When Bay Shore quarterback Ryan Mazzie takes the field, his little sister, Melina, is never far from his mind.
Actually, no matter where he is, she's never far from his mind.
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A couple of Sundays ago, Ryan saw Melina flashing a bright smile as he looked across the boardwalk at Jones Beach. Her long brown hair was blowing in the breeze as she walked along with their brother, Christian. They were joined by Ryan, who threw his left arm around Melina as they continued walking for miles in the Making Strides Walk, an effort to raise funds to help find a cure for breast cancer.
If not for Ryan, this scene would not have been possible.
Mazzie is so much more than the Bay Shore junior who broke an 86-year-old school record by throwing six touchdown passes in a game. He's a Division I lefthanded pitching prospect with an 85-mph fastball and he's a straight "A'' honors student -- but he's also a hero.
"Each time I throw for a score, I look for her," Ryan said. "I look for that smile."
Stunning diagnosisWhen Melina was diagnosed with hypoplastic myelodysplastic syndrome two weeks before her 11th birthday in August 2010, Ryan stepped up and donated the bone marrow that saved her life.
Melina Mazzie was in a race against time. The disease, a form of aplastic anemia, can be deadly. If the condition had gone untreated, "she would not be here with us today," said her father, Tom Mazzie.
"Our lives were turned completely upside down," said her mother, Maria Mazzie. "It was a total nightmare. I couldn't wrap my head around what was happening at first. And then I realized this is . . . life and death."
According to Maria, a simple checkup that March turned nightmarish when the results showed Melina's platelet count was too low and the family pediatrician thought it might be leukemia. They were sent to Dr. Michael Weiner, the head of the children's oncology team at New York-Presbyterian Hospital.
After two biopsies, she was diagnosed.
"The second biopsy showed the platelets were mutating into a very resistant form of leukemia," Maria said. "So many thoughts ran through my mind that it was dizzying. I had so many questions? No answers -- just pure fear. One day my daughter is fine and healthy and running around like every kid should. And then a blood disorder threatened to take away our child."
The diagnosis hit the family hard. Subsequent blood tests revealed dysfunctional bone marrow. The Mazzies had to find a donor -- and the search began at home.
"The doctor's words just steal your breath," Maria said. "They pierce your soul. We felt alone."
Brothers step upRyan and Christian, who are twins, never flinched when they were told what had to be done. They immediately volunteered to be tested as potential donors.
"I would do anything for my sister," Christian Mazzie said. "We are all so close."
The boys were tested. The results gave them hope.
"It was like hitting the lottery," Tom Mazzie said. "Ryan was a perfect match. We found out on August 23rd, a Monday, on Melina's 11th birthday."
It was so amazing that in the days before the transplant, Melina elected to cut her long hair and donate them to Locks of Love. The twins also shaved their heads in an act of unity. Her sense of humor eased the family's anxiety and helped them to help her.
"I wanted to make someone else happy," Melina said. "I always wondered what I'd look like bald. I was going to lose it from chemotherapy anyway."
The marrow transplant was done Sept. 28 at Presbyterian. Before the procedure, Melina went through six days of chemotherapy to eradicate all of her white blood cells, destroying her immune system.
"They have to do that to start with a clean slate to introduce the new marrow," Tom said.
Ryan said five holes were drilled into his lower back, and the procedure to extract the marrow lasted three hours. It meant he would not be able to participate in school athletics in the fall season of 2010.
That was a small price to pay.
"I would've given up everything for her," Ryan said. "It was scary to think she might not be in my life anymore. She's the first one I see when I get home from school every day, and I wasn't going to lose that."
Hours after Ryan's procedure, Melina got the infusion with her family by her side. An engraftment can take up to three weeks for the marrow to make its way into the bones. With no immune system at the time to fight off any kind of infection, Melina was kept in isolation.
"It was a wait-and-see with the new marrow, which is so scary," Tom said. "We worried about rejection. Melina's body needed to accept the new marrow and the marrow had to accept the new body. The first three weeks were extremely critical."
Road to recoveriesWhile Melina spent sixth grade at home with a tutor and learned how to play the guitar off YouTube, Ryan was allowing his body to heal ("I was sore, but nothing too bad''), virtually missing his entire year of freshman football.
There was a glimmer of starlike quality when he returned for the last series of the final game of that season. His stat line: one incomplete pass, one 30-yard touchdown pass.
"The doctors were stunned at how quickly I recovered," the 6-foot, 170-pound Mazzei said. "I was inspired by Melina's courage throughout the ordeal. She was so weak at times and never wavered, never cried. She put on a brave face all the time."
Melina recently celebrated her two-year anniversary -- in what doctors call a rebirth -- with her new marrow. She is back playing volleyball, basketball and softballat Bay Shore Middle School, maintaining a 98 GPA in the accelerated program.
"I feel great," Melina said while playing catch with Christian in the family backyard. "I have a wonderful family and so many friends. I'm blessed."
"It seems like yesterday," Maria said. "It's changed the way we view things as a family. I thank God every day for Melina. And I thank God for every day for my husband and my twins, and I don't know where we'd be without our neighbors and our community."
Ryan rebounded remarkably well from the marrow donation.
He threw six touchdown passes in a 63-62 overtime loss to Sachem North. In his four starts at quarterback this season, the team is 4-0. Bay Shore playsat No. 2 seed Sachem North next weekend in the quarterfinals of the Suffolk I playoffs. Melina will be monitored for another three years, according to her mother, who added that there have been no setbacks, only positive signs and robust blood counts.
It's been a long two years, and there isn't a day that goes by that Maria Mazzie doesn't think about the terror that swept over her when the doctor found Melina's blood disorder.
"I always thought I had a perfect family," she said. "I didn't want to lose it."
And every time Ryan steps on a field -- at home, on the road, anywhere -- you can be sure of one thing. He'll be looking for that smile.