Yankees Magazine: Enduring Spirit

After his wife's passing, Bucky Dent is continuing her mission of supporting those battling cancer

March 28th, 2016
Bucky Dent and his late wife, Marianne, created the Embraced with Love charity to care for cancer patients. (The Dent Family)

At 11:45 in the morning, Melissa Anselmi was supposed to arrive at the Infusion Center at Nyack Hospital. But as the 48-year-old woman from the neighboring town of Pearl River, N.Y., was preparing for one of the many treatments she has received during the past year for Stage 2 breast cancer, she realized that her plans would need to change.

Anselmi's 11-year-old daughter wasn't feeling well on this chilly Monday in early March, and the mother of two had to decide whether to send the girl to school or keep her home for the day and schedule a doctor's appointment.

Choosing to err on the side of caution, Anselmi kept her daughter home. The only doctor's appointment that she could get made it impossible for Anselmi to get to Nyack Hospital at 11:45. And so, the shuffling began.

Anselmi was able to move her appointment at the Infusion Center up to 10:30 a.m., and with her daughter in tow, she arrived at the local hospital a few minutes prior to that time.

Fortunately for Anselmi, who has completed six rounds of chemotherapy since being diagnosed last March, the treatment she was there for was less taxing than what she had previously gone through. On this morning, she was planning to be at the hospital just long enough to get an injection.

As Anselmi walked through the doors and checked in, former Yankees shortstop Bucky Dent was wrapping up a visit to the center. After having spent about a half hour with several cancer patients, Dent was speaking with hospital administrators in a conference room down the hall. His next stop was lunch nearby, but it was too early to get there, and he was in no rush.

Marianne's Mission

For Dent, being in a hospital -- specifically, being around cancer patients -- was a far-too-familiar scene. Last October, he watched as Marianne, his wife of more than three decades, lost a 19-month battle with brain cancer.

"She went through a lot," Dent said of the mother of their 24-year-old twins, Cody and Caitlin. "But she never complained one time. Through all of the treatments and the procedures, she remained positive. She believed that everything happened for a reason, including this. She was as tough as a person could be and a lot tougher than I ever would have been."

Marianne Dent's life changed in 2014, when she began to experience headaches and dizziness. At first, neither she nor Bucky thought much of them.

"We both figured that the headaches were happening because of stress or whatever," Dent said. "After it happened a few times, I thought maybe she should get checked out, but it really didn't seem like a big deal.

"Then one day, she was in our kitchen, and I was upstairs," Dent continued. "She began calling me to come down there, and when I got to the kitchen, she was sitting on the floor. She said that everything sounded loud. She talked about how loud the dripping from the coffee pot was. We sat down on the couch for a few minutes, and she began to feel better."

Even though the sensation went away, the Dents knew there were questions that needed answers. The next day, Marianne visited a doctor, who scheduled an MRI for her later that week.

But the situation evolved quicker than expected. The day after she met with the doctor, as she was driving to meet Dent at a Pilates class, Marianne began to experience the sensation again.

"She pulled her car over to the side of the road," Dent said. "I picked her up and brought her to the Pilates class because the teacher was also a nurse. As soon as the teacher looked at Marianne, she told us to go to the emergency room. When we were waiting to get checked in, Marianne had a seizure and passed out in the waiting room."

The seizure sped up the diagnosis, and an MRI revealed that Marianne had a tumor. A few days later, she traveled to Miami for a biopsy. That test provided the Dents with the news that they had hoped would never come. Marianne had Stage 4 brain cancer.

"I'll never forget when the doctor told me what it was," Dent said. "He asked me if I wanted a prognosis, and I said yes. He looked up at me and said, 'One to four years.' That hit me like a blast. It was hard to hear those words."

Despite the discouraging news, Marianne was determined to overcome cancer, and her battle began with a Gamma Knife radiosurgery, during which doctors targeted the nickel-sized tumor with close to 200 tiny beams of radiation.

Although the special treatment succeeded in destroying a percentage of the tumor cells, Marianne would still need 33 rounds of radiation, along with two chemotherapy treatments each month, to attack the cancerous cells that had spread to other parts of her brain.

Nearly 12 months after the Gamma Knife procedure, the tumor had been reduced enough to be surgically removed. While that was a positive development, a subsequent biopsy showed the spread of active cancerous cells. Despite undergoing two more Gamma Knife procedures and other types of magnetic treatment, she would live just seven more months.

Not only was Marianne's positive spirit unwavering throughout her battle, but as soon as she started receiving treatment, her thoughts turned to other cancer patients whose paths she crossed.

Prior to her first treatment, a relative gave her a blanket to take with her. Although Marianne never knew how many hours a treatment would take, she quickly realized that there was one certainty: She would always be uncomfortably cold.

"After one of her first treatments, she said, 'It's really chilly in there, and I want everyone to have a blanket,'" Dent recalled. "She went to a bunch of different stores and finally found one that she liked. We bought about 30 of them and passed them out to everyone there. She was overwhelmed by how much those blankets meant to the patients.

"After that, Marianne came home and said, 'Maybe this is what my legacy is supposed to be,'" Dent said. "Instead of saying, 'Why me?,' she said, 'Thank God it's me because this is what I'm supposed to do.'"

From there, the Dents began to raise money through their already-established not-for-profit, Legends on the Links, to purchase even larger quantities of blankets. They continued to distribute them to the two University of Miami cancer facilities that Marianne went to for treatment.

