She would not cry. She held back the tears as tightly as she once held her first basketball, cradling it all day, sleeping with it all night. Never mind this scary hospital, these sterile walls, these lousy blood tests; never mind what the doctor was telling her now, that she could die if she didn’t have a bone-marrow transplant. She could die? But she was only 18! Never mind. Nekita Burnett, a college player the size of an eighth-grader, was used to laughing, clowning, cracking people up; she never was very good with the sad stuff. Besides, her mother was beside her, shocked by the doctor’s words, and Nekita knew if she got misty then her mom would just lose it, start sobbing all over, and Nekita didn’t want that. She just wanted out.
“Don’t you cry,” she told herself, fighting every impulse, “Don’t you cry.
. . .”
This is the story of a kid they call “Small World,” and if you met her, you would know why. She is compact and muscular and so full of talent, even her shadow has skills. She has survived the hardest stones the city has to throw: poverty, robbery, gangs, guns. One night she lay on the floor of a fast- food joint as a gunman threatened to shoot all the workers. The next night she was back, because this was her job, $4.40 an hour, and she couldn’t quit, she needed the money. Besides, that was not her first holdup. A few months earlier, she had to hide behind the french fry machine as a gunman stole the cash through a drive-up window.
In her short life, Nekita Burnett has had every urban excuse for giving up: no father, no money, no status, no security. She has fought off those poisons with sports, art, good grades and college admission.
And now she could die — from a long-shot disease that’s not supposed to strike young people, one that really makes you wonder how cruel fate can get.
Someone has to help this kid. It is just that simple. We cannot lose her.
Here is why.
“The building I have in mind is a homeless shelter,” she says, sketching an invisible design on the desk in front of her. We are sitting in the student lounge of Wayne State, where Nekita takes freshman classes — in between her job at Rally’s hamburgers, and watching her younger sisters, and practicing with the Tartars basketball team that she walked on to two months ago. Basketball is her passion — she has been playing since she was 9 years old, mostly with the boys, which explains her take-no-prisoners approach despite her 5-foot-1 frame — but her long-range goal is to be an architect.
A builder of cities.
She has wanted this since junior high, when she built a scale model of the Ambassador Bridge — out of toothpicks! A few years later, she met an architect on career day and she visited his office for a school report. There she saw a scale model of a proposed downtown Detroit. It looked so orderly, so breathtaking, so possible. “All the little buildings, the trees, the cars,” she recalls, excitedly. This was what she wanted to do.
“In this homeless shelter, I’m envisioning murals on the walls, and a library, and comfortable beds.” She lowers her eyes and smiles. She has one of those 500-watt smiles, the kind that automatically make you smile back.
“And I was thinking . . . um, the building could be the shape of an ‘N.’ Like Nekita? You know, two towers, connected by a diagonal stairway?”
She waves her hand. Laughs again. “I have to work out the details.”
Small world, big dreams. Overcoming obstacles
A few days later, we meet in the place where she lives. And you see why she dreams. Home is a decaying, upper-level flat off Washburn Street on the northwest side, with chipping paint, bars on the windows and a tilted porch that seems one strong breeze from collapsing. Music blares from the tenants on
the lower level, too loud for this winter morning. Upstairs, Nekita sits with her mother, Carolyn, and younger sister Toi in a tidy front room with a Christmas tree in the corner. On a table are some family photos, and behind a couch is Nekita’s artwork — first-rate drawings of friends, teachers, even a self- portrait.
Still, of all the things that Nekita has done, her mother seems most proud of the fact that her eldest daughter is 18 and hasn’t gotten pregnant.
“I keep reminding her of the three B’s,” Carolyn says. “Boys bring babies.”
Boys bring babies. Carolyn learned that the hard way. She was pregnant with Nekita when she was 15. One day, walking home, some men started chasing her. She was wearing a leather coat. They wanted it. Carolyn ran. She ran down Charlevoix and onto Fairview, breathing hard, looking over her shoulder, they were still coming, so she darted across the street and wham! She was hit by a car, went flying and landed in a world of unconsciousness.
“I blacked out,” she says. “I don’t remember what happened next.”
But it still haunts her. To this day, she suffers epileptic seizures that keep her from steady work. Because of this, she lives from week-to-week on welfare checks while fighting the paperwork for disability payments.
Carolyn was one of 11 children. Her three girls all have different fathers, and Nekita’s father “doesn’t bother with us.” But Carolyn loves her daughters fiercely, so when Nekita began playing basketball with the local guys, her mother was skeptical.
“Are they looking at you funny?”
“What do you mean funny?” Nekita asked.
“You know, like they want something else?”
“Naw, we’re just playing basketball.”
“Well just make sure that’s all you do. Remember. Boys bring babies.”
