined at the hip and at every thought, for a long time. Together 21 years, they have never been as close as they are now.

Sonya has leukemia.

Life happens while you are making other plans, and this is not how they planned their trip to Yosemite in late July. Jay and Sonya, with Tyler, 10, and Josie, 7, were hiking Sentinel Dome when Sonya became short of breath. Oh well. These are the mountains. They can take your breath away just by looking at them.

Sonya, nonetheless, was bothered. She was 43, trim, athletic, ate healthy, didn't smoke, and drank only for taste, not for a buzz. She's a Kaiser doc in family practice. She walks her talk. Then a mosquito bit her. She scratched the bite. A bruise developed.

“She thought she was anemic,” said Higgins, 42.

Sonya had a blood test July 25. Blast cells were detected, the immature white cells usually present in bone marrow. Return the next day, Sonya was told, for a bone marrow biopsy. That morning, on July 26, Higgins gathered his team around him.

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