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In Good Conscience

Life's fleeting but touching tales show fighting death is no game

Don't we all sometimes long for the greater good in sport to trounce the constant diet of news stories suggesting that it is riddled with greed?

Two images that go some way down that path of goodness involve football and a terminally ill, five-year-old boy in England, and an American golfer whose entire career has been dependent on another person's heart.

The boy, Bradley Lowery, is best friends with Sunderland striker Jermain Defoe. In fact, more than friends.

There is a beautiful, eerie, frightening photograph of young Bradley in a hospital bed. He is asleep in the arms of the player.

The child has catheters wired to his chest. He has fallen asleep, and Defoe, his idol, is not about to walk away and leave him to wake up and find him gone.

Bradley's mother Gemma posted the snapshot on Twitter two weeks ago. The family is locked into a battle against the boy's terminal cancer, and football is helping to find funds for experimental treatment pioneered in the United States.

Sunderland's Jermain Defoe carrying out cancer-stricken fan Bradley Lowery before the match at Goodison Park. Everton and fans of all colours have contributed funds towards experimental treatment pioneered in the US which may cure or kill the five-ye
Sunderland’s Jermain Defoe carrying out cancer-stricken fan Bradley Lowery before the match at Goodison Park. Everton and fans of all colours have contributed funds towards experimental treatment pioneered in the US which may cure or kill the five-year-old. Erik Compton, the 2014 US Open joint runner-up, meanwhile, still plays golf despite having undergone two heart transplants. PHOTO: REUTERS

Cancer has no colours, indeed. Football, for all its often maligned image, can at least give compassion.

Last weekend, the kid led out Sunderland at Everton. Once more in the arms of Defoe, he waved to the crowd because Evertonians (and others such as Manchester City fans) have opened their hearts, minds and wallets to him.

Everton in September donated £200,000 (S$347,000) towards bradleylowerysfight.org.uk, a fund targeting £700,000 for the American treatment.

The story remains harrowing because the consultant treating Bradley told his parents that the extreme, painful treatment might at best only prolong his life for a short time.

Parents will cling to tiny hope. And footballers, fans and clubs understand because, as a City banner says, "Cancer has no colours."

Bradley isn't aware how short his time might be. His parents prefer him to enjoy childhood innocence while he can.

One date ringed on his calendar is March 26, when the Football Association invites him to be England's mascot for the World Cup qualifying game against Lithuania at Wembley.

Another is May 17, his next birthday. Bradley should be six then, if the American combination of antibody and chemotherapy arrests his condition, neuroblastoma.

He lives to dream. His parents live from day to day.

The American golfer, Erik Compton, has benefited from medical science, and human giving, over far longer.

"Today marks my 25th year living with a transplant," he wrote last Sunday. "Twenty-five years gifted me by the generosity of others. Blessed#DonateLife."

In fact, he is the beneficiary of two heart transplants. The first was when he was 12, and then a replacement 16 years later in 2008.

Compton took up golf when he was warned off contact sports after he was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy - inflammation of the heart causing lack of blood flow.

He was a pro golfer well before his second transplant. And he has met Lillian and Jeff Klosterman, whose son Isaac - the heart donor - died in a motorcycle crash in Florida in 2008.

Compton, now 37, has played 161 PGA Tour events, tying for second in the 2014 US Open. His prize money totals US$4.5 million (S$6.4 million), he has a young daughter, and visits sick children in hospitals wherever the game takes him.

"It's an unbelievable story," says Tiger Woods. "The attitude that it takes to go through something like that. There are very few people who have had organ transplants and who have survived and had great lives, They understand it, I don't think the rest of us possibly can."

The former world No. 1 and 14-time Major winner's perspective is valued, as he fights his own demons and attempts to recapture his game following back surgeries.

What Compton knows, and young Bradley is shielded from, is just how blessed most of us are to enjoy sport.

There are a very few people who are sick in another way, those who reportedly trolled the Lowery family a few days ago.

Those mindless people fail to appreciate that, whatever public donations are given to Bradley, it cannot begin to assuage what the family go through.

Gemma Lowery talked recently of having faith restored in humanity because football folk embraced her son. The fund now pays for the drugs attempting to keep the boy alive in County Durham, north-east England.

"If we don't use the money in the account," she said, "we will use the fund to help others."

The disease is relentless. Three years ago, the cancer appeared to be beaten. But it came back, and a new tumour showed up on his spine two weeks ago.

The consultant said there were three options: Take him home and stop all treatment, or take a palliative-care option with oral chemotherapy, or attempt the American trial of mixing an antibody with chemo.

To spare Bradley being taken to the US, the consultant said he would administer the combination provided the family pays for the drugs. That is the option now being taken, in full knowledge that the Newcastle specialist fears none of the three treatments will prevent Bradley's death.

The unknown factor, he warned, is that the course they are taking could itself kill the child.

Cancer has no colours, indeed. Football, for all its often maligned image, can at least give compassion.

"He said to me get in the bed," Defoe said of the day he lay with Bradley in hospital last month. "All he wanted was to have a cuddle. He fell asleep."

Defoe, still among the Premier League top strikers despite Sunderland's wretched form, is now 34. He added: "Bradley's in my prayers every night. I've been there with my dad, and people older than me, but this is a little kid..."

Defoe stopped there. His Dominican father Jimmy died of cancer in 2012. His half-brother Jade died of head injuries after an assault in London in 2009.

Football, golf, all sport are games. And life itself can be fleeting.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 04, 2017, with the headline 'Life's fleeting but touching tales show fighting death is no game'. Print Edition | Subscribe