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Jim Kenyon: Daniel’s Blood Drive

A few days before Thanksgiving, signs began appearing outside Tracy Hall in Norwich to remind people that the town’s next American Red Cross blood drive was coming up. Longtime residents might be familiar with the story behind the drive, which goes back nearly 20 years, but I think it’s worth retelling.

Daniel Somerville was 14 years old when he got sick in January 1993. “I just thought he had the flu,” recalled his mother, Rose. When Daniel’s condition worsened, she drove him to the emergency room. After a couple of days at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, Daniel underwent exploratory abdominal surgery.

Along with a ruptured appendix, doctors found a tumor. Daniel was suffering from a relatively rare and aggressive form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

A boy who was accustomed to playing football, basketball and baseball after school now faced being cooped up for months while undergoing chemotherapy. “He didn’t want us to tell anybody,” said Rose, who works as a receptionist at a doctors’ office. “He didn’t want to be known as the kid with cancer. But people found out. You don’t keep something like that a secret.”

He spent much of the first half of 1993 in the hospital. David Somerville, who had moved to Oklahoma after he and Rose divorced, made several trips to visit his son. When Daniel was feeling up to it, he played cribbage with family and friends. “If you didn’t know how to play, he’d teach you,” said Rose. “Lord knows, he’d want to beat you.”

But some days just breathing took all the energy that Daniel could muster. “There were times when he was as white as Casper the Ghost,” said Rose.

“He needs some blood,” DHMC pediatrician William Boyle would tell Rose. She was amazed at how much stronger her son seemed a day or two after his dozens of transfusions. “Get my sneakers and let’s get out of here,” he’d say. For a couple of hours, they’d leave the hospital. A baseball card shop in Lebanon was a mandatory stop.

By August, the cancer seemed to be in check. A few weeks into classes at Hanover High, though, the school nurse called Rose. Daniel, who had turned 15 in early September, wasn’t feeling well. The doctors ran tests. Daniel had liver cancer.

While Daniel was back in the hospital, a DHMC social worker told Rose about Make-A-Wish, the national nonprofit that grants wishes to children with life-threatening medical conditions. (A book about the organization’s Vermont chapter, which will celebrate its 25th anniversary next year, is in the works. Some of the details in this column come from author Roger Crouse’s book-in-progress, which includes a chapter about Daniel.)

In October 1993, a Make-A-Wish volunteer met with Daniel. He told her that he wanted to visit Disney World in Florida with his mom and stepdad, Raymond Swift, and his siblings. But his doctors nixed the idea. Daniel wasn’t up to air travel and a week outside the hospital.

Did he have a second wish?

Ronnie Lott, a veteran NFL defensive back, was Daniel’s favorite pro athlete. In eighth grade, Daniel wore jersey No. 42. Just like his football hero.

In 1993, Lot was playing for the New York Jets when Make-A-Wish contacted the team in early November. With the season in full swing, Lott couldn’t visit Daniel at DHMC until January at the earliest. “That’s two months away, at least,” the volunteer reported back to Make-A-Wish in Vermont. “Daniel might not make it.”

On the Sunday following Thanksgiving, however, the Jets were playing the New England Patriots in Foxborough, Mass. Still, doctors were skeptical that Daniel had the strength for even a one-day excursion. Doug Williamson, then a resident in DHMC’s pediatric program, offered to make the trip with Daniel.

The day before the game, the phone rang in Daniel’s hospital room. “Hi, is this Daniel?” asked the caller. “This is Ronnie Lott.”

The next morning, a white stretch limousine arrived outside DHMC. Daniel was lifted from his wheelchair into the limo. His mother, stepdad, and best friend, David McConky, piled in. Williamson, who is now a pediatrician at Alice Peck Day Memorial Hospital, joined them, his medical bag in hand.

At the stadium, Daniel watched from the press box. He ate a hot pretzel and drank iced tea with the Patriots’ radio announcers as the Jets registered a 6-0 victory on a rainy, windy afternoon.

After the game, Daniel and his entourage returned to the limo parked outside the stadium. They waited for Lott, but after a while it was time to go. Then the limo’s back door swung open. Lott, dressed in street clothes, crawled in next to Daniel.

They talked about football, family and heroes. Lott, who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2000, signed autographs. Raymond Swift took pictures of Lott snuggling with his stepson. After 30 minutes, Lott had to catch the team bus. He gave Daniel a final hug.

As the limo headed north to DHMC, Daniel drifted off to sleep. He was still wearing his Jets cap when Rose tucked him into his hospital bed. Daniel never left that room. He died on Dec. 2.

Twenty years later, his mother spent last Sunday making sandwiches, muffins and brownies for the next day’s blood drive in which nearly 80 people gave. The Red Cross, with the help of Rose and other volunteers, has collected roughly 3,000 pints of blood since the drives to honor Daniel, now held six times a year, started in 1995. “The transfusions Daniel received bought us time,” said Rose. “It gave us a chance to create memories.”

This year, Rose Smith (she recently remarried) started a new project. She’s trying to raise $10,000 for Make-A-Wish in Vermont by sending out 400 emails to family, acquaintances and businesses seeking contributions. “After Daniel was diagnosed, there was so little I could do,” she said. “I couldn’t put a Band-Aid on it or kiss it to make the pain go away.”