information on the Mike Sardo Fund
With Kathleen at his side, Mike Sardo vows
never to give up.
By John Gearan
time seemed perfect. And what better place to shoot some summer
hoops than in Chapel Hill, N.C., where basketball courts are
considered hallowed ground?
park is just down the road from the post-grad bungalow that Mike
Sardo '93 and Kathleen Johnson '93 share as Columbia classmates and
soul mates, not to mention husband and wife. The All-Ivy League
couple had been married the summer before, up in Maine.
appears apprehensive. He hadn't tried making a lay-up, never mind a
free throw, in a long, long time. Kathleen is brimming with her
usual courtside confidence. Pure shooters never lose their touch,
or their swagger.
chucks up so many brutally bad shots that he could rebuild The
Yellow Brick Road. With each miss his competitive juices flow
stronger and the defense mechanisms of an athlete kick
can't believe how bad I am," moans Mike as his shots rim out, fall
short and carom like pinballs.
weren't that good to begin with!" snaps Kathleen.
Tough love? Perhaps. But it is just what they need. Mike cracks
up first. Kathleen succumbs the moment she realizes Mike's tears
are those of laughter. A flood tide of memories return. How many
times had a coach in high school, or at Columbia, used a sarcastic,
smart-alecky remark to defuse tension and deflate an athlete's
Kathleen is correct. Mike hadn't been that good in basketball
at Bethpage High on Long Island, more of a scrappy, hustling,
dive-on-the-floor type of player than a big scorer. Football had
been his sport. He was a high school quarterback who transformed
himself into an All-Ivy wide receiver. As a senior, he caught a
school-record 13 passes against Cornell, and a game-winning 40-yard
TD against Brown, and ranked fifth in receptions in all of Division
1-AA. Kathleen had been the hoops superstar, for perennial power
St. Peter-Marian of Worcester, Mass. before twice serving as
Columbia's Academic All-Ivy hoops captain.
this June afternoon, Mike does have a convenient alibi, one that he
and Kathleen are keenly aware of, but choose to ignore: For the
first time in his life, Mike is shooting at the basket from a
wheelchair. That cruel fact has changed his perspective, on the
court and off, forever.
Mike and Kathleen graduated from Columbia in 1993, success seemed
to be a slam-dunk. They had been All-Ivy League scholar-athletes
and had aspirations to earn doctoral degrees and become
Mike, a chemistry major, worked in the cardiovascular lab at
Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center for about three years to earn
a grub-stake before matriculating at North Carolina to pursue a
Ph.D. in biochemistry. Kathleen, a history major, played out her
fantasies with a season of pro ball in Europe, then coached hoops
and taught history to inner-city high school girls at St. Michael's
had become college sweethearts as juniors after taking a course,
"The History of Ancient Mesopotamia," together. They had plans to
get settled, get on their feet financially and get
the spring of 1998, the wedding was set for July of the next year.
After the honeymoon, Kathleen would teach in North Carolina as
Mike, his Ph.D. course-work completed, would plow through the
research for his doctoral thesis, delving into the medical
mysteries of cancerous brain tumors.
as Robert Burns wrote more than two centuries ago, "The best laid
schemes o' mice and men gang aft a-gley."
Sardo and Kathleen Johnson (both center) with their wedding
the fall of 1997, Mike had been invited to participate in a
research project. "All I had to do is give some blood. And for 10
cc's I would get 20 bucks." Easy money, thought Mike, who was
living off an annual $14,000 University of North Carolina grant. In
fact, he was all set to sign up for another double sawbuck when an
e-mail arrived telling him his blood was abnormal and it couldn't
be used for the project.
"They told me that one factor that affects blood-clotting was a
little bit off. It was nothing severe. I did bleed a bit more when
I cut myself shaving, but I felt fine. So I didn't have it checked
out. I had to get home for Thanksgiving and was in a rush. In
hindsight, I probably should have had a blood work-up right
April 1998, Mike began experiencing back pain. He shook it off,
taking various mild medications. But his usual high level of energy
began to dissipate, and he developed other discomforts such as
abdominal pain, night sweats, loss of appetite and weight. In May,
Mike underwent blood and bone marrow testing at the hospital
affiliated with UNC. The diagnosis was grim, the irony inescapable.
Mike, a scholar searching for a cure for cancer, had acute
leukemia was in Stage 4. How bad is that? "Well, Stage 5 is dead,"
Mike replied with his typically wry humor.
cancer had spread, using spinal fluid as its launching pad.
