Priceless Gem

It’s the day before Thanksgiving and Danny Talbott is resting in the Outpatient Infusion Center on the third floor of the N.C. Cancer Hospital. He’s been receiving treatment for multiple myeloma, a cancer of a type of white blood cell called a plasma cell. The condition is nothing to laugh at, yet Danny is able to muster a smile and crack a joke any time someone enters the room. He even makes light of his condition.

“If I die, then I go to heaven,” says Danny, a Rocky Mount, North Carolina, native and resident and a 2003 inductee in the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame. “If I beat this, then I get to stick around and give my friends a hard time. It’s a win-win.”

A few minutes pass. A nurse pokes her head through the curtain in the room and looks down at Danny.

“What are you doing?” she asks, surprised that she didn’t hear his voice in the hallway. “Behaving? Actually behaving?”

Danny and his wife, Myrlene, immediately burst into laughter. They’re used to the give-and-take with hospital staff – they enjoy the ribbing. After all, Danny is usually the one who initiates the good-natured exchanges, often from the moment he sets foot in the hospital.

“That’s his M.O.,” says Myrlene, who spent 17 years as a nurse in the intensive care unit at Nash General Hospital before retiring to aid with Danny’s care. “Everyone’s a friend. He talks the same way to his buddies on the golf course.”

The Talbotts have found a comfort zone at the N.C. Cancer Hospital since Danny’s diagnosis in 2010 – a place where they can laugh. The staff members at the hospital – everyone from the volunteers to the nurses to the physicians – have become their friends. And for the Talbotts, that’s been important as they’ve taken on the challenges of Danny’s disease.

“They’ve been fantastic,” says Danny. “I have not had a bad experience in four years.”

“They’ve been fantastic,” says Danny. “I have not had a bad experience in four years. When you’re going through a situation like this, it really does make a big difference. The thing that’s impressive to me is that they all love their jobs – they love working here – and that helps you as a patient and, in Myrlie’s case, as a caregiver.”

Myrlene agrees.

“They’ve been just as nurturing to me as they have to him,” she says. “You need all the extra care you can get.”

Myrlene’s experience as a nurse has allowed her to help Danny. She dressed and flushed the port from his stem cell transplant and has given him shots in his belly. Her experience has also provided her a unique perspective on the care Danny has received.

“It has shown me how wonderful the people who work here are,” she says. “After our first visit, I remember going back to Nash General Hospital and telling people how impressed I was with the people at UNC. We’ve had friends who have left North Carolina to receive care. Honestly, I cannot understand why anyone would do that when we have this hospital here.”

Multiple myeloma primarily affects the bone marrow and can cause patients to become anemic. It can also destroy bones, lead to kidney failure, increase risk of infection, and raise calcium levels. For Danny, bone pain led his doctors to find the myeloma five years ago. Despite the challenges of his condition and the treatments that can leave him feeling badly, Danny refuses to change his outlook.

“He’s always had a tremendous attitude when it comes to his myeloma,” says Dr. Peter Voorhees, associate professor at the UNC School of Medicine and researcher in the Leukemia, Lymphoma, and Myeloma Program at UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center. “He doesn’t let anything get him down for any meaningful period of time, and I think that positive attitude has allowed him to get through this a lot more easily than he would have otherwise … . He really has a strong connection to a lot of people here, from the nurses in the Infusion Center to the nurse navigator to the schedulers.”

It helps that Danny, a former three-sport athlete at UNC, exercises regularly and was in excellent physical condition when he was diagnosed. In recent years, he was the third-ranked singles tennis player and half of the first-ranked doubles tennis team in North Carolina for his age group.

“He’s been very physically active,” continues Voorhees. “He’s a superstar patient. The sorts of things we do for treatment are difficult for the patient to go through. There are side effects. But from our perspective, especially compared to a lot of other patients’ experiences, he’s really done extremely well.”

Danny’s positive attitude shouldn’t come as a surprise. A star quarterback in high school, he won 4-A state championships in football, baseball, and basketball at Rocky Mount Senior High School in 1962-1963. He went on to play quarterback at Carolina, earning ACC Player of the Year honors in 1966; he was so good at his position that he was drafted 17th overall by the San Francisco 49ers before playing quarterback for the Washington Redskins. In Washington, Danny backed up Sonny Jorgensen and was coached first by Otto Graham, then by Vince Lombardi.

Danny’s baseball career was no less distinguished. An All-American first baseman, he was one of the leaders on the 1966 Tar Heel team that made the College World Series. He played professionally in the Baltimore Orioles organization, where he was managed by Cal Ripken Sr. He remembers young Cal Ripken Jr. and Billy Ripken running around the field during drills.

Danny even played basketball at Carolina, starting on the freshmen team in the days before freshmen were allowed to play varsity – he had to give up basketball to focus on the other sports, otherwise he’d have played for Dean Smith.

