Melissa Fortener, played basketball and volleyball at Fairmont High where she was also on the student council and the The Flyer news magazine staff. CONTRIBUTED
As she recalled that moment, Pam’s voice softened: “I was not thinking that she was dying and it didn’t matter.”
She said her daughter was insistent: “’Mom, I can go to the game!’ And when her doctor came in to release her, she said, ‘Can I go to the basketball game?’
“The doctor looked at me and said, ‘She can do whatever she wants. She has enough oxygen. She’ll be OK.’”
With that, she said her daughter gave her a smiling, “See, I told you” look.
But a friend’s visit the next morning so drained Melissa that she slept the rest of the day and missed the game.
A month later – Jan. 3, 2009, two days shy of her 31st birthday – she died.
Pam and her husband Donny were devastated,
“At that point, we didn’t want to do anything,” Pam said. “But then, a week or two afterward, I said, ‘I know something we can do. We can go to a basketball game.’ Fairmont was playing at Miamisburg and I remember we sat in the very top of the bleachers.
“I remember seeing No. 44, that had been Melissa’s number when she played at Fairmont. But now Cassie Sant was No. 44 and I started to watch her.”
“They said I always reminded them of her,” recalled Sant, who would go on to be a stalwart on four NCAA Tournament teams at the University of Dayton, then play professionally in Italy and Australia.
After a few years working as a graphic designer for Premier Health and the Cleveland Clinic, she’s returned to the UD women’s program as an assistant recruiting and video coordinator.
As Melissa had dealt with cancer, she’d had to cope with some other crushing turns, including losing an unborn son – John Patrick or J.P. as they’d already nicknamed him – when she was seven months pregnant.
Through it all, she stayed the course with courage and humor and resolve.
She continued working, she played rugby with the Cincinnati Kelts, where she was known as Forts, and she wrote a blog – wwwfortscancersux.blogspot.com – under the perfect banner:
“B Positive! … it’s not just my blood type.”
After that season when Pam and Donny first focused on Sant, the Firebirds presented a new award at their end-of-the-year banquet. It was called the B Positive Spirit Award and the first winner was Sant.
Honored that she’d won, Sant said she “kind of dove into their story” to find out more and soon had a real appreciation of the family, especially Melissa:
“These are good people who were dealt a bad hand and yet they continue to smile and help and make it better for everyone around them.”
Pam and Donny have become just as impressed with Sant: “Over the years we’ve developed a relationship with her and know she was the perfect recipient for that first award.”
They followed Sant’s career at UD, often going to games until they now are season-ticket holders.
Over the years, they developed a bond with the entire program, one that has benefitted the UD players and coaches as much as it has them.
Pam has spoken to the UD teams a few times, not just about Melissa, but on how the players can educate themselves on breast cancer.
She also has a special connection with coach Shauna Green to whom she sends a text message before and after each game. There also was a comforting relationship with JaVonna Layfield, one of the stars of the team four years ago, after the sudden death of UD center Steve McElvene, Layfield’s close friend.
Former UD Flyers women;s player, JaVonna Layfield (left) and Pam Fortener struck a special bond. Pam speaks to the Flyers women's team every few years about her daughter and the importance of early detection with breast cancer. Pam and her husband Donny are also big fans of the UD women's team. Pam reached out to Layfield after the sudden death of UD men's player Steve McElvene, who was Layfield's good friend. CONTRIBUTED
Today the embrace between the Flyers and the Forteners will tighten even more when Pam and Donny will be special guests of the 11-1 team as it faces VCU in a Play4Kay breast cancer awareness game that will be televised on ESPNU at noon from UD Arena.
It is one of 10 televised games around the country that is being played in the name of Kay Yow, the beloved Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame coach from North Carolina State who died of breast cancer exactly three weeks after Melissa did in 2009.
Money raised at these annual games around the nation goes to the Kay Yow Cancer Fund which, over the years, has given $7.78 million to scientific research and programs that aid in the fight against all cancers facing women.
A special video about Melissa, her cancer fight and the bond between the Forteners and the Flyers will played on the overhead scoreboard and will be posted on the various social media platforms of UD women’s basketball.
And anybody who sees it will realize what Sant learned long ago:
“Melissa and her family are pretty special people.”
As Pam put it: “We’re an athletic family.”
Donny, who’s in the Carroll High Hall of Fame, was a running back at Wilmington College and still plays senior softball today.
Pam played volleyball at Wilbur Wright High and later played softball and sand volleyball.
Their son Nick was the Fairmont High quarterback ad then played tight end at Akron.
Following her basketball and volleyball days at Fairmont, Melissa played rugby at Ohio University and later for the Cincinnati-Dayton rugby team and then the Kelts.
In 2003, as she was orchestrating her rugby team’s trip to a game in New York, she discovered a lump on her breast. Pam said she was unable to get doctor’s appointment for six weeks so she immersed herself in the rugby excursion.
Melissa Fortener (with ball) playing rugby at Ohio University. She later played for the Cincy-Dayton Rugby club and the Cincinnai Kelts Rugby team. CONTRIBUTED
When she finally got medical attention, Melissa was diagnosed with breast cancer. Doctors found cancer in nine of 19 lymph nodes. They also discovered she was six weeks pregnant.