Chemotherapy could not be administered simply by IV. A strong dose
had to be injected directly into the spine. It was a matter of life
Mike returned to his hospital room after blood testing, Kathleen
was waiting. When the results were known, Kathleen made the most
important decision of her life more quickly than she ever had
thrown a bounce pass on a fast break. She left her New York
teaching job, and has never left Mike's side since.
would imagine things could not get worse than facing down death
from a fast-moving cancer. But they did. While the chemotherapy had
sent Mike's leukemia reeling into remission, he began losing the
feeling in the powerful legs that had made him a three-sport
athlete. The chemicals administered over four months to halt his
cancer somehow had caused spinal-cord damage, leaving Mike
paraplegic. To this day, doctors cannot say with certainty exactly
cause of his paraplegia is still unclear to us," wrote Dr. Karen
Albritton in a report.
Usually trauma is the culprit, damaging or even severing the
spinal cord. An MRI or other exam can locate a visible abnormality.
Or perhaps a degenerative disease will be identified. Not so in
Mike's case. "There is still a lot of guessing," Mike
and Kathleen have endured much heartache since May 1998. The
leukemia remains in remission; Mike remains in a
to his paralysis and treatment, Mike's hip joints calcified.
Earlier this year, Mike underwent two major surgeries to remove
bone build-up in each hip.
broken leg suffered during physical therapy had Michael wearing a
cast at his wedding.
almost a year, he hadn't been able to sit up correctly in a bed,
chair or wheelchair. Being bed-ridden for long stretches caused a
recurring problem of sores, requiring Kathleen to change the
dressing daily. He could not do much without Kathleen's assistance.
She became his constant care-giver, getting only brief respite from
a physical therapist. Being dependent on Kathleen has caused Mike,
a fiercely independent and self-sufficient man, frustration and
anguish. You can imagine the rest. And the unrest.
Early on, Kathleen also taught junior high school in North
Carolina. As vital as her income was, she finally had to face the
obvious: Mike needed her around more and more.
decision wasn't hard. We had no choice. I love him and had to be
there for him," remarked Kathleen.
"Kathleen has been incredible, the only one in the world who
would put up with this," says Mike. "She takes me to the doctors,
loads me in the car, drives me everywhere. This is not what we had
Plans change. Mike and Kathleen's wedding plans changed, but
only in the minor details. Only weeks before the big day, Mike's
right leg had been broken during a physical therapy session, so at
the wedding it stuck out from his wheelchair at a 45 degree angle,
a black sneaker on his foot. Kathleen, to nobody's surprise, was a
beautiful bride with her white gown and radiant smile - and
underneath it all, her basketball low-cuts. On July 24, 1999,
before family and friends, including many from their Columbia days,
Mike reached up and held Kathleen's hand as they exchanged vows in
a starkly simple white church in Cape Elizabeth, on the Maine
occasion was upbeat, joyous, at times bordering on rowdy. At the
reception, friends and Columbia classmates like Lisa Rutkoske '93,
Penny and Tony Apollaro '93, Nkem Okpokwasill '93, Kerry Lunz '93
and Richard Park '93E stormed the dance floor, spinning Mike in his
wheelchair. Kathleen's mom, Susan, jitterbugged with Mike's dad,
John. Bobby Johnson, a former college hoop star, danced with his
protégé daughter. Barbara Sardo had her daughter
Katherine, Mike's 24-year-old sister afflicted with cerebral palsy,
swaying to the music.
There was love caressed by a sea breeze. The congregation sang
Beethoven's "Ode to Joy," its words hauntingly poignant:
Ever singing march we onward,
Victors in the midst of strife.
Joyous music lift us sunward,
In the triumph song of life.
and Kathleen did not leave on a honeymoon. They returned to Chapel
Hill, to get on with their life, their struggle. For the past year,
Mike and Kathleen have battled back. Mike had to deal with two hips
operations, bed sores that still come back to haunt him, fevers,
endless testing, constant therapy - and, hardest of all, learning
to cope with life in a new way. He has had to develop upper-body
strength to compensate for his loss of leg use.
Kathleen tosses up a
jumper at Levien Gym.
has had to learn to do for himself, from getting in and out of bed
to taking showers, to unloading himself from his wheelchair into
the car, to eventually getting on a public bus to get to
During that time, while unable to get back in the swing of
Ph.D. lab research, Mike turned to the great works of literature
such as A Tale of Two Cities for solace and wisdom. He spent
countless hours at the computer while he healed from hip surgery,
gearing up for his re-entry into the world of academia.
