Racing against leukemia

Inspired by daughter's illness, one family is moved to tears -- and then to action

Health & Fitness

January 11, 2004|By Mary Beth Regan | Mary Beth Regan,Special to the Sun

Bruce and Isobel Cleland have a small, black and white photograph of their third child that can still move them to tears. In it, Georgia, almost 3, is looking down, cuddling her baby blanket. She is nearly bald from the chemotherapy and radiation that ravaged her body but saved her life.

"That's my favorite picture," Isobel says.

Bruce Cleland keeps the 1986 photo with other keepsakes from that time. In some ways, it seems like another life -- before the Clelands moved to Baltimore, before they knew Georgia would go into remission and survive, before they could fathom any good arising from their family tragedy.

But from those trying times came an idea that would raise millions of dollars for cancer research and change the face of fund-raising nationwide. While Georgia was sick, Cleland, an ex-Rugby player from New Zealand, hit on the idea of running a marathon to raise money to research leukemia, the disease threatening his young daughter. He called his idea Team In Training.

At first, his friends thought he was crazy. How was a fortysomething out-of-shape money manager with a bum knee going to run 26 miles? At worst, Cleland figured, he'd clean up on bets against him. But after 10 months of training, he and 37 others ran the 1988 New York City Marathon as the first team for the Leukemia Society of America, now the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Together they raised $320,000.

"Our times weren't pretty," recalls Cleland. "But we got to the finish line."

Today, the Leukemia Society's Team In Training program is one of the most successful fund-raising efforts in the country. More than 190,000 people have participated in events across the globe as team members. Some 30,000 marathoners, triathletes, cyclists and novice athletes are expected to sign up for the cause this year.

And by the end of the year, Team In Training is expected to have raised nearly $500 million since that first marathon. Most of that money has gone to scientists and researchers working on cures for blood cancer, which kills about 58,000 people each year.

"Bruce's idea was revolutionary," says Dwayne Howell, president and chief executive officer of the Leukemia Society. "I haven't come across an idea since that combines the mission and goal so well. We have people on a team, competing for someone who is sick, and everyone is working toward victory."

Cleland puts it another way. "It's a program for people with really big hearts."

Georgia's story

Today, the Clelands, who live in Ruxton, are busy juggling the demands of everyday life. Bruce, 56, is president and chief executive officer of Campbell & Co., an investment management firm in Towson, and Isobel, 49, stays busy with charity work and raising four children.

Their house was exploding with excitement recently -- oldest daughter Samantha, 23, graduated in December from Goucher College; James, 21, is home on break from Colorado College; Georgia, 20, has finished her first semester at New England College in New Hampshire; and Mark, 13, is off from Gilman School. Two dogs scurry under foot.

Georgia, with sleek, dark hair, jokes with her sister and brothers. Her parents were apprehensive about her going away to college because she still copes with learning disabilities associated with her cancer treatment. "But she wanted to go," says Cleland. "And it was the next step in her independence."

Times have not always been so happy. Bruce and Isobel moved to New York from London in 1978 -- he was setting up an office there for an English brokerage firm -- and quickly had three children.

When Georgia was 2, Isobel worried that her repeated ear infections, illnesses and bruises were more than toddler trials. She took Georgia to the doctor so often, Cleland remembers, that he finally joked, "Izzy, please leave that doctor alone. She's 2. It's probably another cold."

But it wasn't. In 1986, the day before Isobel was to take the children to England to visit family, she made one more trip to the doctor. "I got the call at my office at 10 o'clock in the morning," Bruce says. "And it changed everything."

Georgia was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia, the leading cause of disease-related death in children under age 15. She was admitted to the hospital immediately and kept on 24-hour watch. The Clelands weren't given much reason to hope.

Besides chemotherapy and radiation, Georgia's treatment included a procedure called cranial radiation in an effort to halt the spread of the disease to her brain.

"They handed us this document that basically said we're all but going to kill your kid, and she may suffer some IQ damage," Bruce says. "But there was a 90 percent chance that she was going to develop a brain tumor, so it wasn't a contest."

For three years, Isobel was Georgia's primary caregiver, coordinating her medical care. Finally, Georgia beat the odds and pulled through.

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