Triumphing over death every day

Published July 9, 2003|Updated Sept. 1, 2005

Chet Lemon pumped his fist and high-fived his players as he bounded out of the Legends Field dugout. His son, Marcus, had just snagged a game-ending pop fly that put their Eustis High School team into the state championship game.

Minutes later Lemon, the Eustis coach, was in the interview room.

He spoke of the victory, the community's support for his squad and his disbelief over the little respect the Panthers had gotten from poll voters during the regular season.

As Lemon chatted, assistant Paul Niles stood at the doorway and tried to get his attention. Niles waved a pillbox in his hands as if to say, "Remember these?"

He should. They keep him alive.

When Lemon patrolled the outfield during 16 major-league seasons, he was one of the game's most complete players. He hit for power, drove in runs and was graceful in the field.

Lemon's hustling style was his trademark.

The three-time All-Star compiled a .273 career batting average, 396 doubles (he led the American League in 1979) and 1,875 hits playing for the White Sox and Tigers.

His defensive instincts were considered to be among the best. In 1,988 games, most in centerfield, Lemon made 82 errors. In 1977 he set an AL record for putouts by an outfielder. During the Tigers' world championship season of 1984, he had a .995 fielding percentage.

Today, life is much different.

Lemon takes things a bit more slowly. He has no choice.

He lives northwest of Orlando in Umatilla with his wife, Gigi, son Marcus, 14, and the couple's 5-year-old daughter Brianna. A self-described family man and person of faith, he coaches the Panthers as a volunteer (he never has accepted a coaching salary) and is the state's chairman for AAU baseball.

But Lemon, 48, isn't healthy.

In fact, it's remarkable he's alive.

He has polycythemia vera, a rare disease that causes blood clots and shortens lives considerably. It nearly killed Lemon three times, most recently 20 months ago when his spleen was removed. Doctors told him before the procedure he might not live through the day. He lost about 50 pounds from his 190-pound frame during the next few months.

"He looked like a skeleton," remembered Eustis pitcher Justin Smith.

The pills, a combination of blood thinners and iron, keep Lemon's blood flowing. He is supposed to take them every three hours while he's awake. In the excitement after the Class 3A semifinal win in May, he left his medication in the dugout.

Gigi was the first to realize it. While her husband was being interviewed, she called to Niles as he stood on the field and asked him to look for Lemon's medication in the dugout. Niles found the pills sitting in their container.

"There are like 50 different little squares, seven across for each day of the week," Niles said. "She gets fairly worried."

Lemon was diagnosed in 1990, his final season with Detroit. He intended to play again in 1991, but his condition worsened. At spring training in Lakeland he had severe stomach pain and was taken to Shands at the University of Florida at Gainesville.

"It was like he had a heart attack in his stomach," Gigi said.

No surgery was performed, but Lemon received an injection of medication intended to unclog a clot in one of his veins. He also took blood thinners, but nothing seemed to work, so he remained in intensive care for weeks.

Lemon sensed death was near and requested his own room to spend his final days. The family tried to keep his illness a secret but word leaked to the media.

Truckloads of get-well cards from Detroit, where Lemon played his final nine seasons, arrived at the hospital. Once, as Lemon lay in bed with Gigi at his side, they turned on the TV just as one cable network reported his death.

"It was crazy," Gigi said.

One day Lemon told Gigi he was hungry, so she ordered an egg salad sandwich. He took a couple bites, turned to her and said, "I feel okay."

Doctors later told them, "There's no medical reason why Chet's alive," Gigi said.

Soon the couple was home in Orlando (they later moved to Umatilla). Gigi bought a hospital bed for the house. Lemon couldn't walk at first, but slowly his condition improved.

During his recovery, Lemon became active in youth baseball. He and Gigi owned and operated Chet Lemon's School of Baseball in Lake Mary and later began organizing AAU tournaments. Chet also got involved with a local high school program.

"For several years it got better, but then my blood started thinning up," Lemon said. "My abdominal area got a little larger than normal. I always was conscious of taking care of myself. I knew something was wrong."

