Staring Down Cancer, Two Longhorn Fans Forge Unlikely Friendship


Sometimes a little burnt orange can bring people together in surprising ways. In the cancer unit of a hospital 1,500 miles from Austin, a 21-year-old UT student and a 53-year-old Longhorn fan formed a bond that has carried them through dark times and hopeful ones.

UT sophomore Caitlin Waters wasn’t particularly worried about the cold she couldn’t seem to shake. Other than night sweats and losing her breath on her way to class, the symptoms were all things she’d experienced before.

“I figured it was going to go away soon. I was just waiting to get better,” she says.

Feeling nauseous in class one day spurred Waters to make a reluctant visit to the health center in the Student Services Building.

“They couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me,” she remembers. “They took some blood and did a bunch of tests, and the whole time I was just sitting there waiting.”

She calls what happened next “completely crazy.” After a long wait one of the doctors returned to her exam room and told her, “I think you have leukemia. Your blood counts are extremely abnormal, and you need to go to the ER right now.”portrait washington dc, portrait northern virginia, portrait leesburg

At that moment, Waters’ life as a typical UT student was swept away. “I got a friend to pick me up, my parents flew down from D.C. that night, and a few days later I was at Johns Hopkins,” she remembers.

Leaving friends, a room at the Halstead Co-op, a half-finished degree in government, and her favorite breakfast tacos behind, the 21-year-old immediately returned home to Washington, D.C., to begin the first of two grueling rounds of chemotherapy. The quiet hallways of the Johns Hopkins Hospital were the last place she expected to make a friend—especially one with whom she’d bond over a shared love of UT.

“You don’t really have, like, patient friends in the hospital,” Waters says. “You’re already feeling so bad, you’re not looking to socialize. People keep to their rooms.”

Still, Waters made an impression on 53-year-old David Hatfield, a stage-IV lymphoma patient down the hall. Hatfield was walking the halls one day—something Hopkins cancer patients are encouraged to do regularly—when another patient passed him. “Because of chemotherapy I have a lot of neuropathy in my feet, so I’m walking really slow, and here comes this little girl and she’s lapping me,” he laughs. “Just lapping me. Flying around, and I’m like, ‘What is in her [IV] bag?’ She was motivation for me even when I didn’t know her.”

Days later it was Hatfield’s longtime partner, Sid Stolz, MBA ’84, who inadvertently brought the two together. Although Hatfield didn’t graduate from UT, he considers himself an “adopted Longhorn.”

“Both Sid and I are Texas proud. He can rarely get through a week without wearing some sort of Texas gear,” Hatfield says. “Caitlin’s mother ran into Sid in his burnt-orange shirt and said, ‘You have to meet my daughter!’”

Despite feeling especially ill that day, Waters agreed. “I’m so happy I did,” she says. “He’s the friendliest guy you’ll ever meet. You just immediately want to be friends with him.”

Similarly, Hatfield was initially a little reluctant to develop any friendships at Johns Hopkins.

“I mean, we were losing people,” he says. “I didn’t want to get to know anyone, and then them not be there. But she was just this adorable little girl, smart and funny. How could you not want to be friends with her?”

Hatfield and Waters kept bumping into each other, and gradually a cordial acquaintance evolved into a warm friendship. They’d commiserate about symptoms and talk about their dogs back home. Soon they were walking the halls together, trailing identical IV poles. Despite a 32-year age difference, they realized that they understood each other in a way few other people could.

“There’s a camaraderie among people who are going through this same sort of thing,” Hatfield says. “Because very few people know what she’s going through, and very few people know what I’m going through.”

“You can be Sid or my mom—be as close to the situation as possible—and still not really know. That’s why it’s nice to have him,” Waters says. “Sometimes it’s just having someone identify with the actual physical feelings, not being able to catch your breath or something like that.” Waters’ initial diagnosis was followed by two rounds of chemo, a warm return to UT for a healthy fall semester, and a grim relapse while studying abroad in Barcelona that spring—all sending her back to D.C.

After undergoing other treatments to no avail, both Hatfield and Waters underwent a bone marrow transplant within a day of each other this past June, synching their recoveries. “It’s a little weird how that all lined up, isn’t it?” Hatfield laughs. Now they are both in remission, relaxing a little more each day as the odds of another relapse go down.

For a weekend in September, they visited Austin together and went to the Kansas State game. It was a happy milestone, especially for Hatfield and Stolz, rabid fans who’ve held football season tickets for 18 years and tuned into Longhorn games from the hospital.

dcGoing to the game was one more small step toward normalcy and a slightly daring one, since transplant patients are cautioned to be extra-vigilant about germs while their immune systems regain strength. A crowd of thousands in a football stadium would leave some patients wary.

But as Waters and Hatfield chatted a few hours before the game, it was clear that they’d decided to let go of their worries for a little while. “I like to think that open air is safe, ” Waters shrugs. “Any bad germs will just sort of float away.”

As they walked around the Forty Acres and headed to the stadium, they were followed by a PBS camera crew. Academy Award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns is at work on a documentary about cancer, and Waters’ and Hatfield’s unlikely friendship is one of the stories Burns has focused on.

When Burns heard that Waters and Hatfield were planning to visit Austin together, he jumped at the chance to film them at UT—their love of the school being what had originally brought them together.

“They followed me and some friends to Sixth Street the other night, before David got here,” Waters says. “It’s definitely weird, though. You don’t really want to be filmed on your bad days. But at the same time, if someone’s trying to capture what it means to be sick, they need to see those too.”

Hatfield nods. “If there’s anything, any sort of additional understanding, people can gain from seeing what it’s about, then it’s worth it,” he says. “I had no idea what lymphoma was. If somebody can learn about the symptoms and get to a doctor just a week before I did, it’s worth it.”

Photos courtesy Julie McCarter.


Tags: , , ,