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Padecky: A family's toughest battle


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.

"My wife is sick and I have to go now to be a good husband" is about all Higgins said as he left them in silence, as he left for Kaiser.

<b>The night their world flipped</b>

That Friday night, the 26th, Jay and Sonya were at dinner when the oncologist called to tell Sonya of the bone marrow test results.

"I overheard their conversation," Higgins said.

He paused. He didn't have to wait for Sonya to hang up her cell to know what was said.

"That was the night our whole world flipped upside down," he said.

Sonya began induction chemotherapy that Saturday, a steady intravenous drip that lasted seven days and would keep her in the hospital for the next 20. Nearly killing someone with poison to make them healthy again is how this torture works.

That Monday, Higgins met with the team again. This time he provided more details. He would be taking a leave of absence as a physical education teacher at Carrillo. He would still coach football — at his wife's request and demand. You need some normalcy, she told him.

After Higgins spoke to the team, one of the players, guard-linebacker Sawyer Thompson, approached his coach. Thompson, 17, told Higgins that his father had died of brain cancer when he was only 8 years old. The two situations were similar in the stark reality they presented.

"I kind of had to grow up really fast," Thompson said. "I found out life isn't fair."

Standing right next to Thompson Tuesday on the Carrillo practice field, Higgins was transfixed. The acknowledgment of deep pain is universal.

"Sawyer wanted me to know he was there for me," Higgins said in front of Thompson, in awe of a young man so mature. Youth, indeed, is not always wasted on the young.

Sawyer Thompson, at once both a kid and an adult, provided a real-time example of a clich? Kids can teach adults as much as adults can teach kids.

When Higgins looked into the Carrillo stands during his team's Sept. 13 game against Benicia, he did a double-take and a triple-take. Carrillo's colors are green, black and gold. What Higgins saw was a sea of orange. Orange signs. Orange T-shirts. Orange hats. Orange is the color for leukemia awareness.

"It was touching," Higgins said as he went quiet for a moment, remaining silent as he fingered the orange bracelet on his left wrist.

"I'm not much for adornments," he said, "but I do wear this."

<b>Empathy surrounds family</b>

Higgins said he would, if he could, thank everyone who wore orange that night and at succeeding home games. As water seeks its own level, so does empathy. For those who need it, empathy finds them. Empathy reduces those jagged moments when isolation and despair spike high. It makes the next day much more inviting, the future much more encouraging.

Empathy surrounds this family. Carrillo's principal, Rand Van Dyke, told his coach not to worry, do what you need to do, take however long you need. Higgins' mother, Debbie, moved from her home in Clear Lake to the Higgins' home to help care for Josie and Tyler. Kaiser's oncology staff has been so stellar that Sonya, through her husband, pressed to make that public.

The cards, the letters, the e-mails, the voice messages, well, try to leave a message on Higgins' cell. It fills up faster than a desert wash hit by a flash flood. On the back of Carrillo's helmets is a sticker in the shape of an orange ribbon with the letters "SVH."

"It's been overwhelming, humbling," he said.

Perspective, a word that always seems to arrive under duress, has taken firm root in the Higgins household.

"You think of all the pettiness that seems so significant at the time," Higgins said, "squabbling over menial things ... like dishes."

That gave him a laugh. Dishes? Honey, they are piling up! Yeah, yeah, I'll get to it. Promise? I promise! You sure? Yeah, I'm sure!

The dishes aren't a big deal around the house anymore.

Affection is.

"I kiss Tyler now twice on the forehead when he goes to bed," Higgins said, "and the same for Josie."

And the stories of affection are being told as well, for in the telling of them life flows, abundant, strong and compelling. Higgins met Sonya when they were both at UC Davis, he majoring in biomechanics and she in exercise physiology. Sonya didn't know Joe Montana from a box of rocks.

"Sonya knew so little about football," Higgins said, "that she called the uniforms 'outfits' and the center was the 'hutter' because the quarterback behind him was always screaming 'Hut! Hut! Hut!'"

<b>Coaching football an escape</b>

Sonya since has caught up. Higgins initially was drawn to her because of her intelligence, "the smartest woman I ever met." She convinced her husband that coaching football would be an escape. It has been. Except from 2:30-7:30 p.m., Higgins is with Sonya every day. Now in his 13th year as Carrillo's head coach, Higgins at each practice and in each game works with numbers: clock management, game score, down and distance. In his job, he finds numbers necessary. Away from the field is another thing.

"I don't find a lot of comfort in statistical percentages," Higgins said of a full recovery rate, "because there's always a negative side to the equation. The only number I care about is that my wife is 100 percent healthy and happy."

Facing her fourth and final chemotherapy treatment in early November, Sonya currently is in remission. What the future holds is what the future holds. He refuses to be passive about it. He doesn't design a game plan to fail. He has the same expectation for his family.

"We're going to Maui in March," he said. "Sonya has never been there. She's going to love it."

You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.