On a 1999 trip to Arizona, Lemon became ill and was taken to a local hospital, where Gigi says a doctor told them he never had seen a stomach or spleen the size of Lemon's. He was rushed back to Florida and doctors at Shands took another look. The pain was caused by an enlarged spleen (the result of his illness) that pushed against his stomach and made it difficult to eat.

More pain killers were prescribed.

By then, Gigi had seen enough. She researched her husband's illness for months on the Internet and the names of two physicians kept popping up. One, Dr. Lawrence A. Solberg, recently had joined the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville.

They met with Solberg and the doctor gave Lemon three options. The first was to shrink the spleen with medication, and the second was to have radiation treatments. Or, he said, they could "go in and take it out."

Lemon chose to have it removed. And his faith dictated that he do it the hard way.

When Lemon was 19, as he was making his ascent to the majors, a teammate who was a Jehovah's Witness introduced him to that religion. Lemon studied it and the words moved him. Soon, he was a convert.

"It's an education, not a blind faith," Lemon said. "It's something you study and learn. You really examine the scriptures and appreciate that it's a way of life."

Lemon came to learn Witnesses urge members to refuse blood transfusions, based upon passages in the Bible that they interpret as prohibiting the consuming of blood. Witnesses believe blood removed from the body should be disposed.

When Lemon opted for spleen removal, his religion became an issue. After he found a team of doctors to perform the surgery, he let them know of his beliefs.

"They were very aware and respectful of the religious beliefs of Jehovah's Witness," Lemon said. "They know the blood is sacred. But they said that obviously it's easier to perform if you have the blood on hand because in major surgery you bleed a lot."

Some family and friends wanted Lemon to reconsider his position. He did not.

"People don't understand why you'd take a chance," Lemon said. "If you don't understand what I feel and believe, of course you're going to question that. But I couldn't waver in my resolve. I was very afraid, but if I was going to survive I had to put my trust in my faith. That's what I've always done."

Doctors didn't push the issue (bloodless surgeries, as they are called, aren't rare), but regularly made sure Lemon hadn't changed his mind. He even signed a release stating his objection to a transfusion.

Before the surgery, an anesthesiologist asked if Lemon wanted him to pray should Lemon go into shock. "And we said, "Yes,' " Gigi said.

Lemon's health deteriorated fast and he was admitted to the Mayo Clinic in November 2001. Marcus and Brianna stayed in Lake County. Friends took the children back and forth to visit their parents.

In their final talk before Lemon's surgery in December, Gigi said she did her best to put on a brave face, matter-of-factly telling her husband, "I'll see you in the morning."

"It was really hard," Gigi said. "When they came and picked him up and we signed the last papers, it really hit home. I didn't know if he'd come out of it, or if he did, what kind of condition he'd be in."

The procedure started at 5 p.m. and ended more than six hours later. Gigi fought back tears as she sat nervously in the waiting room with Lemon's mother, Gloria. Gigi watched the movie Titanic and another film to pass the time. Every hour or so, a doctor gave her an update.

"Chet told me they put all his insides on a table and then put them back in," Niles said.

Doctors found that Lemon's spleen, which in a normal adult weighs about a half-pound, had grown to 7{ pounds. They had to cut it into pieces to take it out.

When Lemon awoke, Gigi was there for his first words. "He said, "I'm alive,' " she said. "They asked him, "Do you know where you're at?' His thoughts were there. He didn't even have a loss of memory."

The recovery process wasn't entirely smooth.

Lemon, known for his muscular physique and six-pack abdominal muscles, lost about one-fourth of his body weight and had little strength. He had trouble looking in the mirror.

"His head had caved in," Niles said.

Lemon had been named Eustis' coach in 2001 and was determined to return in 2002. After his family, baseball was his life. He didn't intend to leave the sport without a fight. And he knew Marcus was one year from joining the squad.

Between checkups in Jacksonville, Lemon found time for practice, doing most of his teaching from the sideline. He threw pitches, but never for very long. Gigi made sure of it.

