FAIRVIEW, N.C. (AP) - Less than two days before her six-month bone marrow biopsy check-up at UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill, Sylvia Hatchell - the winningest active coach in women’s college basketball - was in her blueberry patch in Fairview.
Hatchell, UNC’s women’s basketball coach for nearly 29 years, hosted the annual workday in the blueberry patch as nearly 60 volunteers pitched in to clean and mulch the 240 bushes.
In 2000, Hatchell purchased the property and subsequently planted blueberry bushes to benefit the Lineberger Cancer Center at UNC Hospitals.
People who visit the blueberry patch are given the freedom to pick the berries and are asked to send check donations to the cancer center. Trees outside the blueberry patch provide address information to the pickers.
For years, thousands of dollars have been sent to the Lineberger center by people stopping by for blueberries.
Located at 143 Flat Creek Road, the blueberry patch is about a 30-minute drive from Chimney Rock off Hwy. 9.
A recent Saturday’s work day hit a little closer to home for Hatchell and the volunteers than before.
In October 2013, Hatchell was diagnosed with AML Leukemia. She had to take the 2013-14 basketball season off while undergoing treatments at UNC’s Lineberger Cancer Center.
“I had the worst you can have,” Hatchell said of the type of leukemia.
Judy Stroud, a friend of Hatchell’s since the third grade in Gaston County, was among friends who helped care for Hatchell.
“From October 11 (2013) until April 17 (2014) I was not alone for one second,” Hatchell said. “They’d stay until the other one got there.”
For months, Hatchell had to have blood transfusions or platelets every 48 hours.
Her immune system was so compromised she had to be extremely careful about her food intake.
“They came and made me special food,” she said.
“I’m finished with all the treatments. I’m doing great and I had a good season,” Hatchell said as she and Stroud chatted.
“This is such a great project,” Stroud said.
A former basketball coach at Francis Marion in South Carolina and an Atlantic Coast Conference basketball referee for 20 years, Stroud said she would not have missed the work day.
Other volunteers included Hatchell’s two brothers, sister-in-law, childhood friends, colleagues from the sports world and staff from UNC Hospitals.
Her golden retriever, Mattie, was in the blueberry patch too, keeping up with Hatchell and the volunteers.
Work started just after 9:30 a.m. and by 12:30 p.m. the mulching of 240 bushes was completed and 15 new bushes were planted to replace those lost during the winter.
“Lonnie Israel from the Western North Carolina Farmer’s Market donates the replacement bushes. He always does that for me,” she said.
Hatchell’s Fairview neighbor Horace Marlowe, 84, switched off the ignition on his tractor to talk to his friend.
Although on oxygen, his tank beside the tractor seat, Marlowe was so happy to be in the blueberry patch hauling the mulch.
“Oh, I’ve had a wonderful life,” he said.
“And he’s been on 70 mission trips,” Hatchell said, patting her friend on his hand.
Other neighbors, Luny and Ruby Gilliam, year-long caretakers of the blueberry patch were back on Saturday to help in the field and to prepare lunch.
“They do all the trimming of the dead limbs and all the fertilizing,” Hatchell said.
The men and women’s basketball coaches from nearby Montreat College brought 20 basketball players to work.
Women’s coach Meghan Austin played for Hatchell in 2004-2008.
“I would do anything for Coach Hatchell,” Austin said. “This is a way to give back to her.”
Austin said when she was told of Hatchell’s cancer it was a tough time for her.
“Coach Hatchell is invincible to all of us,” Austin said.
Immediately after hearing the news of the cancer, Austin said she began communicating with other coaches and basketball players through Facebook.
“We all just prayed. There was never a doubt she wouldn’t bounce back. I had no doubt she’d fight this and we prayed if it was God’s will to survive this (she would),” Austin said.
“This is a testament to her,” Austin said, looking out over the volunteers.
UNC Hospital patient navigator Jen Whitman took off work to join Hatchell and the volunteers.
“I’m the person you see when you come to the hospital for cancer treatment,” Whitman said while raking leaves at Hatchell’s cabin, overlooking the blueberry patch.
Whitman was the patient navigator for another neighbor, Steve Gale of Chimney Rock and Bat Cave. He, along with his wife, Mary Jaeger-Gale, showed up Saturday to help.
Ricky McKinney, a native of Rutherford County and a member of the 1970 graduating class at East Rutherford High School, and his wife Dottie joined the 60 volunteers. Dottie grew up with Hatchell and they have remained friends through the years. McKinney, who graduated from UNC’s School of Pharmacy, is a pharmacist in Greensboro.
“This is just a great day,” Dottie said.
Another childhood friend Rick Davis took a break to talk.
“She’s so down to earth. She’s the same Sylvia as she was in Gastonia in the third grade. She’s a great lady and so kind to everyone,” Davis said.
As the work day was coming to an end, Hatchell presented T-shirts to all the volunteers and lunch was served to everyone, also prepared by volunteers.
“Some of those boys from Montreat ate six to eight hot dogs,” Hatchell quipped.
All the donations from the 2015 blueberry crop will equip two exercise rooms for patients who will undergo chemotherapy treatment at the Lineberger Cancer Center.
“We want them to have a place to exercise while they are there. We want them to get out of the bed and have place right there to exercise,” Hatchell said.
“We know that getting out of the bed and exercising is so important. You get better faster.”
While a patient at UNC, Hatchell said she was determined to stay out of bed. “I was only in the bed to sleep,” she said. “I’m doing great now. I’m nearly 100 percent, but if I don’t get my rest, I feel it. My reserve tank runs out faster.”
During the 2014-15 basketball season Hatchell said she was worn out after games but now that the season is over she looks forward to getting back into a more stringent exercise routine.
“I know how important exercise is,” she said.
She is planning her summer basketball camps, trips to her houses at Myrtle Beach and Fairview, and she will be eating blueberries.
“They are the most healthy thing you can eat. Not only from getting the antioxidants, but you have to go pick them so you get exercise, too,” she said.
The blueberries should be plentiful this year and will start to ripen in mid-July. “We’ll have blueberries through September and maybe even longer if the frost doesn’t get them,” she said.
“It was the perfect day,” Hatchell said of the work day. “Nobody wanted to leave. We even went hiking a little bit after the work.”
Recently, Hatchell emailed that her biopsy went well.
“My tests were good. I’m a blessed woman,” she said.
Information from: The Daily Courier, https://thedigitalcourier.com
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