July 26, 2007

Courage of a Tiger

Four-year-old Kyle Lograsso has beaten cancer, and now he wants to take on his idol

A true miracle, Kyle Lograsso never gave up.

A true miracle, Kyle Lograsso never gave up.

The kid's a ham, and you gotta love him. There he stands in the family's great room. His back is arched, his feet spread wide, both arms raised. He has a driver in his right hand and a triumphant smile across his face. His voice is as tiny as he is, and it's as mighty as he is.

He says, "Ladies and gentlemen . . . " Imagining the 2021 Masters. "On the tee . . . " By then he'll be 18 years old. "From Strawberry Court . . . " His condo address today. "ME! Kyle Lograsso!"

From life's darkness into its light he has come. On May 28, he will be 5 years old. He almost didn't make it. He's still shorter than a SasQuatch driver and weighs less than a big bag. Crazy to say, but the kid's a player with a nice little swing. Gets it to 53 miles per hour on the launch monitor, hits it 50 or 60 yards on the fly. Says he likes putting best " 'cause they go in."

Kyle Lograsso is an affirmative answer to the seldom-asked question: Can you become golf-obsessed before leaving diapers? You can, it turns out, if your father is a Marine visiting Korea while stationed in Japan and your television delivers the Golf Channel.

"We have no idea why, but for hours he watched nothing else, just glued to golf," says Jeff Lograsso, a staff sergeant who'd never played the game. In front of the TV, transfixed, the boy made phantom swings in copy of what he'd seen on the screen, mostly Tiger Woods winning.

For Kyle's second birthday, celebrated in Japan, his parents bought him a driver, 7-iron and putter. Now he has PlayStation 2 starring Tiger Woods, and from the far side of the room comes Kyle's sudden narration, "HOLE-IN-ONE!" A minute later, with a fist pump: "DOUBLE EAGLE!" His bedroom is a shrine of Tiger photographs, Tiger books, Tiger games and Tiger club covers.

The great room is a rolling minefield of golf balls negotiated by visitors only at their orthopedic peril. A new bag of tiny clubs stands ready for those emergencies when Kyle must, just must, go hit some balls. Outside the condo door, there's a driving range, sort of.

"We might have 150 balls over there, and we can't go get them," says his father, meaning the yard behind a neighbor's fence in Perkasie, Pa. Once Kyle outgrew that space, the father asked him, "Hey, buddy, you want to go to a golf course?" Hey, Dad, does a bear chip in the woods?

Which Kyle did not say, because he's just a kid. But he will say it when he's grown up, because on that day in the spring of '06, Jeff and Kyle Lograsso went to a golf course together for the first time in what they hope will be a forever trip.

"We played for three hours," the father says. "Kyle was in heaven." A golf neophyte at 32, Jeff Lograsso is an athlete who saw in his boy the inexplicable glimmerings of a prodigy: grace, hand-eye coordination, enthusiasm. So he called around. He tried maybe 10 courses before finding one whose junior-program instructor would look at a 3-year-old.

At Lederach Golf Club in Harleysville, Pa., director of instruction Bob Huber promised the father, "I'll tell you if you're wasting your time."

Kyle teed it up. Though right-handed, he plays lefty, and no one is sure why, save for guessing that it keeps his good eye over the ball throughout the swing.

First shot, a driver, 35 yards, dead straight. The instructor said, "Kyle, can you do that again?"

Not only again, 30 times.

"Y'know what?" Huber told the Marine. "It's hard to believe a 3-year-old can do this. But a 3-year-old with one eye?"

Regina Lograsso, Kyle's mother, had seen something in his left eye. What, she didn't know. A glare. There was also something about the way he moved through the house. Soon, there appeared in the glare, at the center, a little white dot. It seemed to grow over time.

One day, from behind him, the mother moved her cupped fingers in front of Kyle's eye. She almost touched his eyelashes. When he showed no reaction, she felt a chill of fear.

Because it was also time for his 2-year-old checkup, she took her son to a base doctor who ordered him to Hawaii for examination by a pediatric ophthalmologist.