"He'd come out and do what a coach does," Smith, the pitcher, said. "He just didn't do any of the physical stuff. He wasn't all that strong and Gigi wouldn't let him do it. Just being out there was tough enough for him."

In time, Lemon regained the weight and his strength returned. He and Gigi found a clinic closer to home where his blood is drawn once a week. The results are faxed to the Mayo Clinic, and doctors determine whether to increase or decrease the medication.

"This is how we live," Gigi said.

Lemon threw more at batting practice this spring and began working out again in the gym. But the fight continues.

"This is the best I've felt in nine or 10 months," Lemon said recently, though adding, "I'll have this the rest of my life."

Marcus started at shortstop for the Panthers this spring as a freshman and was one of the team's top players. He made the state all-tournament squad.

"He looks just like his dad did at the plate," Niles said.

Lemon has two older children but missed much of their childhood because of his career on the road. In recent years, pro teams have asked if he were interested in working for them. He always answered "no," largely because he wants to spend more time at home.

He and Marcus are particularly close.

Lemon drives his son to and from school during the week. On weekends, they travel the state for AAU tournaments.

"They're inseparable," Gigi said. "Marcus loves his dad so much. Even when Chet was sick in 1991 and '92, when he came home and could hardly walk, Marcus would go sit on the arm of the chair. He just wanted to be near him."

Marcus had three hits and three runs in the title game against Miami Belen Jesuit. Eustis won 9-5 to give Lemon another championship. After the final out, he hugged Niles and walked to the mound, where his players had gathered to celebrate.

He found Marcus and they embraced.

"It was a really good feeling," Marcus said.

Up in the stands, Gigi cheered. But she also worried.

She had pills on her mind.


HOMETOWN: Umatilla.

OCCUPATION: Eustis High baseball coach; AAU state baseball chairman; former professional baseball player.

FAMILY: Wife Gigi, sons Chet Jr. (26), David (21) and Marcus (14) and daughter Brianna (5).

MAJOR-LEAGUE CAREER: Sixteen seasons with the Chicago White Sox (1975-81) and Detroit Tigers (1982-90).

POSITION: Outfield.

HT/WT: 6 feet, 190.

STATISTICS: .273 BA, 1,988 games played, 1,875 hits, 396 doubles, 215 homers, 884 RBIs, .984 fielding percentage.

ODDS AND ENDS: Was three-time All-Star (1978-79, '84). Tied for AL lead with 44 doubles in 1979. Was hit-by-pitch league leader four times (1979, 1981-83).

_ Compiled by Keith Niebuhr.

POLYCYTHEMIA VERA WHAT IT IS: Polycythemia vera is a blood cancer that causes red blood cells, the oxygen-carrying cells of the body, to multiply. White blood cells, the body's infection fighting cells, and platelets, which help blood to clot, are usually affected. There is no known prevention. It is not contagious and poses no risk to others.

SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS: Symptoms usually come gradually and may include headaches, weakness and fatigue, light-headedness or dizziness, itching, visual impairments, shortness of breath or trouble breathing, a red color to the skin, abnormal bleeding, bone pain, an enlarged spleen or liver or a blood clot in a vein. Some people have no symptoms and the diagnosis is made accidentally when a routine blood test is done.

CAUSES: Unknown. Men are more commonly affected than women. More than 95 percent of cases occur in people older than 40.

LONG-TERM EFFECTS: After diagnosis, most people live no more than 15 years with treatment. Without treatment, a person may only live a few years. This cancer increases the risk of life-threatening blood clots and bleeding. In some cases, polycythemia vera may transform into the more aggressive blood cancer, leukemia.

TREATMENT: Treatment does not cure polycythemia vera but can allow a person to live longer in most cases. The goal of treatment is to thin the blood enough to decrease the risk of clots and abnormal bleeding. One of the main treatments is to remove some blood in a procedure called phlebotomy. Chemotherapy is used in some cases. Aspirin can be given to help decrease the risk of blood clots. Most people die from polycythemia vera or its complications, with or without treatment.