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A FIGHT FOR LIFE // Waiting for a gift

Ruth Williams made sure that her great-granddaughter, 4-year-old cancer patient Tara McElroy, got the best medicine.

"Grandma food," said Michael McElroy, Tara's father.

Thursday evening, Mrs. Williams brought to All Children's Hospital a home-cooked meal of chicken, cabbage, cornbread and rice. And it hit the spot.

"She tore that chicken up," said Yvette Williams, an aunt.

Family members and some friends, gathered in the hospital lobby, broke into laughter.

The past month hadn't brought much occasion for joy.

Less than two weeks ago, Tara couldn't eat and wasn't speaking. She lay virtually comatose, hooked to a respirator, tubes protruding from her body.

Battling acute lymphoblastic leukemia, bone marrow cancer, since 1995 Tara had a relapse March 31. To make matters worse, she developed a fungal infection that required surgery twice. She had difficulty breathing.

"The doctor told us she was very, very sick," McElroy said. "And that not many people made it out of that condition. He said if you took 100 kids, 90 of them would (die)."

But about 10 days ago, Tara pulled out of it. Michael and Deborah McElroy said they could see it happen as Tara's 7-year-old brother, also named Michael, read her a get-well card.

Last Wednesday, the McElroys talked to reporters, sharing the good news, thanking the community for its support, but emphasizing that Tara still needs a bone marrow transplant to get better.

Hundreds of people have come forward to have their blood typed, a necessary step to find a marrow donor, but the right match has not been found. None of the McElroys has a matching marrow structure.

"We've been inundated," said Katrina Holley of the Florida Blood Services Morrow Donor Program.

"We've received well over 750 phone calls from people wanting to be typed, and wondering where they can go. . . . It's a bay area problem. The entire bay area is concerned."

Of the 2.7-million people registered nationally as potential marrow donors, only about 200,000 are African-American. Caucasian donors could provide a match for an African-American just 2 to 5 percent of the time, Holley said.

"There is a critical need, and I can't stress the world critical enough, for more minorities to get on the registry," Holley said. "That's why we have a challenge with Tara and other minorities who are searching."

The search continued Saturday at Wildwood Park in St. Petersburg.

Tara McElroy was born Sept. 8, 1992, a healthy 7-pound, 7-ounce baby.

She was precocious, learning to count and showing an early interest in clothes.

"No, I want to be pretty today," McElroy recalled his daughter saying if she disapproved of the outfit her mother had chosen. "She'd say, "I want pink. I want purple.' She always talked about being pretty."

She started preschool at King's Kids Academy, affiliated with Mount Zion Progressive Baptist church. There, McElroy said, she was eager to learn.

"The teacher would always tell us she was thirsty for information."

One day Tara complained about her knee hurting. It was the first sign of trouble.

"We had kind of spoiled her, and we would think she just wanted us to pick her up," said McElroy.

But Tara kept on talking about the knee, and she developed a temperature. The McElroys took her to a doctor, who examined Tara and gave her some medicine. At her next visit, the doctor said Tara should go to All Children's for more testing.

"When he told us, he had a funny look on his face," said McElroy.

Tara stayed at the hospital overnight. When the parents came the next morning, they were ushered into a room.

"They had Kleenex boxes everywhere," McElroy said. "I knew something was wrong."

Michael and Deborah McElroy say they can't give enough thanks for all the people who helped and encouraged them. And the list is long.

Their daughter's hospital room has a collection of stuffed animals and balloons people have sent. There are posters from Manatee County's Palm View Elementary School in Rubonia, where children collected about $1,000 in pennies so Tara and her family could have a "wish" groups often try to fulfill for cancer patients. This one was a trip to Disney World.

Michael McElroy works at PAR, as has Deborah when he hasn't been caring for Tara. Employees there donated sick time for Deborah.

Michael McElroy's job as a criminal justice assesment interviewer takes him to 14 counties. Gifts came from probation and parole offices in Lakeland and Brandon.

Lana Schrader, now a data clerk at Starkey Elementary School, used to work at Perkins Elementary, where she knew staff members affiliated with the McElroys' church, 20th Street Church of Christ. Her husband, Jay, also is a PAR employe.

"When you have someone so small and so innocent and there's a possibility they can be wiped out before they can give their special gift to society, it's sad," said Lana Schrader.

"The family is so loving. The kids are so loving. It breaks your heart when that hits."

She made sure that the people at Perkins got newspaper clippings and other information about Tara's need for a marrow donor.

Watson Haynes, a PAR vice president, said he considers the McElroys like family. He had grown used to seeing Tara and her brother in PAR offices.

And he was uneasy about going to visit Tara recently, not realizing that she had accomplished a turnaround from her relapse.

"I did not expect, when I walked in her room, to see what I saw," Haynes said.

"I didn't want to see her with the tubes anymore, and (I wondered) how can I tell her father that. Then there she is, up in the chair.

"And she's got that little smile about her . . ."