There the diagnosis was bilateral retinoblastoma. That's cancer in both eyes. There are fewer than 100 cases among children in the U.S. annually. Untreated, the cancer that starts in the retina moves from the eye along the optic nerve into the brain, where it is fatal.

From Hawaii, the Lograssos were sent to Philadelphia. On July 2, 2004, they met Dr. Carol Shields, a surgeon in the ocular-oncology service of Wills Eye Institute. "That was the scariest day of all," Regina Lograsso says, "because Dr. Shields told us that without immediate surgery, Kyle would have three months to live."

Dr. Shields says, "Kyle's right eye had four small tumors that could be treated with chemotherapy. The left eye was filled with a massive tumor."

The Lograsso Family

Three months to live?

"Four, maybe," the surgeon says.

On July 8, Dr. Shields removed the left eye and a long section of the optic nerve. The boy recovered in an intensive-care unit, a patch over the left-eye wound. He took chemotherapy for the right-eye tumors.

There's no explaining all this. Why does a toddler watch golf in Korea? Why, when a mother has no way to know a clock is ticking, does she put her hand in front of her son's eye? Love moves a family to cross an ocean and continent to find the right doctor, but ask this: Who knows why they arrived a life-saving week sooner rather than a week later?"

"God at work," Regina Lograsso says.

She mentions a day two months after the surgery when Kyle felt sick. Driving to a doctor, she turned to look at Kyle--why look just then?--and for the first time saw him gasping for air. Stopping at the next driveway, she asked the homeowner to call 911.

"He was limp and felt like a hot rock," the mother says. At the hospital, Kyle's temperature was 105, his blood pressure 21 over 13. His blood had become infected through an incision made for chemotherapy tubes.

Four days in ICU this time, and then Kyle, brightening, had an idea. "Dad," he said, "can we play 'Hot Shots'?" Jeff had brought a PlayStation to the hospital. So, with the boy hooked up to his tree of intravenous antibiotic-dripping bags, the Lograssos played video golf.

Two weeks in all, for a second time near death and kept alive a second time, and his mother says, "Miracles."

Chemotherapy regressed the right-eye tumors. Subsequent testings have shown no cancer in his body. While Kyle will be tested the rest of his life, the survival rate of retinoblastoma patients is more than 95 percent.

Father and son now get to a golf course three and four times a week. On May 21, 2006, Kyle's chip shot from a green's edge rolled out of his sight. Then he heard his mother shouting, "Kyle! Kyle!" A mother's voice at full volume is usually bad news for a 3-year-old, so Kyle scrunched his shoulders. "No, no, Kyle," his father said, "you didn't do anything wrong. It went in. A birdie."

The first of his life.

"Here, Mom, this is for you," he said. He gave Regina the ball.

The father stood there.

"Don't worry, Dad, I'll make one for you, too." That, he did. By summer's end, the birdie-ball rack in his bedroom had six spaces filled.

Today's prosthetic eyes most often are convex plastic shells, similar to contact lenses, painted to match the patient's good eye.

Sometimes Kyle walks through his house saying, "Mom, Mom, there's something wrong with my eye," and the mother will see that her son once again has pressed the prosthesis to his cheekbone, where its appearance suggests that his eye has changed locations.

The effect is memorable, especially when Kyle arranges it to coincide with visits by his sisters' girlfriends, most of whom have never seen an eye down there. Nor have they seen the orbital implant that is revealed in an eye socket when its prosthetic cover goes missing.

Kristen and Kaley Lograsso (ages 13 and 10) are two of those beautiful little girls lucky to have a sweet brother like Kyle. Their lucky moments included the morning when Kristen popped a handful of Honey Nut Cheerios into her mouth. Having a sweet brother like Kyle made it possible for Kristen to say words few sisters have ever said.

She said, "Eee-yew, Mom, I ate Kyle's eye!" Kyle had dropped his prosthesis into the Cheerios in hopes it would surface for his big sister at just the right icky moment.

For that, if for little else in all this, Regina Lograsso has an explanation.

She says, "He's a boy."