Christine O’Connell has known former Sounders FC defender Zach Scott for years.
Hailing from Hawaii, O’Connell founded the Zach Scott Fan Club the day he signed with the MLS Sounders as a nod to their shared heritage and she designed her first-ever scarf in celebration of the iconic defender.
When Scott announced his retirement from professional soccer after the 2016 season, O’Connell designed a new scarf to sell at his testimonial match on March 2, 2017. At the Scott family’s request, all proceeds went to Seattle Children’s Hospital to fund childhood cancer research, a segment of scientific innovation that goes woefully underfunded by both pharmaceutical companies and the United States government.
“To turn such a struggle, something so negative for the family, into something that is – it’s still a struggle for them – but she used it as motivation to make a difference. It’s incredible."
It was a resounding success, as O’Connell sold out of scarves before halftime, raising thousands of dollars. Her only regret is that she hadn’t made more.
Just over two weeks later, the O’Connells were given the kind of earth-shattering, heart-wrenching news that no parent should ever have to receive.
Their three-year-old daughter, Jane, was diagnosed with stage IV kidney cancer. It had already spread to her lungs, lymph nodes and spine.
“Being the parent of a child with cancer is an extremely helpless feeling,” said O’Connell. “It is your job to protect your child and you feel utterly powerless.”
The O'Connell family poses together | All photos provided by Christine O'Connell
That’s when the light bulb went on. It was an idea that helped her cope with the long days and nights in the hospital as Jane underwent 16 rounds of radiation and seven months of chemotherapy.
More importantly, it helped her take her power back.
“I knew Seattle Children’s was on the road to a better cure that just needed funding. I wondered, how can I help?” she recalled. “I remembered our success with Zach’s scarves and thought, well, that’s a start.”
She found inspiration in Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan, whose gritty, relentless approach to the game and insatiable love for pizza led to a scarf that read ‘Roldan is Hungry.’ She also made a ‘Brian Schmetzer’s Rave Green Army’ scarf and, on a whim, wrote a letter to Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei seeking his help for a design.
“I was shocked to get such a heartfelt and touching reply from him saying ‘yes’,” said O’Connell. “Stefan was so supportive of my family and our struggle. And then he gave me the gold ‘You Shall Not Pass’ design, which was the best scarf I’ve ever seen. The. Best.”
As Jane fought bravely for her life and underwent treatment, Christine worked diligently on her scarves. Through word of mouth and exposure from Sounders players like Scott, Frei and Roldan, her inventory was completely sold out within three weeks. When all was said and done that year, she raised $18,004 for immunotherapy cancer research at Seattle Children’s Hospital.
Today’s radiation and chemotherapy treatments are uncertain and debilitating endeavors. Even if children beat the cancer, there will be life-long health impacts. With advancements in immunotherapy – CAR-T cells are genetically re-engineered so that a child’s own immune system fights the cancer – O’Connell is hopeful for a future where other families don’t have to subject their children to hell just to have a chance to live.
“It’s staggering what we had to do to Jane and the risks we had to saddle her with to cure her cancer,” said O’Connell. “And we had to do it. There is no choice. Now I have this visceral need to do everything I can so that other families don’t have to walk the road that we have. That’s how I try to make sense of what Jane has gone through. What we’ve all gone through.”
This story has a happy ending: Jane is 23 months in remission.
Because her first venture into raising money for Seattle Children’s Hospital was such a resounding success, O’Connell teamed up with Frei once again the following year. This time, the Sounders goalkeeper offered to sign the scarves, helping them procure even more money for immunotherapy research. Raising over $30,000 dollars at the second go-around, O’Connell was able to help the Seattle Children’s Hospital buy vital equipment and fund treatment trials.
Beginning in mid-September 2019, she’s getting back to work once again selling scarves at scarvesfightingcancer.com in the hopes of finding a cure.
“I think it’s amazing what she’s been doing,” said Frei. “To turn such a struggle, something so negative for the family, into something that is – it’s still a struggle for them – but she used it as motivation to make a difference. It’s incredible. I love how much she believes in what she is doing.”
Another sobering reality O’Connell faced during Jane’s treatment was the critical role that blood transfusions play in treating cancer. Three days after her diagnosis, Jane underwent a six-and-a-half-hour surgery to remove one of her kidneys and the primary tumor, requiring two transfusions.
"Some stranger took time out of their day – probably on the same day she was diagnosed with cancer – rolled up their sleeve and donated blood. And it kept our baby alive.”
Witnessing that process first-hand spurred O’Connell’s next venture – organizing blood drives through Bloodworks Northwest – as some children with cancer require so many blood and platelet transfusions, their families lose count.
“On the most basic level, it is so humbling to watch the blood of a stranger go into your child,” said O’Connell. “She needed something that I could not give her and that my husband could not give her. Some stranger took time out of their day – probably on the same day she was diagnosed with cancer – rolled up their sleeve and donated blood. And it kept our baby alive.”
Her first two blood drives have seen the likes of Zach Scott and his wife, Alana. Chad Marshall, Brad and Becky Evans showed up as well. This year, O’Connell is collaborating with the Sounders on the Out for Blood with Zach Scott blood drive, a multi-pronged approach to raise awareness of the need for blood and platelet donations in the fight against childhood cancer.
It’s difficult to comprehend how someone who has gone through so much pain and suffering can remain so optimistic about the future. But if O’Connell’s experiences surrounding her daughter’s diagnosis and treatment have taught her anything, it’s that Seattle Children’s Hospital, and its charitable arm Strong Against Cancer, are on the cusp of a cure.
All they need are donations to fund their world-class research.
“We need to support Strong Against Cancer because they are changing the course of how childhood cancer is going to be treated,” she said. “We will see a more certain, less debilitating cure in our lifetime. And if we don’t, then shame on us. The science is there. The track record is there. All they lack is the funding to bring it to more patients.”