Sister’s death prompts USC coach’s crusade against cancer

USC Athletics
0 Comments

He remembers the day he got that call like it was yesterday.

Eight years may as well be eight minutes when recalling the worst news you’ve ever received, and for Martin Bahar, he knows exactly when and where he was when he saw those two missed calls light up his phone. It was the spring of 2008. He was in his second year as a graduate assistant at Georgetown, hanging out at a friend’s apartment, when a random Montgomery County, Maryland, number called him twice, back to back.

“I called back and it was a hospital in Bethesda, Suburban Hospital,” Bahar said. His father had worked there at one point, but not anymore, which was a red flag. So he called his dad who broke the news: His older sister, Maddie, was being taken to the hospital because she was showing symptoms that had him worried; there is a history of cancer in the Bahar family.

Maddie was diagnosed with plasma cell leukemia, a rare cancer with a grim prognosis, even when treated with chemo radiation and a bone marrow transplant, as Maddie’s was. She was moved to University of Maryland Hospital in Baltimore, and Martin spent that summer and fall making daily drives from D.C. to Baltimore, an hour each way even when traffic isn’t a disaster.

“I would wait until the morning traffic passed, putting in early hours at Georgetown, then drive up to Baltimore to try and help out and spend time up there,” he said. That summer, he had been promoted to video coordinator for the Hoyas. “John Thompson III was amazing at the time because I was not working or doing half days.”

“Every day I was driving to Baltimore at some point.”

Life was that way for only nine months.

Maddie passed away February 9th, 2009.

“It was a tragedy,” Bahar said. “It’s just so unexpected and shocking. To have her pass in less than a year from diagnosis was devastating.”

Maddie was just 25 years old.

Maddie Bahar, courtesy Bahar family
Maddie Bahar, courtesy Bahar family

Martin Bahar is now the Director of Scouting at USC. He landed the job after stints on staff at Princeton and Fairfield. He’s married. He has a daughter of his own. He’s moved forward with his life as much as you can when you suffer a loss like that, which is not always an easy thing to do.

What he and his family refused to do, however, was to let Maddie’s memory fade.

“We thought, ‘What does Maddie stand for? She’s about other people. She’s about helping people,'” Martin said. “What made her so special was that she donated so much of her time to other people and to those in need. She worked at the Delbarton house in Georgetown. Volunteered for DC Cares. Loaves and Fishes at St. Stephen’s Church in DC. She was so selfless and so willing to help others and willing to lend an ear to others, sacrifice her time for others. She was angelic, there’s really no other way to describe her.”

Which is where the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society came into play. The mission of LLS is fairly straight forward: to find a cure for blood cancers. But the organization does more than just simply fund scientific research, they also help people battling blood cancers get access to treatments, pay for those treatments and do what they can to improve the quality of life for those patients and their families.

It was the latter part that drew the Bahars in, not only because of what LLS did for their family, but after seeing what Maddie dealt with on a daily basis towards the end of her life, this was a cause that struck near and dear to their hearts.

“It’s so hard,” he said. “You see such a grueling time.”

LLS hosts an annual fundraiser called Light The Night Walk, an event held in nearly 200 communities, from Canada to Puerto Rico, to raise money. Participants spend months raising money in teams before walking through their city’s streets, holding lanterns that “light the night”. There is an annual walk in Rockville, Maryland, just ten minutes from where the Bahars grew up. They’ve become familiar faces at the event, and in the seven years since Maddie died, the family has raised more than $160,000 for LLS.

This year’s walk in Rockville will take place on Saturday, October 8th, but Martin Bahar will not be there.

He was not there last year, either.

He lives in LA now and has started participating in their Light The Night event, which takes place October 22nd. It will be his second time walking out west. Last year, forward Chimezie Metu, whose Godfather died from pancreatic cancer, joined him, and this year, Metu and Bahar are busy recruiting other members of the team to make it out.

Photo courtesy Martin Bahar
Photo courtesy Martin Bahar

“Martin’s a really good guy,” Metu said. “We just clicked from the first time we met. I thought it would be a good idea to go out there and show some support.”

That’s been special for Bahar, but not as special as what happened the first time he sent an email to the Athletic Department asking for volunteers and donations. A member of the department whom Bahar declined to identify called him into his office. “I’m battling blood cancer right now,” Bahar recalled the man saying. “Eight years ago, they told me I had no more than five years to live.”

What changed? He had access to new treatments, ones that weren’t widely available eight years ago.

Bahar broke down crying in the man’s office. He always knew that the work he was doing was for a good cause, that the money they were raising helped people and helped fight a cruel disease, but that benefit wasn’t tangible until that moment. It totally changed his perspective on the work, the money, the cause.

“I know somebody who is a good friend and a co-worker who has benefitted directly,” he said. “Whether it was LLS or another non-profit, what I do know is that the advancements in science, our proceeds go in-part to that, have helped him live longer. So when you hear that, that only inspires you more to keep on trucking on and keep on trying to spread awareness and fundraising. It reignites what you believe in.”

“The more money we put in, the better chance of people surviving in the future, of people to be able to keep on fighting and believing. Because it’s so hard. You see such a grueling time. It’s such a grueling battle that our family is so motivated to try and help cure this thing. We have to find a way to keep the money coming in, the keep the science improving, to keep the patient care improving, to keep the medicine improving. That’s what fuels it.”

Nothing will bring Maddie back. Bahar knows that. His family knows that. But seeing just one person live a better, longer life means that Maddie’s death wasn’t meaningless.

“What it does is help Maddie continue to live even while she’s not on earth. It gives her a presence on earth,” Bahar said. “When you’re hit with tragedy, having something like this and thinking about who your sister was and what she stood for, what LLS stands for, it brings everything together.”

“It keeps the world remembering your sister and helping others the way she always would.”

To donate to the Bahar’s fundraising page, click here. To contribute to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, click here. To find a local Light The Night Walk, click here.