Local tennis icon Jaime Kaplan now fighting new foe: leukemia

As a world-class athlete, Jaime Kaplan has had her share of injuries over the years.

Her first knee surgery came when she was a junior in high school, and she rehabbed quickly enough to contribute to a Stratford Academy team that won the 1978 GISA state basketball title.

Since then and through her career as a professional tennis player who once reached the round of 16 in mixed doubles at Wimbledon, she has had seven subsequent knee surgeries, as well as surgeries for her shoulder and thyroid.

So when she started to feel pain in her sciatic nerve after playing in a tennis tournament last November, at first it just seemed like the normal aches and pains any athlete goes through.

But as it persisted through December, Kaplan began to worry something was wrong. An MRI revealed she had a fractured sacrum, a bone located at the base of the spine and upper pelvic cavity. Further tests showed a mass in the area.

“I didn’t feel it was right,” said Kaplan, who serves as tennis coach at Stratford. “I’d never broken a bone in my life, and my bone density was fine.”

She saw a specialist at Emory University Hospital who ordered a new round of tests and scans, as well as a new biopsy, a dangerous test in that part of the body.

Kaplan said she grew concerned when that doctor told her he was bringing hemopathologists into the case.

Finally, April 23, Kaplan’s worst fears were confirmed — she was diagnosed with extramedullary myeloid leukemia. Cheryl Jones, a local oncologist whose daughter plays for Kaplan at Stratford, said the leukemia presented atypically.

“The way it presented was rare,” Jones said. “Typically, (leukemia) begins in the bone marrow.”

Kaplan, arguably one of the most famous athletes Macon has ever produced, said support poured in immediately as word got out. A Facebook group started by a friend called “Prayers for Jaime Kaplan” picked up nearly 1,700 members in a week. Kaplan is also keeping a journal of the experience that is published online.

“If I had kept this private, I wouldn’t have as many people praying for me as I do,” said Kaplan. “I feel like I belong to Macon. (The people) have been so supportive of me in my charity endeavors and my career. ... I’ve gotten so many e-mails. I can’t believe all the messages I’ve been getting.”

Kaplan is a familiar face around town, be it as part of the authority board for the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame (into which she was a 2005 inductee), her participation in Kevin Brown’s Five-Star Mazda Celebrity Golf tournament to raise money for the Macon Rescue Mission or as president of the Middle Georgia Tennis Foundation.

“If anyone is going to beat this, it’s her,” said Allison Walthall, a senior member of the Stratford girls tennis team. “She’s got the biggest heart and most positive attitude of anybody. She’s so encouraging to us. It’s our turn to return the favor. She’s done so much for Macon — it’s time for us to do something for her.”

When Jones met with Kaplan to discuss treatment options, she offered Kaplan the choice to begin treatment immediately or delay it a few days so that Kaplan could coach Stratford’s tennis teams in the state championship last week. Both of them chuckled at the choice, because for Kaplan, it was no choice at all. Both the boys and girls teams successfully defended their state crowns.

“There was no doubt in my mind that I was going to be with my teams,” she said. “They could’ve (won the titles) without me, but I couldn’t have done this without them.”

It turned out to be an emotional week for the players, parents and Kaplan, as the school passed out blue ribbons with white polka dots that read “We love Coach Jaime.”

Before the finals, Kaplan held a team meeting, asking the players not to put extra pressure on themselves to try to win the tourney for her.

Kaplan knew well what the teams were going through. As a senior, she tried to win the Junior Qualifying tournament for her personal coach and mentor, John Drew Smith, who had just died from a heart attack. But she put so much pressure on herself that she lost in the finals.

“My No. 1 fear was that they would put so much pressure on themselves to win it for me,” she said. “I knew how much I wanted to win it for (Smith) and I knew how much they wanted to win it for me.”

Instead, she told the team to follow a mantra she has taught her players for years — “You are responsible for your effort, not the outcome.” It’s a mantra that she’s applying to her upcoming treatment at Emory.

“I told them if they gave 100 percent effort, I’d be proud of them,” she said.

“We really wanted to win state for her,” Walthall said. “She’s a phenomenal coach. ... (Winning the title) was definitely extra special this year, not only for defending our title, but doing it for her.”

One thing about this particular form of leukemia is that the odds should stack in Kaplan’s favor — about 75 percent of people afflicted go into remission after the first round of chemotherapy, Kaplan said.

Jones is encouraged because Kaplan, at 48, is in remarkably healthy shape besides her illness, thanks to an active lifestyle that includes tennis, golf and gym exercise, as well as a healthy diet.

“I think Jaime is fortunate because she has no other medical problems and she takes such excellent care for herself,” Jones said. “That will work in her favor, as well as her upbeat attitude. ... (Being fit) plays a large part in a patient’s treatment and recovery, because they can take the full dose of the treatment and avoid some of the side effects.”

Grady Smith, Stratford’s athletics director who coached Kaplan as a basketball player, said if anyone is going to beat leukemia, it’s her.

“She’s a fighter,” he said. “She’s in good shape. She’ll battle. ... She’ll do whatever it takes. It’s a day-to-day process. I’ve seen her when someone else needed help, and she drops whatever she’s doing and helps them.”

Kaplan said she’s already gotten a lot of support.

“I have so many friends here and around the world,” she said. “I feel like I’ve touched a lot of lives, and they’ve all touched mine. ... The way this developed is very rare. It’s very important to get it out there for people to listen to their bodies.”

To contact Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.