EDITOR’S NOTE: First in a two-part series on new Virginia football coach Mike London and his unique story.
As soon as Mike London has a chance to catch his breath and move his personal possessions into his new office at the McCue Center, he will display a photo that is so dear to his heart.
The photograph is black and white, a bit grainy by today’s standards, and to the unknowing, is just a picture of a father and his young daughter. The story behind the image means everything to London and his wife, Regina.
You see, that photo represents the miracle of Ticynn London. Ten years ago, Ticynn had just turned 4 and became very ill. The Londons were at Boston College, where Mike was on Tom O’Brien’s coaching staff, and several members of the football team had come down with the flu around their bowl game.
Ticynn also caught the flu, but several weeks later, she wasn’t recovering. Instead, she was getting weaker and more lethargic. When her parents took her to a local hospital in Boston, doctors thought she might have had leukemia
and transferred her to Children’s Hospital there, where within an hour, she was diagnosed with Fanconi anemia, a blood disorder that leads to bone marrow failure and sometimes leukemia.
Thankfully, for the London family, doctors there had performed extensive research on the disease and immediately took measures to monitor her condition.
“They told us the only cure for it would be to have a bone marrow transplant,” Regina London said this week from her home in Richmond.
Doctors tested everyone in the family to see if they could find a match. No luck. They researched the national registry, again with no success.
Siblings and other relatives are usually the best source for a match — and rarely, very rarely, a parent.
“Ten thousand to one are the odds of a parent that can be a donor to their own children,” Mike London explained.
This time, the odds were on London’s side. His bone marrow was a near-perfect match.
Ticynn was not in immediate danger because doctors had nursed her back to health, knowing that some day down the road she would need to have the bone marrow transplant from her father. The London’s wanted to make sure that she was strong enough to handle the procedure, so they spent three years monitoring her health.
In fact, when then-Virginia head coach Al Groh began to assemble his first coaching staff and pursued London, one of the priorities of the family was whether their daughter would get the health care she required in such a move. Ironically, the hematologist at the University of Virginia Medical Center had studied at Boston’s Children’s Hospital, where Ticynn first received care.
“We monitored her up until she was 7 and decided at that point that she was not in bad health, but her [white blood cell] counts were steadily going down and at some point she would have to have the transplant,” Regina said. “We didn’t want to take a risk that some other ailment associated to the disease might threaten her life.”
The transplant occurred at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, one of the few hospitals in the country equipped for such a procedure. First, doctors had to completely wipe out the young girl’s blood cells and replace them with her barrel-chested dad’s healthy ones. It was an ordeal for the family as Ticynn underwent nearly a week of chemotherapy and radiation prior to the transplant.
London, who had played football, coached football, had been an undercover cop on the mean streets of Richmond, chokes up every time he talks about that part of his life. He remembers how Ticynn, so young and innocent, was coloring, while Regina was brushing her daughter’s hair, the hair coming out in globs.
“Regina was crying, and Ticynn looked up and said, ‘Tell the nurse to cut it all off,’ then went back to coloring again,” London said.
The photo was taken at a Chuck E Cheese, right after Ticynn left the hospital. She is wearing a scarf after losing her hair.
It was a moment that Mike London will never forget, and he keeps that photograph in a special place.
“She is definitely a success story,” Regina said. “To look at her now, you would never know that at one point in her life she was so sick. But she’s done very well. Now, she seems to be the strongest of our kids when they all get sick. She recovers the quickest.”
Ticynn is now a healthy 14-year-old eighth-grader, a walking, breathing miracle in her daddy’s mind.
“Doctors don’t like to use the word ‘miracle,’” Mike London said. “They prefer to say ‘rare.’ But to me, it’s a miracle. That I was the only person they could find in the world that could match my daughter’s marrow and it saved my daughter’s life ... that’s a miracle.”
London said he would remain ever grateful to Groh, who gave him his first chance to advance his coaching career at Virginia, but who also reached out to the family during this ordeal.
“When I was going back and forth to Baltimore to visit my wife and daughter, it was during spring football practice,” London recalled. “Coach Groh knew my situation and purposely practiced early on Saturday mornings, like from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m., rather than from noon until 2 p.m., just so I could drive to Baltimore and spend quality time with my daughter while she was still awake.
“I appreciate that so much,” London continued. “Coach rearranged the schedule of 90 people to help out one person. He made I possible that I could see my daughter when she was going through the toughest time of her life. I never forgot that act of kindness.”
We’ve all heard the expression that a photo is worth a thousand words. Well, for London, it’s much more than a cliche. It’s part of his life.