“I’ve been fortunate to be around some great coaches and teammates,” he says.

While Danny’s positive attitude has helped him endure the difficult aspects of his disease, Myrlene also credits his ability to handle pain – as well as his spiritual upbringing.

“He’s tough – I’m telling you,” she says. “I told Dr. Voorhees, ‘I think he’s had more chemo than anyone I’ve ever heard of and he’s cruised right through it, thank God.’ And he’s a spiritual person – he’s the son of a preacher man.”

“I told Dr. Voorhees, ‘I think he’s had more chemo than anyone I’ve ever heard of and he’s cruised right through it, thank God.’ And he’s a spiritual person – he’s the son of a preacher man.”

Although the Talbotts are season ticket holders for Carolina football and baseball, Danny admits that he has been in Chapel Hill more than he’d have liked these past four-plus years. But if he’s going to have to fight the condition, he would choose to come to UNC above anywhere else. He has wonderful memories of his time as a college student, back when N.C. Memorial Hospital was the lone location for treatment and when, as a Tar Heel baseball player, his team played games at Emerson Field.

“Stands were concrete steps and right field was Lenoir Hall,” he says.

Carolina head baseball coach Mike Fox goes back a long way with Danny. Fox lived and coached at North Carolina Weslelyan College in Rocky Mount, the Talbotts’ home, for 16 years. He got to know Danny during that time. The two have grown closer since Fox returned to UNC, where he played second base in the 1970s. They exchange texts and emails regularly.

“I didn’t know as much about Danny and what he’d done as a Tar Heel until I was back here as coach,” admits Fox. “That’s on me, because he’s one of the best – if not the best – athletes that has ever come through this university. He’s a big-time Tar Heel, and he’s a really big supporter of the program and of me personally, which I appreciate. But more important, I’ve gotten to know him on a personal level, and he’s a wonderful person. He’s been there for me through ups and downs.”

Even through his treatment, Danny and Myrlene have found ways to make it to Boshamer Stadium to catch a game or a series.

“If I’m being treated during the week, we’ll stay for a Friday and Saturday game and then make it home for church on Sunday,” Danny says.

Although Myrlene enjoys all Carolina sports, she has a particular fondness for baseball. She has dropped by Boshamer Stadium during the offseason to talk to Coach Fox and to spend time quietly by herself in the stadium stands.

“Myrlene will walk down from the hospital and find me, and then sit in the stands when there’s no one around and reflect,” says Fox. “For them, it has seemed like being here, on campus and at the stadium, has been therapeutic.”

Fox deeply appreciates Danny’s support of the program, which creates a sense of continuity by bringing together past generations of Tar Heels and the current roster of players.

“Through Danny, I’ve been able to meet several of the guys from the 1966 team and to have them around our players today,” Fox continues. “It’s unbelievably special and it means a lot to keep up those program ties … . Those guys have a unique bond among each other and memories of being here and playing here and being part of the team. It’s so vivid when you talk to them. It’s cool to watch because they light up and you can see in their eyes what the time meant to them.”

Carolina baseball will continue to do anything it can to support the Talbotts, Fox says.

“Any part that we can play – that our program can play – in being here and being a little bit of an inspiration to him and Myrlene, even if it’s just giving them an opportunity to get away and get their minds off what they’re going through, we want to do,” he says.

Dr. Don Gabriel, professor at the UNC School of Medicine and physician and researcher in the Division of Hematology and Oncology at UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, performed Danny’s stem cell transplant in 2011. A Carolina graduate, “Gabe,” as Danny and Myrlene affectionately call him, ran track at UNC and remembers Danny from his playing days.

“Danny and his wife are fantastic people,” says Gabriel. “UNC should be proud to have graduated Danny, a true UNC ‘priceless gem.’ He was a star as an athlete, and as a true Tar Heel, he is unsurpassed. I’m so happy to know him and his wife and hope that I can contribute in any way to help with his disease.”

As Danny and Myrlene continue their fight against multiple myeloma, they remain committed to the team they’ve come to know so well over the years, including nurses like Patrick Nichols in the Outpatient Infusion Center. Patrick met the Talbotts when he started working at the N.C. Cancer Hospital early in 2013. He and Danny began talking about sports and the rest was history, Patrick recalls.

Patrick happens to be working on the day before Thanksgiving, and as he steps into Danny’s room to check on him, he’s not sure what Danny will say to make him laugh – but he’ll say something.

Danny looks up when he sees Patrick come in. As usual, he doesn’t skip a beat.

“I couldn’t be happier coming here for treatment – except the times I have to see Patrick,” Danny jokes. “Other than Patrick, everyone’s great.”

Patrick laughs. Later, he remarks about the relationship he and other caregivers develop with their patients.

“All of our patients are special,” Patrick says, “but I do think Danny gives insight into how we have more friends that we treat up here than patients.”