As a child, Billy McElwain found himself at a lot of funerals. Many of his friends were just as sick as he was.
At 2, McElwain was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, resulting in a full-scale round of chemotherapy.
He had a 50-percent chance of living another five years.
At 5, McElwain relapsed while still receiving chemotherapy. His chances of living another five years dropped to 25 percent. He spent a lot of time in hospitals in Reno and Oakland.
At 18, McElwain was a starting pitcher for the Nevada Union High School varsity baseball team. He carried a 3.6 grade point average as an honor student and played on the varsity team for two years. He graduated Saturday with honors.
Having been brought up with illness, complications and endless trips to the doctor, looking for a bright side became difficult. A silver lining emerged, however, when McElwain found his way into baseball and onto the mound.
“He couldn’t play on the jungle gym; he was just too weak,” said his mother, Karolyn McElwain, describing her son while he was growing up. “So his dad went outside with him all the time to play catch, to throw and swing the bat.”
With a survival story like this, McElwain knew his senior project would have to have something to do with helping children survive cancer.
He came across Songs of Love, an organization devoted to writing and recording personalized songs for children who are chronically or terminally ill, said Outreach Coordinator Antonella DeRose. Each child fills out a profile, including hobbies, favorite people, pets, music and other interests. Also, the child can indicate what type of music is his or her favorite.
Songs are completed and shipped within six weeks.
All of this piqued McElwain’s interest.
“I thought a good senior project would be to help raise money,” McElwain said. “I know a nurse that works with kids in Reno, so I thought I could get the names of kids that way.”
He decided to deliver the songs in person.
“It’ll be neat for the kids to have a 6-foot-4 baseball player who survived deliver the songs,” Karolyn McElwain said. “It’ll be an inspiration for the kids to see a kid who survived.”
McElwain raised $1,600, enough money to create songs for more than six children. Four of those will be from this region, and McElwain will deliver their songs personally to them at Renown Regional Medical Center in Reno. He has the CDs and is scheduled to deliver them June 21.
The rest of the money goes to the national foundation.
Delivering the songs himself was an especially meaningful part of the project.
“It always helps to have someone there just to say ‘hi,'” he said. “I just thought, Why don’t I give it to these kids personally? It allows them to see that there is hope of a happy life. It’s not all needles, chemo and X-rays.”
While McElwain’s experience with cancer was all early in his life, and while he has led a fairly normal life since coming off the chemotherapy right around his 7th birthday, he still is a little nervous about heading back to the hospital to deliver the songs.
“I’ll be reliving some bad memories,” Billy McElwain admitted. “But once I thought about it and prayed on it, all that just left me. It’s a way of healing.”
Now, the only remnant of the disease is unhappy memories and yearly checkups.
“There’s been no sign since,” Karolyn McElwain said. “He feels very healthy and lives the life of a typical teenager.”
To contact Sports Writer Ross Maak, e-mail rossm@theunion .com or call 477-4244.
Songs of Love was founded in 1996 as a way to bring a specialized, personalized, one-of-a-kind song to children who are terminally or chronically ill.
• For more information, go to http://www.songsoflove.org or call 800-960-SONG.
• To hear a song performed by former Van Halen frontman David Lee Roth, go to www. songsoflove.org/DLRm.html.
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