UNC head coach Sylvia Hatchell fights leukemia, hopes to coach this year
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Sylvia Hatchell is fighting to get back to her North Carolina program as quickly as possible.
Hatchell, a recently inducted Naismith Hall of Fame coach, has been away from sideline duties since October while receiving treatment for leukemia. She spent a month in the hospital for the first round of chemotherapy with more ahead as she holds out hope of getting back by conference tournament time.
"You don't realize, especially after all this time, how much something means to you until you don't have it," Hatchell said in an interview with the Associated Press.
"It was like a tsunami hit me and all of a sudden it's taken away. But that's my motivation, to get back out there."
Hatchell, 61, said she feels great and even attended Saturday's win against High Point, the first time she watched her No. 10 Tar Heels play in person this year.
She returns to the hospital Friday for her next five-day round of chemotherapy, the second of at least three and maybe four "consolidation" sessions to complete her treatment. Her chances of returning this year depending largely on how her immune system recovers each time.
Dr. Pete Voorhees, the oncologist overseeing her treatment at UNC's Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, said last month physicians were "extremely pleased" with her progress.
"I haven't had one test come back and knock me down, so the only thing I've got against me is my age," she said with a laugh.
Hatchell, in her 28th season at UNC, has more than 900 career victories, eight Atlantic Coast Conference tournament titles, three Final Fours and the 1994 NCAA championship. With longtime assistant Andrew Calder leading UNC on the sideline, Hatchell has remained involved by reviewing practice and game video, conferring with her staff and meeting with her players.
This is the first time she's missed games since missing two in January 1989 due to the birth of her son, Van.
"Coach Hatchell still makes the decisions," Ivory Latta, UNC's career scoring leader and a first-year assistant coach, said. "She definitely still calls the shots. We still play the way she wants us to play."
While she misses her team, Hatchell said she's blessed because her illness was caught early. She works to stay positive as she would coach her players to do and leans on her faith.
"I've had moments," she said. "The biggest thing is in the mornings when I open my eyes, sometimes I'll close my eyes again like, `Wake up, this is a bad dream."'
The trouble started after a routine physical shortly before her Naismith induction in September. A test showed a low white blood cell count, though Hatchell felt fine and stuck to her busy schedule full of recruiting visits and speaking engagements.
She eventually developed a sore throat, though doctors weren't able to find the cause of her low white count in subsequent tests.
Hatchell soon started feeling fatigued and contacted the Lineberger Center - she's been a supporter and donor for years - to get the bone marrow test that found the answer.
Voorhees told her to report to the hospital the next day, staying for a week of heavy chemotherapy followed by three weeks of recovery.
She stayed with her exercise regimen to minimize the side effects, walking laps around her hospital wing or using strength bands and weights in her room. She wouldn't get in bed other than to sleep. She refused to wear a hospital gown, opting to stay in team apparel down to slippers that look like athletic shoes.
When she started losing her hair, Hatchell had her head shaved - pausing long enough to see herself with a mohawk - while some of the friends who took shifts staying overnights with her in the hospital took photos and videos in a makeshift party. She's wearing a wig as her hair grows back.
She tells people asking what they can do for her at Christmas to donate blood and platelets as well as to get tested for bone marrow matches for transplants - which she might need one day if her cancer returns.
For now, she's filling her time by watching old TV shows and spending extra time with her golden retriever, Maddie.
And these days of waiting can't go by fast enough.
"My doctors are very encouraging and very confident that they're going to get me back out there," Hatchell said. "It's just going to take some time."