Caregiving: Sabres show how it's done

By ALEX CUKAN, UPI Health Correspondent  |  March 14, 2006 at 1:35 PM
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ALBANY, N.Y., March 14 (UPI) -- (Part 1 of 3) One day after Lindy Ruff, the coach of the NHL's Buffalo Sabres, revealed his 11-year-old daughter Madeleine has an unidentified mass on her brain, the team said it is rallying behind the family.

After missing a news conference and a practice for what were described as "family matters," Ruff said Saturday that the mass discovered was the size of a quarter and she will undergo tests at Roswell Park Cancer Institute this week.

Ruff said that his daughter had complained of headaches for weeks but recently they had become more severe.

"She's very positive about the whole thing," Ruff told the Buffalo News. "It's incredible. Every child you have is different. They deal with things differently. She's a special child."

Ruff and his wife, Gaye, have four children: 16-year-old Brett, 14-year-old Eryn and twins Madeleine and Brian.

"It's something a lot of people have dealt with," Ruff said. "Really, all we ask is that you say a prayer."

Ruff said he could miss some practices and perhaps some games as doctors diagnose and treat the problem, but as most caregivers do, he is playing it by ear.

Media reports say that the team, the organization and the fans have rallied around the Ruff family.

That's what a caregiver wants. Unlike the recent Buffalo, N.Y., radio caller who commented he had begun to "disengage" from the NFL's Buffalo Bills just as he has done with people with cancer.

All too often friends, family and co-workers will drop someone from their life if illness, but especially life-threatening illness, enters the picture. While everyone fears cancer -- perhaps the treatment more than the disease -- this does not help the patient or the family, and that's who should be the priority.

Announcers at Saturday's game sent well-wishes to Ruff during the game in Philadelphia, and at Sunday's game in Buffalo a sign hung from the balcony that said "God Bless Madeleine."

Ruff said he was thankful for the support, but Sabres spokesman Mike Gilbert says Ruff is hoping to keep his family life and his hockey career separate.

"He'd rather keep those issues at home with his family," said Gilbert. "If we keep winning and keep playing well, I'm sure that will make it a little easier on him, and if he can spend as much time with his family as possible during this."

Sabres managing partner Larry Quinn is a detail-oriented and thoughtful manager, and I have no doubt he will not only smooth things for Ruff but give him whatever time off he needs. If only all caregivers' bosses could be this way.

I grew up in Buffalo, and at age 13 my father was diagnosed with bladder cancer, and his chances were not good. It was during this time I discovered hockey and found it an excellent diversion during a bleak time.

Our television had broken and there was no money to replace it, but I listened to every game, pre-game show and post-game show on a transistor radio. I read every library book on hockey. A friend got me old game programs and I memorized them.

For me, the Sabres were a place where everything was normal.

Gilbert Perreault, Rick Martin and Rene Robert formed the team's top scoring line, dubbed the French Connection after the movie, and besides being young and funny, they appeared exotic.

While these players were men about town, the Sabres I covered as a reporter in the 1990s were a bit different.

They too were young, but the professional hockey players in Buffalo are family men who only dress a bit more causally than the bankers, lawyers and teachers that are their neighbors in Buffalo's suburbs.

During the 1980s and early 1990s, I had moved away from Buffalo and worked 80-hour weeks, and if the Sabres played games, I didn't know about them, but in the mid-90s I covered the Sabres as a reporter. I fit the practices, the news conferences and the games around my other job and caregiving for my father, who was recovering from a heart attack. Again, it was an excellent diversion.

I got to know Ruff, Quinn and general manager Darcy Regier and they're all classy people who are passionate about winning but also passionate about family and the community.

Some describe the Sabres as family -- sometimes a dysfunctional one -- but Ruff has gone the extra mile to include the team members' families, recognizing the team spends a lot of time out of town. He encourages the players' children to interact with the team and encourages the players fathers to accompany the players on road trips.

As a player and a coach, Ruff has developed a reputation for always stepping up when needed, but now people around him have the opportunity to step up for him and his family. Having had his example, I'm sure they will.


Alex Cukan is an award-winning journalist, but she always has considered caregiving her primary job. UPI welcomes comments and questions about this column. E-mail:

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