She had a mastectomy, but initially decided put off chemo until her second trimester.
“When Melissa found out she was pregnant, the baby became her light at the end of the tunnel,” Pam said. “He was the future.”
But seven months into her pregnancy she went into early delivery and her son was still born.
“It was devastating for her,” Pam admitted. “The doctors wanted her to get hysterectomy, but she refused. She always held out hope she might have another baby one day.”
“B Positive!” wasn’t just a slogan with her, it was as life-giving as her heartbeat.
She continued to work through her chemo treatments, getting them early in the morning, then working through lunch and two hours extra at day’s end so she never missed time at her job.
The Kelts held a fundraiser for her so she could take part in a three-day, 60-mile cancer walk in Atlanta. When they collected extra money, Melissa called her mom and said she could go on the walk, as well.
The short notice didn’t help Pam’s positivity: “I said, ‘I can’t walk 60 miles in three days!’”
With a laugh, she recalled Melissa’s comeback: " She said, ‘Mom, I’m on chemo and if I can do it, you can do it.’” Pam not only did it, but after Melissa’s death, she returned to Georgia for two more 60-mile walks.
In the spring of 2008 – with her cancer in remission – Melissa got her “dream job” at the University of Cincinnati as a marketing and promotions director.
But a few months later the cancer returned with a vengeance and spread through her body.
In the last few weeks of her life she still managed to forge victories. Just before Christmas – in a wheelchair, with oxygen and bundled in a blanket -- she had her family take her to Target, where she then rolled off on her on to do her Christmas shopping.
“If she thought she was going to die, she never talked about it,” Pam said.
She was buried at David Cemetery next to J.P., whose tombstone is engraved with “John and Melissa’s little rugger.”
And in 2017, when her husband John died, he was buried next to them, as well.
Pam, who took over the B Positive! blog after her daughter’s death, wrote in one post how she’s put a Charlie Brown Christmas tree at their graves because Melissa used to get a kick out of that kind of forlorn adornment.
These days Pam ends many of her postings with the same heart-tugging thought:
“I miss you Melissa Marie … Every single day.”
Melissa Fortener and her mom, Pam. CONTRIBUTED
Basketball ‘lifted her’
Pam and Donny have tried to use Melissa’s story to help others.
They started a scholarship fund for Fairmont athletes and have given out 26 in the past dozen years. Initially, they held a fundraiser that collected $24,000 for the effort and now the Kelts hold an annual charity event whose proceeds go to it.
The Forteners also put on the annual Fort 5K that raises money for the Fairmont athletic department.
The B Positive award is still given out annually, and Pam and Donny are regulars at the Fairmont and UD women’s games and also travel on occasion to see Firebird players starring elsewhere.
When Pam speaks to the Fairmont and UD teams she said she wants to educate the players: “I tell them, ‘Melissa was close to your age and she was athletic and never had any health issues.’
“I tell them it’s important to be proactive and know their family history. We didn’t know Melissa carried a (mutated) BRCA gene.”
Those are the genes involved in cell growth and the repair of damage to DNA. Mutated BRCA genes can cause damaged DNA to go unrepaired and increase the risk of some forms of cancer
“I try to stress that early detection saves lives,” Pam said. “I don’t know if Melissa’s cancer spread in those six weeks before she went to the doctor, but I know the earlier you catch it, the better the chance you are going to survive.
“I tell the girls, ‘I just don’t want anybody else’s mother or father to have to go through what we’ve gone through.”
The players on the 2012-13 Dayton Flyers women's basketball team display their pink FORT bracelets honoring Melissa Fortener McLaughin, who died of breast cancer in 2009. Melissa's parents began to follow the Flyers women thanks to Cassie Sant (fifth from left in photo) who won the first B POSITIVE award honoring Melissa when she was a Fairmont High player. The bond between the Forteners and UD women's basketball continues today. CONTRIBUTED
Shauna Green said the Forteners impart other lessons to players, too.
“When they share Melissa’s story, they show how she continued to stay positive even in the worst situation in her life. That’s a mindset we all can take something from.”
She said it’s also important for her players to realize how their play benefits others.
After one recent game Green said Pam messaged her: “I just want you to know how much joy it is to watch you guys in these hard days of winter.”
Within a five-day span in January, there is Melissa’s birthday, the anniversary of her death and of John’s, too.
“We truly appreciate Shauna and Cassie and the whole UD women’s program for bringing us into their family,” Pam said. “The games are kind of a diversion for us, but it’s not that we want to forget. They also help us remember. Basketball was something Melissa loved. It was something that lifted her.”
It’s why she wanted to go to that game the day after she left hospice.
And it’s why Pam and Donny will be at UD Arena today.
Dayton center Cassie Sant shoots against Duquesne during their game at UD Arena in Dayton Monday, Feb. 18, 2013. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO BY E.L. HUBBARD
Credit: E.L. Hubbard
Credit: E.L. Hubbard