No shortcuts through pain

Mercy track athlete Melanie Mitchell has endured the loss of her father and a fire that nearly destroyed her home.

High Schools

April 27, 2005|By Edward Lee | Edward Lee,SUN STAFF

In many ways, Melanie Mitchell feels and acts like an adult.

That's not to say the 17-year-old Mercy High senior doesn't have her teenager moments. She still likes to go shopping with her friends, will drop what she's doing if challenged to play a game of pingpong, and up until this past year, eagerly awaited her father's traditional gift of the Christmas Beanie Baby.

But in the past year, Mitchell, a track and field standout with the Magic, has endured a painful ordeal.

Last April, her father, James, died after nearly 18 months with bone marrow cancer, leaving her and her mother, Kathleen, on their own.

Then, in November, a fire nearly destroyed the Mitchells' home in Reisterstown and forced mother and daughter to live in a rental home for almost five months. The Mitchells were finally allowed to return to their house late last month.

Through it all, Melanie Mitchell has had to help fill the role vacated by the death of her father. She has helped her mother mulch the yard and stain the backyard deck, shopped for groceries and arranged her college interviews and visits.

"I've grown up more than any teenager should have to," Mitchell said. "I've just been pushed into adulthood."

Yet there has been no negative impact on Mitchell's performances on the track. A little more than a month after her father's death, Mitchell set school records in the 300-meter intermediate hurdles and the long jump at the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland championships last May.

In indoor track and field this past winter, she placed second in the shot put and third in the high jump at the IAAM championships en route to being selected to The Sun's All-Baltimore City team.

"You would think that a kid who's had the bad breaks she's had over the last year would just fall apart, and I've seen a lot of kids just crash and burn with less stressful situations," said Mercy coach Randy Fowler. "She just doesn't show it. ... She handles it better than I think I would if I were in her situation."

Settling down

When Kathleen Taylor met James Mitchell in August 1978, Mitchell was a traveling musician based in Atlantic City. Told by Taylor that she would not settle down with a man who spent more time on the road than at home, Mitchell gave up his musical career to enroll in pharmacy school. On Aug. 3, 1985, the two wed in Beckley, W.Va.

Before they even married, the couple knew that Kathleen suffered from endometriosis, a condition in which tissue that lines the inside of the uterus grows outside the uterus and attaches to other organs in the abdominal cavity, such as the ovaries and fallopian tubes. The tissue can interfere with ovulation and is estimated to cause infertility in 30 to 40 percent of women who receive a diagnosis of endometriosis.

But on July 19, 1987, Melanie was born.

By her own admission, she was a daddy's girl. She loved to sit on the mowing tractor with her father, took up the piano as her father had done years ago and giggled so often at his whispered jokes during church that Kathleen Mitchell had to separate the two by sitting between them.

Melanie Mitchell said she began to suspect something was wrong during fall 2002, when her father complained of pain during their lively games of pingpong. Another sign was when James Mitchell, who had gone 20 years without missing a day of work, began using his sick days.

Exhibiting symptoms of soreness, stiffness and a lack of energy, James Mitchell thought the cause was a pinched nerve in his back. Or maybe it was Lyme disease.

In January 2003, the family learned the devastating news: James Mitchell was told he had multiple myeloma.

According to the Association of Cancer Online Resources, multiple myeloma is a disease in which plasma cells in the bone marrow become cancerous. The cancer cells can become so numerous that they force out normal blood cells and cause anemia. The cancer cells also can cause bone breakdown.

"When we found out, it felt like I had just been hit by a car," Melanie Mitchell recalled. "The realization just hits you. I didn't want anybody to know about it. I didn't even want to think about it."

For the next 15 months, James Mitchell had his good days and bad days. On the days when getting up from bed and putting on some clothes took Herculean strength, he stayed at home and e-mailed his daughter's performances in track and field to college coaches.

On his good days, James would accompany his wife to watch Melanie at meets. Even though there were times when the pain was so unbearable he needed to stay in the car, he was happiest watching Melanie. "He used to say, `If Melanie's there, then I'm there,' " Kathleen Mitchell said.

Spotting her father in the stands invigorated Melanie, too.

"I tried harder than I ever had," she said. "I was, like, `He worked that hard to get here, I've got to work that hard to show him what I can do.' "

Worsening condition

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