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Local coach fights rare blood disorder

| Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2010

Bill Morton couldn't wait to call home.

It was April 1969, and the day of his dreams had arrived.

He called a friend in the family's Wilkinsburg neighborhood and asked if he could speak to his mother, Mary, who didn't own a telephone.

When she heard Bill was calling from Tampa, Fla., Mary rushed next door and heard the words roll joyously off her son's lips:

"Mum, they are going to move me up."

After a successful year in the minor leagues, Morton said Cincinnati Reds manager Sparky Anderson was promoting him to the majors, where he would get the chance to back up the great Johnny Bench.

Not one year after graduating from Wilkinsburg High School, Morton thought he was embarking on a long baseball career. From that moment, however, Morton's life took strange twists, including two brushes with death as an infantryman in the jungles of Vietnam.

Today, the man who has become the successful and respected Woodland Hills defensive coordinator -- who called plays from his hospital bed last year when the Wolverines won the WPIAL Class AAAA championship -- is fighting for his life against a rare disease called POEMS Syndrome.

Chances of contracting this rare disease are one in 1 million, according to Dr. Dhaval Mehta, a hematology and oncology fellow at UPMC and the Veterans Administration Hospital. Mehta works with Dr. David Roodman, a renowned expert in multiple myeloma who diagnosed Morton's condition. Still, it threatens to knock the 267-pound Morton off his feet like no baserunner ever could do.

"Everybody says you look healthy," said Morton, 61, "but I am dying inside."

Army sets up a detour

Morton's first taste of bad luck emerged seconds after he told his mother the good news.

There was a letter with Bill's name on it sitting on the table in the living room. The sender was the U.S. government.

"Read it, mum," he said.

On official stationery, the letter told Morton he had been drafted into the Army.

Thus began Morton's 17-month hitch in Vietnam, where he believes -- like many veterans -- that he contracted a disease through Agent Orange, a defoliant used by the military to clear jungles and expose enemy tunnels, weapons and mines.

Dr. Mehta, however, said there is no conclusive proof that Agent Orange is to blame.

"There is no evidence (to that effect) in medical literature," Dr. Mehta said.

In any case, Morton will travel to San Antonio later this year for a bone marrow transplant. But he plans to coach as long as he can.

Sudden enlistment

Mary Morton received the letter two weeks before her son called, but she did not open it.

Bill called on a Thursday, and his orders were to report to the Federal Building in Pittsburgh on Friday. His father, James, was an ex-Marine, so Morton knew nothing more than to immediately hop on an airplane for home, get in his car and drive Downtown, leaving his baseball career in the dust.

If he was upset, it didn't show. He just knew he didn't want to be late for the Army.

"I would have been AWOL," he said

Parking his car, Bill didn't know what to expect, but he put enough change in the meter for two hours.

Soon, he was taking the enlistment oath and getting shipped to the Greater Pittsburgh Airport for a flight to an Army base at Fort Jackson, S.C.

"I wasn't allowed to call home for two weeks," he said.

Meanwhile, his car was towed. Mary wondered what happened.

Lucky soldier

Six months later, he was in Vietnam, where he quickly rose from private to sergeant, earning the Bronze Star, an Army Commendation medal and an Air Medal for flying missions over combat zones.

He was the second Morton brother fighting in the war; an older brother, Jim, was in the Navy, stationed aboard the USS Ranger in the Pacific Ocean. When the government found out that it was breaking regulations by having two brothers in a war zone, Jim was sent home.

Bill was lucky in another way.

Once, he was one of two soldiers in his platoon who escaped without a scratch after getting caught in crossfire.

Another time, a buddy stepped on a booby trap that hit Morton in the back but didn't go off.

"My C.O. said, 'Your luck is running out. You have to get out of here.' "

So he spent his final seven months as a bodyguard, aide and driver for a two-star general.

Back home

His duty complete, Morton returned home and tried baseball for another 1 1/2 years before the Reds released him.

He said he is not bitter about the missed opportunity.

"I was always taught there is a destiny for you, and (baseball) wasn't it," he said. "We've had a Morton in almost every war. World War I, World War II. Actually, you can go all the way back to the Civil War. My brother's kids were in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"My dad was an ex-Marine, and you know how they are. When I got drafted into the Army, he said: 'You are supposed to go. It's your job.'

"And I agreed with him."

Fighting POEMS

POEMS is rare blood disorder without a known cause. The name is an acronym for the disease's main symptoms:

P -- Polyneuropathy (nervous system)

O -- Organomegaly (organ enlargement)

E -- Endocrinopathy (hormone-producing glands)

M -- Monoclonal gammopathy (a collection of abnormal blood protein cells)

S -- Skin (changes in pigmentation).

Dr. Mehta said it is a difficult disease to diagnose, and it was not totally identified by the medical community until 1980.

"Sometimes, it takes two to three years to diagnose because symptoms don't come together," Dr. Mehta said. "It is like a slow poison."

The disorder causes enlargement of the spleen, liver and other organs; blood clots; sudden weight gain; weakness in his legs; fatigue; shortness of breath; and an overabundance of red blood cells, among other side effects.

"There are 24 (symptoms), and I have 18," said Morton, noting he sometimes experiences a sudden water-weight gain of as much as 30 pounds. "I am losing my short-fiber muscles, and that is what is slowly beating me down."

Morton said doctors have told him he could live at least three to five years without treatment. With newer advances, treated patients often can live a normal life for much longer than that, Dr. Mehta said.

Morton, who can stand for only a few hours at a time, continues to coach the Woodland Hills defense while taking chemotherapy pills and undergoing radiation treatments. He won't stop until his body deteriorates to the point where he can wait no longer for the transplant.

"I am just going to go until I think I can't do it anymore," he said.

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