UNC coach Hatchell in complete remission

acarter@newsobserver.comApril 1, 2014 

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UNC women’s basketball coach Sylvia Hatchell, left, talks with associate head coach Andrew Calder at practice on Thursday.

HARRY LYNCH — hlynch@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

— Sylvia Hatchell cut off her hair herself rather than let it fall out during her treatment for leukemia. Now it’s growing back, a physical sign of her recovery.

“I don’t mind showing you,” she said in her office on Tuesday afternoon while she reached for her wig.

She pulled it off, revealing a short crop of thick hair. She ran her hands through it, over and back.

“See?” she said. “Coming back. Put a little gel in there, it looks really good. And then a week or so, I’ll stop wearing this wig.”

Slowly, her life is becoming normal again. Hatchell, the women’s basketball coach at North Carolina, said on Tuesday that her doctors have told her she’s in “complete remission.”

“Complete molecular remission,” she said, more specifically. “And (the doctor) says he’ll have me 100 percent ready to go for next year.”

As of Tuesday afternoon, though, this season wasn’t over. Hatchell arrived at the office on Tuesday with the hope that she’ll be packing soon for Nashville, Tenn., and for the women’s Final Four.

The Tar Heels, though, ended their season with a 74-65 defeat against Stanford on Tuesday night in the NCAA tournament. Hatchell hadn’t planned to coach again if the team had reached the Final Four.

But she would have been there. In a lot of ways, that was always the most difficult part. Watching from home.

Depending on how she was feeling, and the strength of her immune system, doctors allowed Hatchell to watch games from Carmichael Arena. But the road trips? Those were something else.

Sometimes, she made it over to Carmichael and met with the team before it left. She was able to offer words of encouragement. Able to coach, in a way.

“I told the girls before they left, I said, ‘You guys go out there (to California) and win,’” Hatchell said. “I said, ‘And then I’ll sing and dance with you on the table in Nashville.”

That has been the most difficult part. The road trips

“And then we go outside,” Hatchell said. “And to watch them pull off and me standing there, that’s hard. That’s hard. It really is. And you don’t realize how much something means to you until it’s taken away.

“Especially like a tsunami.”

That’s how Hatchell describes her leukemia diagnosis: like a tsunami hit her.

Looking for answers

For weeks, after a physical in early September, Hatchell had sought an explanation for her low white blood cell count.

She went to a hematologist. Went to a doctor in internal medicine. Went to an ear, nose and throat specialist. Went to someone in infectious disease. No one could offer a definitive answer.

At the end of September, she had one more blood test. Her white blood cell count still hadn’t improved.

She made a call over to the UNC Lineberger Cancer Center. Hatchell knew people there well because of her work with the center. She’d spent years as a spokeswoman and a fundraiser.

She requested a bone marrow biopsy. Two days later, doctors performed one. That night, she received a call with the news.

She was back at Lineberger the next day, and then spent the next 30 days there, receiving treatment for leukemia that she said couldn’t have been caught much earlier. Throughout her treatment and recovery, Hatchell hoped she could coach this season. That’s what she was preparing to do when she received the diagnosis.

The season was days away from starting then. Now, on Tuesday, it was nearly over. She never did make it back to coach, but she hasn’t been that far away, either.

“Oh, wow,” she said, looking back on the past several months. “I’m just so proud of them, and I just want to bring so much honor to the staff and to the players, because they’ve just done a tremendous job. You know, and I say this: that there’s a difference between a good team and a good program.”

A good team can have a nice run, Hatchell said. A good program, though, endures.

“Basically, it can run without you,” she said with a laugh.

Constant communication

It might look that way from the outside, that Hatchell’s program has run smoothly without her, but that’s not necessarily the case. She has remained involved.

She’s in constant communication with Andrew Calder, the Tar Heels’ interim head coach, and the rest of the staff. Throughout her treatment, Hatchell has continued to work. Sometimes only a couple hours a day. Sometimes four or five. Sometimes more than that.

One of the most difficult parts, she said, is not being able to form relationships with the freshmen. But Hatchell has tried to do that from afar, anyway.

She pulled out her phone on Tuesday and read a text message exchange she’d had with Diamond DeShields, the Tar Heels’ freshman guard who suffered an ankle injury during UNC’s victory against South Carolina in the Sweet 16. Hatchell wrote:

“There’s no one tougher than my Diamond. You are the best. This will be just like playing at Duke or N.C. State. You are the best at playing in these types of environments. You just be Diamond. Proud of you. Love, coach Hatchell.

To which DeShields wrote back: “Thank you, coach. Love you, too.”

Even when Hatchell hasn’t been able to be there, she has tried to be there.

“I’ve been very, very involved,” she said. “Probably much more so than most people think. I mean, I have not taken a leave of absence. I have worked. I’m on the phone. I work from my house. … I’m doing a lot of stuff. And most people just have no clue. I’m probably doing more than a lot of people do that aren’t sick.”

She can say the same – and does – about her workout routine.

“I do more than most people do in a regular workout,” Hatchell said. “Now when my numbers are low, then I have to be careful about internal bleeding with my platelets and stuff.”

Watching games

Hatchell since her diagnosis has worked out nearly every day. When she’s feeling her best, she lifts weights and goes through a full routine. On the more difficult days, when she might be recovering from treatment, she stretches and walks on a treadmill.

At home, watching her team’s games – that can be another workout, too.

“I’m all over the place,” she said. “I move around the house. Sometimes, I go up to the bedroom.”

One thing, though, is she’s never alone. In addition to her family – her husband, Sammy is an assistant coach for the women’s basketball team at Shaw – Hatchell’s friends have surrounded her. About 16 of her closest friends have rotated spending nights with her at the house.

“Since I got sick Oct. 12, I have not spent a day or night by myself,” Hatchell said. “All my friends, somebody’s been with me every day, every night.”

That was the plan again on Tuesday night. Hatchell planned to watch her team from home, surrounded by a small group of friends. They’d be in one room. In another, she said, she keeps two plastic bins, full of the “thousands and thousands” of cards she’s received.

Hatchell wiped her eye on Tuesday, describing, she said, the “unbelievable outpouring of love and affection for me.”

She’s heard from Duke fans. From N.C. State fans. From women’s basketball fans. Some people, undoubtedly, look to her as an inspiration. Some people, she said, send a card every week.

As much as she loves the mail, and appreciates it, she was hoping she’d have to wait to read some of it next week – hoping that she’d be in Nashville, together again with her team at the Final Four.

Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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