Fan teaches Graves all about tough

Taylor Ryan and Adam Graves became friends through the Garden of Dreams Foundation. Courtesy of Madison Square Garden

The third day of chemotherapy is one of the toughest for Taylor Ryan. She starts to feel pain course through her body as the dozen or so hours of treatment take their toll.

"It's not so good," the 11-year-old says.

Two years ago, Ryan had just finished Day 3 of treatment at Cohen Children's Medical Center in Long Island and was sitting in her room with the lights off, the curtains closed and an ice pack on her head.

"She was miserable," Taylor's mother, Teresa, says.

But her mood changed when former New York Rangers star Adam Graves, visiting the hospital on behalf of Madison Square Garden's Garden of Dreams Foundation, poked his head into Taylor's room to say hello.

"She just perked up," Teresa Ryan says.

"He had her smiling when I couldn't get her to smile that day. They meshed. I don't know what it was."

Graves, the ex-Ranger, and Taylor, a young girl from East Islip in the fight of her life, became fast friends.

Graves called Taylor to check in on her and visited her in East Islip frequently. They'd also spend time together at other Garden of Dreams Foundation events. While the foundation works within all areas of MSG, Taylor gravitated toward hockey. She attended Rangers games with Graves and last year, through the foundation, went to the Winter Classic to cheer on Graves in the Alumni Game.

"We're good friends," Taylor says.

Graves and Taylor talked regularly about school, soccer, friends and family. Graves tried to keep Taylor in good spirits in her battle against neurodegenerative Langerhans cell histiocytosis (LCH), a rare blood disorder that can affect the central nervous system.

"He encourages me a lot," Taylor says of Graves, "like everything's going to be OK."

Taylor takes Graves' message to heart, she says, because if Graves, now 44, can be healthy after 15 years in the NHL, she feels she can beat LCH.

"He's fine now, so I know I'll be fine," she says with a smile.

Graves, in turn, has been greatly affected by Taylor. The tough-as-nails hockey player grows quiet when he talks about her resolve.

"She just exudes strength and exudes warmth and passion and love for life," Graves says. "It's a privilege to talk to her and to see her."

• • •

Taylor was diagnosed with LCH three years ago, after doctors found a subtle thickening of her pituitary stalk and an abnormal lesion on her brain.

Dr. Kenneth McClain, a pediatric oncologist at the Texas Children's Cancer Center and one of Taylor's doctors, says the disease affects one in 200,000 children annually. He estimates that there are 350 new cases per year. Of those 350 annual cases, less than 1 percent of patients deal with the effects of the disease on their brain.

That's what Taylor is faced with.

"She's got a great attitude. She's a mentally and emotionally strong person," McClain says.

Through her fight, Taylor has found a way to help others. She organized a toy drive two years ago to benefit a Toys For Tots program organized by the Rangers and the Garden Of Dreams, a non-profit charity that tries to make "dreams come true for kids facing obstacles."

Taylor's toy drive generated 300 items for underprivileged children in its first year and 550 last year. This year, she hopes to raise 700. For her efforts, Taylor was honored Sunday evening at halftime of the Knicks-Hawks game with the Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton award for community service.

"I just want to give back," Taylor says.

She also wants to feel better.

• • •

Taylor has undergone approximately 15 rounds of chemotherapy in the hopes of eradicating her LCH. The treatments keep her from her friends, from school and from playing soccer.

"It's frustrating," she says.

Through it all, somehow, Taylor maintains a positive outlook and a precious smile that affected Graves and most others she crosses paths with.

"She's taught me a lot about the power of a smile," Graves says.

Most New York sports fans remember Graves as the forward who scored 52 goals for the Rangers in their unforgettable run to the '94 Cup. Like most hockey players, Graves would endure a great amount of pain to play the game he loved. Tough as nails, they would call him.

But he had nothing on Taylor.

"She's tough," Graves says, "She's the real definition of tough."

Thus far, chemotherapy and other treatments haven't produced the desired effects for Taylor, Dr. McClain says. On Wednesday, she is scheduled to undergo a surgical procedure on her brain so doctors can gain more insight into her illness. In an attempt to get a closer look at the tissue, a surgeon will biopsy a piece of Taylor's brain that has shown abnormalities.

The procedure presents a significant risk; the biopsy will be near the part of Taylor's brain that affects motor skills.

McClain says he and Taylor's New York-based doctors are "praying" that the biopsy helps them find more answers.

"We hope she has a good reaction," Taylor's mom says.

Shortly before Taylor goes in for surgery, Graves will reach out to her. His message about her recovery will be simple, but significant.

"Just be yourself," Graves will say, "be strong and smile. Just keep smiling."