A Gift Greater Than Gold

updated 02/14/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/14/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

IN A LITTLE OVER A WEEK, KRISTEN TALBOT, skating at speeds of up to 35 mph, will hurl herself around an Olympic track in Lillehammer, Norway, as she competes in the 500-meter sprint. Right now, though, in her brother Jason's room al Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore, she is up against some world-class teasing. "She wasn't like a normal sister, pulling your hair and stuff like that," says Jason, 19. with a laugh. "She was punching, like a man." Then he gets in a final dig. "Just because I've got her blood in my veins now," he says, "doesn't mean she's any different than she was before."

Sibling rivalry aside, this might have been the year both Kristen, 23, and Jason, a national champion in short-track speed skating, made it to the Olympics. But schoolwork and a part-time job prevented Jason from training properly. Then in December doctors diagnosed potentially deadly aplastic anemia. Kristen put her own Olympic chances in jeopardy when a day after qualifying for the U.S. team she underwent a grueling 90-minute operation to donate life-saving bone marrow to her brother. Kristen, however, shrugs off suggestions of heroism. "It wasn't a tough decision," she says. "His life is much more important than skating in the Olympics."

As Kristen prepares to race against the clock in Lillehammer, her brother's clock is running too. But he is counting down to the day he can leave the hospital—perhaps as early as this week. Doctors say his recovery is on target and his white-blood-cell count is rising daily. Kristen, who has been back in training since Jan. 17, has undoubtedly paid a physical penalty for her devotion to him. "I would be shocked if she's going to be at 100 percent, with the loss of the red blood cells that she's had," says Dr. Rick Jones, the Johns Hopkins oncologist who on Jan. 11 "harvested" the bone marrow. Doctors removed two quarts of marrow with long needles inserted in 100 different points in Kristen's hip bones. Within a half hour, the marrow was cleansed and pumped into Jason's bloodstream. For their parents, Garland Mickey Talbot of Schuylerville, N.Y., the excitement of watching Kristen in her third Olympics (she finished 25th in the 500-meter in 1988 and 17th in 1992) was shaken last December when Jason began lo complain of backaches, fatigue and dizzy spells. When the symptoms continued, Mickey, a registered nurse at nearby Saratoga Hospital, insisted he go in for tests. The diagnosis was aplastic anemia, a rare disorder in which the marrow fails lo produce blood cells. If left untreated, the disorder (which strikes 5,000 to 6.000 Americans a year) kills about 85 percent of its victims within five years.

Aplastic anemia is considered a medical emergency best treated by a bone marrow transplant performed as quickly as possible after diagnosis. The ideal donor is a sibling. Before Christmas all four of Jason's underwent tests to determine if their blood chemistry was a good match for his. Only that of Ryan, 9, was not. Jason's doctors, however, advised against using Andrew, 3, and Matthew, 7, because of their ages. That left Kristen, who was then gearing up for the U.S. Olympic trials in Milwaukee. "Right from the beginning, I knew I had to do this," she says. "I put skating aside and was hoping that I could be the donor. After all, skating is just skating."

Jason insisted that Kristen go to Milwaukee to fight for a place on the U.S. team. So while he underwent chemotherapy at Johns Hopkins to prepare for the operation, she skated—but well below her best form. "It was a so-so performance," she says of the fourth-place finish that earned her the last spot on the 500-meter team. "I wasn't concentrating well at all. My mind was on Jason. I wanted to be with him."

Kristen, suffering stiffness in her hips but otherwise nearly back in top form, left for Lillehammer on Feb. 1. With her mother at Jason's bedside and her father, a carpenter, home watching her three younger brothers, there will be no one from Kristen's immediate family in Lillehammer. Jason, no doubt, will be looking for his sister on TV, and she will certainly be thinking of him. "I hope my skating will be a little booster for him if he's having a bad day," she says. "I guess you could say that I'll be skating for both of us."

MICHAEL NEILL
TOM NUGENT in Baltimore and BRAIN CAZENEUVE in Milwaukee

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