Kathleen served as his guardian and angel. She also began
taking courses for a master's in education, which she knew would be
required to land a teaching job good enough to pay the bills. She
is in her second year of that pursuit, enjoying it more now that
she may elect courses that she truly enjoys, such as
had received help from family and friends, though Mike and Kathleen
don't like asking for anything. Mike's father, John Sardo, is
self-employed, running a modest home-improvement construction
company. He has built access ramps and other alterations to Mike
and Kathleen's home. Kathleen's parents, both teachers, visit
during school vacations and give everything they can. Kathleen's
brother K.C. Johnson, a history professor at Brooklyn College, has
been supportive, emotionally and otherwise.
Wally Halas, a former Columbia men's basketball coach, has
managed a fund from his position as assistant director of the
Institute for International Sport, located at the University of
Rhode Island (see box). Friends, alumni and relatives have been
generous. About $40,000 has flowed into the fund and to date about
$35,000 has been spent to cover necessary living
to recent setbacks - recurring fevers caused by sores opened from
wheelchair use - Mike has not been able to resume his doctoral
studies. His $14,000 research grant was not renewed. Bed rest has
been prescribed to encourage healing. Meanwhile there are major
debts and expenses on the horizon as Mike still plans to pursue his
degree. Insurance has handled about three-quarters of Mike's
astronomical medical bills, leaving a significant amount. The
couple needs a vehicle that can accommodate Mike's wheelchair and
be modified so Mike can drive it.
After five years, Mike expects to get a clean bill of health
regarding the leukemia. But the doctors remain uncertain as to what
exactly caused Mike's paralysis. There is funding for research into
paralysis caused by trauma to the spine, but because of the rarity
of cases like Mike's, where the damage was caused by high-dose
chemotherapy, there is little funding and research. Someday, Mike
and Kathleen would like to contribute to such research.
this day, Mike and Kathleen do not bemoan their fate, maintaining
the determination and upbeat attitude that was eloquently described
by New York Times sports columnist Ira Berkow on January 3,
1999, when he told their story.
asked separately, their response is the same. They are overjoyed
that Mike's cancer is in remission. "I feel lucky to be alive,"
Mike said. They accept Mike's disability as an unfortunate fact
that they must deal with, and when one gets down, the other is
there to be uplifting, often with a well-timed
Kathleen, normally composed, admits she loses it on occasion.
Once she got in a man's face, chewing him out in no uncertain terms
for leaving his pickup truck in a space reserved for the
handicapped. "I didn't know Kathleen knew some of those words," her
dad says with an admiring laugh.
led the Lions in receptions in 1991 and 1992.
"Sometimes it gets overwhelming, and rudeness always sends me
over the edge," commented Kathleen.
tackles frustration with wit and humor, even dark humor. After
enduring treatment for an endless series of medical hits -
leukemia, pneumonia, calcified hips, broken leg, fevers and painful
open wounds - Mike pleaded with doctors: "Hey, I want to go back to
being just a cripple."
and Kathleen will not deviate from their plan. Kathleen will get
her master's, and whatever else is necessary, and teach history.
Mike will obtain his Ph.D. and teach biochemistry at the college
level, continuing to do cancer research. They would like to start a
family. They will be active in sports. They will remain close to
family and friends.
both want to be contributors," Mike explained. "We are determined
to achieve good no matter what obstacles are put in our path. It is
a test of wills. But I've always been stubborn and Kathleen is
knows...someday we may even get to go on a honeymoon," quipped
About a half hour after being interviewed, Mike was on the
phone. He had forgotten to mention something that he felt was
haven't given up hope. We haven't stopped looking for a way for me
to walk again. I wanted to make that clear."
does not give up easily. He remembers the lessons learned from
playing on some losing football teams at Columbia. "It's easy to
practice when you're winning," he says. The challenge is to stay at
it in the face of misfortune.
his senior year, Columbia's football team was 1-7 with two games
left. Time to fold up the tent? Not with Mike Sardo in the lineup.
Columbia upset 7-1 Cornell, which was in the hunt for the Ivy
League crown, then closed out the season by beating Brown. The
Lions went out with a roar.
Sardo has been knocked down. But with Kathleen at his side, and
with a helping hand from admiring friends, he vows to make a
About the Author: John Gearan is a sports columnist
for the Worcester (Mass.) Telegram and Gazette and serves as
a volunteer coordinator for the Mike Sardo Fund
information on the Mike Sardo Fund