UNC's Hatchell attributes beating cancer to faith, friends
Posted July 3
Updated July 4
North Carolina women's basketball coach Sylvia Hatchell says, with a little laugh, that she has spent more time at her home here in Chapel Hill in the past six months than the last 10 years. She's the first to say you can't have ups in life, without also having downs.
"I told [my husband] Sammy, I said 'Everything is just too good.' I said, and I was kidding when I said this but I said, 'You know something bad is got to be getting ready to happen,'" Hatchell said.
The longtime women's basketball coach for the Tar Heels was having a career year in 2013. Hatchell earned her 900th win and the title of winningest active coach in women's basketball, she had the top recruiting class in the country, and above all else, she was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, cementing her status as one of the greatest coaches in the game.
"And I'm like 'oh my gosh!' You talk about getting hit by a tsunami," Hatchell said of learning she had been diagnosed with leukemia. "I had no symptoms, only thing was my white blood count was low. I mean none!"
A routine physical and blood work discovered her low white blood cell count just days before her Hall of Fame speech. Feeling fine, she kept up her typical grueling schedule of recruiting. Her routine for the past 28 years, building Carolina into one of the best programs in the country.
"I went out recruiting, the month of September I was actually home three days," said Hatchell. "I was recruiting nonstop."
A simple sore throat while out on the road took her to the doctor again – no one suspected cancer. After she took it upon herself to schedule a bone marrow biopsy, the call came one Friday night in October.
"About 8:20, 8:30 Dr. Vorhees calls me," Hatchell recalled, "and he said 'Coach', he said, 'the preliminary results are that you have AML, acute myeloid leukemia' and I was like 'what?!' And he said 'Coach, we've got to get you in here and get our arms wrapped around this.' And I said 'like when?' and he said 'like tomorrow.' I said 'tomorrow!'
"I'm going to tell you... when you go through something like this you learn real quick who's in control and it ain't you."
Coach Hatchell's husband Sammy, a basketball coach at Shaw University, has a nickname for his wife, Cruise Director, someone always in control, taking care of everyone else. Suddenly, she had to give up the wheel.
And it happened so fast, a scheduled practice turned into a very difficult meeting at the hospital with her basketball family.
"They had just put the port in and i went down and told the players," said Hatchell. "Those kids, they mean so much to me because you don't realize how much of a part of you something is until it's taken away. Especially like that."
As it is with so many people who receive this life-changing news, success is about relationships. For Coach Hatchell, it's her relationship with faith, family and friends that kept her strong when she was feeling so weak.
"And it was hard to even have the energy to get up and walk across the room. And those days are like, 'whew, am i going to make it?' You know, I mean really, this is hard," Hatchell said. "It's hard for me to talk about this without getting emotional because from October the 12th to the middle of April, I did not spend a day or night by myself. One of my girlfriends was with me whether I was in the hospital, I was here at home."
That support system and her incredibly positive attitude helped her beat leukemia.
"The biggest part is right here it's what is between the ears," Hatchell said pointing to her head.
She never wore a hospital gown and exercise was a priority. When her hair started falling out from the chemo, and she decided to shave her head, she made it a party.
"So they shaved one side of it, flipped my hair over, I looked like a punk rocker," said Hatchell.
While the patient focuses fighting the disease, the toll cancer takes on the family can be just as painful. Her husband of 35 years and son Van tried to keep upbeat and not think about the worst.
"Tried not to," said Sammy. "I know God let's good people die too, so it was tough. It was hard but I figured if anybody could get through it, she can."
She believes her faith and those praying for her got her through it.
"It worked!," Hatchell said. "Those prayers were answered and I could feel them every day."
Hatchell and her family's outlook on life is much brighter now. She is in remission and Maddie, their golden retriever they call the daughter they never had, stays close.
"Oh when I came home the first thing she did she started licking my bald head like 'I'll make it well, I'll make it better,'" said Hatchell.
The Hatchells have an appreciation for each new day.
"You used to take for granted some things and now it's like 'wow, colors are brighter, the breeze feel better, the warmth of the sun feels better.' It's just great," said Sammy.
"I love to put the top down on my car," said Hatchell, "and maddie and I get in there. She sits over there beside me, she likes to style and profile. And we ride around. I love the feel of the air and the breeze and I've always told people the reason why Ilike convertibles, it makes me feel closer to God.
"I'm going to live the best I can and do the best I can do. And whenever He's ready for me to leave this earth, I'll leave it."