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On April 8, Joe Lewinger's mind was as cluttered as his office just outside the gym at The Mary Louis Academy. As varsity basketball coach, he was thinking about how to improve his team next year. As athletic director, there were thoughts about the spring sports teams in his head. And as a social studies teacher at the Jamaica Estates all-girls' high school, there was a lesson plan to think about.
A day later, none of that mattered.
Just three hours after bringing his 2-year-old daughter, Madison, to the pediatrician for what they thought was constipation, she was diagnosed with cancer. A large tumor had formed on one of her kidneys and there were lesions on her lungs.
Lewinger's world suddenly shrank.
"April 9, 2008 was officially the worst day of my life," Lewinger said. "I couldn't understand why this happened and what went wrong. What seemed important before suddenly wasn't important."
Two days later, Madison had her kidney and the tumor removed and she will need two weeks of radiation and 27 weeks of chemotherapy. She's not out of the woods just yet, but her chances of survival are better than 80 percent.
"She really is a trouper," Lewinger said. "She's a very strong kid."
In his darkest hours, Lewinger found tremendous inspiration from the amazing unsolicited help he received.
There was the surgeon, who Lewinger called "Sean Connery without the accent," who was a rock, calming nervous parents, Joe and Maura, convincing them to go to an area diner to take their mind off the surgery.
The nurses, who Lewinger said hadn't known Madison for more than five minutes, but was "there for her every beck and call." There was Jessica, an 18-year-old cancer patient sharing the room with Madison, who despite her own sickness, would get out of bed when Madison would cry in an attempt to console her.
The social worker assigned to the case is a Mary Louis alum who graduated a year before Maura. The technician for the EKG was another Mary Louis grad and the school's junior varsity assistant softball coach last year, George Berry, was a pediatrics trauma coordinator on the same floor at Schneider Children's Hospital.
There were the sick children playing in the cancer ward, seemingly without a care in the world.
"When you see the pictures on television, you can change the channel," Lewinger said. "But then you're in the room and you see all those things that upset you on TV, that these kids' lives are on hold because of cancer. But to see them play and to get to know them and hear their stories, it's amazing."
And then there were the prayers. A Muslim student wrote an Arabic prayer for Madison. One of Lewinger's cousins, who is a Mormon, offered prayers, as did a Jewish friend of the family, as well as Hindus and several Catholics.
"She's going to end religious strife around the world," Lewinger joked.
Others have visited Madison in the hospital, bringing gifts and smiles, which immediately raised her spirits.
Students and workers from United Cerebral Palsy of Nassau County, where Maura works as a speech and language pathologist, made 1,000 origami paper cranes in honor of Madison. An old Japanese legend, based on an 11-year-old girl who was diagnosed with leukemia after the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, says that anyone who folds 1,000 paper cranes so pleases the gods that the folder is granted a wish.
But all Lewinger is asking for is prayers.
"She's a tough kid and modern medicine is on her side and they say she will have a favorable outcome," he said. "But it's people's prayers and kindness that is making her recovery possible."
Reach Sports Editor Dylan Butler by e-mail at email@example.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 143.
©2008 Community Newspaper Group
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