Within a few months, the Dents teamed up with a manufacturer, who produced the blue blankets, created a logo and made clear bags for the blankets to be carried in. Stitched on each of the soft polyester blankets, the logo features two clasped hands around a heart with the words "Embraced with Love."

"Marianne wanted each cancer patient to feel more comfortable during their chemotherapy treatments," Dent said. "She wanted them to feel like they were wrapped in love, comfort and support. I don't care how many people you have supporting you; when you're sitting in that chair and going through chemotherapy, it's still a lonely experience. She wanted to give people a little bit of love while they are feeling those emotions."

After Marianne's death on Oct. 22, 2015, Dent extended the reach of his wife's goodwill. While continuing to supply blankets to the medical centers that treated Marianne, Dent also personally delivered more than 50 blankets to Eugene M. & Christine E. Lynn Cancer Institute in Boca Raton, Fla., just before last Christmas.

Around that same time, Elaine Apfelbaum, a longtime resident of Rockland County, N.Y., pitched an idea to Dent. Apfelbaum, who has worked for the Clarkstown Recreation and Parks Department for 34 years and has run an annual charity event in the town for almost as long, met Dent at a Yankees Women's Fantasy Camp a few years ago. She and Bucky have remained close ever since, and when she heard about the former Yankee's effort to carry on his wife's mission, she wanted to help.

"I had the honor and privilege of knowing Marianne," Apfelbaum said from Nyack Hospital. "I really wanted to contribute to what Bucky was doing. I reached out to Bucky and told him that I put together a poker run every year to raise money for local charities. I told him that I wanted to take all of the money from this year's event and donate it to this cause. But I asked him to come out to the event and to then deliver some of the blankets to the two hospitals in Rockland County that have infusion centers."

Dent was on board.

After shipping 100 blankets north, Dent and his friend and business partner Angie Wildstein arrived in the suburban town of New City, N.Y., for the 30th annual Apple's Poker Run.

On a sunny afternoon, Dent -- along with former Yankees John Flaherty and Jim Leyritz, who came out to support the event -- signed autographs for fans and posed for photos with several of the 300 participants at D&D's Restaurant & Pub. Then, the "competition" began.

In teams of four, the participants picked up a poker card from D&D's before visiting four other area restaurants and picking up cards in sealed envelopes from the bartenders at those establishments. About four hours later, the captains of each four-person team returned their sealed cards to Apfelbaum at D&D's. As she received the cards, Apfelbaum recorded each team's poker score on a chart, and the groups with the top seven scores received prizes.

Between the poker run, the autograph signings and a silent auction, the event raised more than $14,000, which would go toward purchasing blankets.

"I didn't know what to expect," Dent said. "But it was great to meet people who have participated in this event for years and who keep coming back. Everyone was so friendly and supportive. The way the community rallied around this event was amazing."

Special Delivery

On the morning after the poker run, Dent, Wildstein and Apfelbaum arrived at Nyack Hospital. With a smile on his face, Dent -- whose epic home run in the 1978 one-game playoff against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park elevated him from an All-Star shortstop to a Yankees legend -- handed out blankets to each of the 10 people who were receiving treatment. Dent also left more than 50 additional blankets for future patients, a gesture he repeated during a visit to Good Samaritan Hospital a few towns away later that afternoon.

As he handed out the blankets, Dent wished each of the patients well. For those who were interested, he told them about how brave his wife was. He told them about her selflessness, and how the blankets were her wonderful idea.

After spending some time in the Infusion Center, Dent and his crew retreated to a conference room, where, over coffee, Dent spoke about all that his wife had gone through.

While in the room, an administrator approached Dent to tell him that another patient had arrived. The administrator asked if Dent could return to the Infusion Center to meet the patient, who was a big fan of his.

The 1978 World Series MVP quickly grabbed a blanket and began walking back to the Infusion Center. When he arrived, Anselmi greeted him. With tears streaming down her face, the lifelong Yankees fan hugged her all-time favorite player, whom she described as her childhood idol.

"When I asked the nurse who brought these blankets, she said it was you," Anselmi said. "But then she said you had already left. I couldn't believe that I missed you. I was heartbroken, and I couldn't stop crying. If it were any other Yankee, I would not have had that reaction.

"I went to Bat Day with my dad in 1977," she continued. "I kept telling my dad that all I wanted was a Bucky Dent bat, but we had no idea if I was going to get one. Well, I walked into Yankee Stadium and got the Bucky Dent bat, and it has sat next to my bed ever since I was a kid. I brought it with me to college, and when I got married and bought a house, it came there, as well."

As the two parted ways, Anselmi, with her daughter at her side, thanked Dent.

"I'm so sorry for what happened to your wife," she said. "But you just made my life. It's been a tough year, but meeting you was indescribable. It was the most surreal moment of my life."

For Dent, the time with Anselmi was also moving.

"It was heartwarming," he said over lunch in nearby Orangeburg, N.Y. "To be able to come in here and fulfill her dream, especially while she is going through such a trying time, is really nice. It makes you feel good to make someone else feel good, to make them smile."

"When I got my initial diagnosis, I considered myself very lucky because I knew what I had was curable," Anselmi said. "But it hasn't been easy. When you're going through chemotherapy, everything in your life suffers, but you try to hold it all together. I felt that when Bucky walked into that room, a year of emotions all came out at one time. I guess you need things like this to let you know that everything is going to be OK, and I'm going to be OK."

For more information on Embraced with Love, please contact Angie Wildstein at (404) 513-9453.