tampabay.com

This time, it's not a game

At 6, Demetri is fighting leukemia without really understanding what it is. The frustrating part is that it has forced him to give up golf for a while.

By LOGAN D. MABE
Published September 10, 2006


They met for the first time before a match at Westchase Golf Club. Demetri Kotsovolos, 6, and Tyler Wilkes, 4, were vying for a first-place medal in a tournament run by the U.S. Kids Golf Tour.

At that age, the kids' drivers are almost as big as the kids themselves. Same goes for their golf bags. That's why at these tournaments, the dads usually serve as caddies, too.

But at this tournament, Demetri and his father made the unusual request of using a golf cart. Learning the reason "was like a baseball bat to the gut," said Scott Wilkes, Tyler's father.

Sandy-haired Demetri was carrying more that day than the will to win a golf tournament. Deep inside of him, he carried a cancer that afflicts thousands of boys and girls every year, a cancer that kills many of them.

"But then you watch the kid play and it's like, 'Holy cow!' " Wilkes said. "He was carrying a huge driver and he can thump it. He's a powerful little kid. That he was between cancer treatments makes it even harder to believe."

Demetri finished second in that tournament to Tyler. It was Demetri's last chance to compete before his next round of treatment.

* * *

Anyone can rear back and whack a tee shot as hard as he can and hope for the best. But Demetri's strengths are chipping and putting, where control, patience and feel are so important.

They are his constant companions, whether it's hitting a golf ball or enduring medical treatments. The skills overlap. In golf, it's part of the fun. At the hospital, not so much.

Demetri took up golf when he was scarcely a year old, whacking plastic balls around his house near Clearwater.

It was great fun until March, when the doctors discovered the disease that had laid him low, when his parents told him he couldn't go to kindergarten anymore, when his only trips to Tampa meant excruciating pain in the sterile treatment rooms at St. Joseph's Children's Hospital.

Demetri knows he's sick. But when his mother, Karen, asks him to name the disease that lives in him, Demetri can't think of it. When prodded, Demetri beams, "Oh yeah, that's it," and he remembers.

It's called leukemia.

Here is how Karen Kotsovolos tells the story on Demetri's Web site (www.caringbridge.org/visit/demetrioskotsovolos):

"Demetri was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia on March 16, 2006, at the age of 5. Demetri's symptoms were horrible leg pains, in both of his thighs. He also would get fevers up to 102.5 degrees right before diagnoses. His symptoms confused us because at the beginning they would be very intense, followed by a pain free day. We gave him Tylenol and Motrin, and rubbed his legs with muscle cream. We took him out of tae kwon do. Finally he refused to walk or eat. That is when we demanded to go to the hospital."

It didn't take long for the doctors to figure out what was wrong. Right away they started Demetri on a vigorous regimen of pills, injections and intravenous medicines that can make a boy feel so very much older than 6.

Things change when you get cancer.

Your parents worry more, but they try not to show it. Your older sister, Correna, who used to give you fits, is suddenly nicer to you. You get to be the honorary captain one night at a Tampa Bay Lightning hockey game and sit in star player Brad Richard's luxury box with a bunch of kids called "Richards' Rascals." You get to go to a Tampa Bay Buccaneers football game as the guest of the Glazer Family Foundation. You get to do all of these things, but because you have cancer and the treatments are so severe, you can't do the one thing you've loved to do since you were still in diapers.

You can't play golf.

* * *

Okay, maybe you don't actually "learn" golf when you're a year old. Maybe you just adhere to it.

"He was always running around with a little plastic club," said Demetri's dad, also named Demetri. "He couldn't sleep unless he had it with him in his crib."

When Demetri turned 2, he learned how to whack plastic balls around with his plastic club. He did this mostly in the house, and most notably one Christmas, when he grooved a plastic ball tee shot off the angel on top of the Christmas tree.

Maybe not the best idea, but Demetri professes innocence. "You thought of it," Demetri tells his dad.

Like a lot of preschool golfers, Demetri didn't learn the game from a club professional or smack hundreds of balls a day at a driving range. Demetri learned the game in his back yard, which happens to be on a public golf course.

"He'll get out there and play with neighbor kids and play with his cousins and you wouldn't know there's anything wrong with him," his mom said.

In the house, Demetri likes to set up putting courses that run from the kitchen to the family room to the living room to the dining room.

His mother never complains.

* * * 

Demetri was almost 6 when his parents began learning everything they could about leukemia.

First, there were the pains in his thighs. Then the fevers that wouldn't go away.

"Then one day, he turned white as a ghost," said Karen, who teaches third grade at Leila G. Davis Elementary School in Clearwater. "And we took him to St. Joseph's Hospital and thought that he was just going to be looked at."

Soon, Demetri's mother and father were speaking to an oncologist. And soon, Demetri was getting the port in his chest, the lumbar puncture, a dose of chemotherapy and a quick look at his bone marrow.

Most of Demetri's white blood cells, about 80 percent of them, were lymphoblasts.

For 29 days, Demetri and his family waited out the results of his initial treatment. By day 29, Demetri's cancer was deemed "low risk," his father said.

Still, for a kid who likes to spend most of his time in the short grass of golf fairways, Demetri was in the deep weeds.

Understanding leukemia was much more difficult than understanding golf. Golf was easy. Hit the ball, watch it roll into the hole. Demetri didn't know anything about lymphoblasts and chemotherapy, and he certainly didn't know why the pills he takes every day make him so hungry and bloated and bald.

Leukemia is the reason Demetri has to take medicine every day, to kill the bad blood cells so his body can make new ones so he'll get better.

The port in his chest allows doctors to give him more medicine that also helps kill the bad blood cells.

The medicine hurts and has changed his life. It has forced Demetri to take a break from golf, which is probably the worst side effect of his treatment.

The regimen, which Karen Kotsovolos describes in detail on the Web site, will continue, every day, "until 2009 when Demetri will be 9 years old."

That last phrase is as much a promise as a hope. It is a dream of better days when Demetri's life, like his golf game, will be back to level par.