Boys bring babies. Nekita already knew that. Besides, she already had been taught another version of the three B’s: “Books before basketball.” This she was told by teachers in Noble Middle School and later at Mackenzie High, where she captained the team her senior year. She was a top point guard with a good long-range shot and a feel for the game born from countless afternoons on the asphalt court behind school, where in the winter Nekita would borrow a shovel to clear the snow, then keep on playing.
“With most high school girls, you just want to get the physical stuff down, let the mental part come in college,” says Jan Chapman-Sanders, one of Nekita’s coaches at Mackenzie. “But she knew the game already. She was a ball handler, a playmaker, and she could pass on a dime.”
Unfortunately, as a senior, her team was mostly underclassmen. Nekita spent more time as a role model than as a star. She did not get recruited by major universities, and one potential scholarship, at Hampton Institute, fell apart when the coach there left.
So Nekita stayed home, went to Wayne State, prepared to focus on academics and get on with becoming the master builder she hoped to be. When she made the Wayne State team as a walk- on, it was just another plus. After all, unlike many black inner-city youths, she had passed her 18th birthday with no wounds, no children, a high school diploma and a possible ticket out. Things looked good.
And then the blood tests came back. An unlikely victim
She had known there was a problem a few years earlier. A routine physical revealed a troubling blood count. She was iron-deficient. For a while she took pills, and when these didn’t help she was tested again. Her bone marrow wasn’t right. The marrow, where the blood cells are formed, is the core of our human machinery — just as kids like Nekita are the core of our city’s future.
When one is infected, so is the other.
In Nekita’s case, the disease is called Myelodysplastic Syndrome, sometimes known as “pre-leukemia.” It is very similar to the disease that killed radio star J.P. McCarthy this past summer. Only in McCarthy’s case, the candidate fit the profile.
“This is a disease for 50- or 60-year-olds,” says Dr. Steve Abella, who has seen Nekita at the Karmanos Cancer Institute at Children’s and Harper Hospitals. “It’s very rare to find it in someone Nekita’s age. . . .
“Do we know what causes it? No. We wish we did. But most patients require a bone-marrow transplant between five and seven years of diagnosis. And Nekita, technically, was diagnosed two or three years ago. First she must find a donor.”
And if she finds one?
“There is a 70 percent chance of long-term survival.”
And if she doesn’t
“It is most likely fatal.”
Small world. Big trouble. The search is on
Back in the student lounge, Nekita sits alone, with her baseball cap and her non-stop smile. To the outside observer, she is every inch the happy college student. She says she asked herself “Why me?” about a million times since that day in the doctor’s office. She says she worries now that her basketball teammates might treat her differently when they know what she has.
“Maybe it’s a test of my faith. Everything happens for a reason . . . at least right now it hasn’t affected me. I can still play the same, still make the same moves, still do everything I always did.”
When they told Nekita what a transplant would involve, she replied, in typical fashion, “I can’t put my life on hold for that!” Sadly, she doesn’t have a choice. Without new bone marrow, her system will be unable to ward off infections. Small colds might not go away. Bruises might not heal. In the end, if left unchecked, leukemia could move in and take over the body.
And so the search is on for a donor. Nekita’s name is in a computer, which reaches potential donors all over the world. To succeed, their white cells must match. In Nekita’s favor is her age, her good health and that 1,800,000 potential donors are in the system already.
Going against her: the acute shortage of minority donors, including African-Americans, like herself. The average wait for a bone-marrow transplant for blacks is between one and two years.
“It (her disease) is so rare,” Abella says. “This is the first case I’ve seen all year in someone 18 or under.”
And, meanwhile, the most precious currency of this city, a poor kid who survived without hate, without despair, with dreams of building a better life for people after her, must wait and take blood tests and hope a donor can be found to give her a future.
“How has this changed you?”
She pauses. She bites her lip. “Well, I’ve been thinking about how I can achieve my goals faster.”
She goes to college. She takes a bus to her fast-food night job. She works an hour and a half just to pay cab fare home, so she doesn’t have to worry about getting shot at 2 a.m. And she dreams of building homeless shelters.
She is one of a thousand stories in this town that goes unnoticed in the finger-pointing over welfare and urban renewal, and whose responsibility is it anyway?
Nekita Burnett doesn’t want to be anyone’s responsibility. It’s too late. She already is. When she learned her fate, she held back the tears. She didn’t cry. She went home, made sure her mother was OK, then slipped into her room, shut the door, sat on the bed and, finally, wept.
We have too many kids weeping in this city already. Too many we can’t help. Small world. Big problem.
Can’t we do something?
To inquire about becoming a donor, call the national marrow donor program at 1-800-MARROW-2, or 313-494-2748 locally.