Longtime Kennedy Staffer On to Next Victory

Posted April 30, 2010 at 3:48pm

Rick Ally’s Senate softball career dates back to 1987, when he served as an intern for the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.). Since then, Ally has continued to play for the Ted Sox, the Kennedy office team, and although this year the team disbanded after the Senator’s death, 2010 may be Ally’s most meaningful softball season yet.

In October 2007, Ally was diagnosed with adrenal cortical carcinoma, an extremely rare and aggressive form of cancer with a low survival rate that strikes about 600 Americans a year. According to Dr. Gary Hammer, the head medical oncologist at the University of Michigan’s Adrenal Cancer Clinic, ACC is one of the most deadly forms of cancer.

That Ally will suit up and play softball this season is no small feat. That he will do so for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) is a triumph that will take some getting used to. “I cherish my time with the Ted Sox,” Ally said, “but I am looking forward to playing with the Kerry team now.”

Ally has matched up against the Kerry team many times while playing for the Ted Sox. That softball rivalry was one of the longest running in the Senate league.

“I loved the Kerry-Kennedy game each year,” Kerry wrote via e-mail. “It hit me like a freight train when Ted couldn’t be there last year. He loved those games. We got older playing those games. And Teddy and I both were fiercely competitive about those games in the best way. I swear Teddy recruited ringers for interns, kids who could really play.”

Considering Ally’s college baseball background — he played at Texas Christian University — he probably qualified as a ringer for the Ted Sox back in 1987. Now, though, he’s happy just to be back on the field. “People have joked it’s a little like Roger Clemens leaving the Red Sox to join the Yankees,” Ally said.

Ally and Kennedy were extremely close. Ally served as Kennedy’s personal assistant for 12 years, and they battled cancer together. Upon his diagnosis, Ally’s first call was to Kennedy and his wife, Vicki. Vicki Kennedy sprang into action, setting up Ally with an appointment at Johns Hopkins University.

“Mrs. Kennedy considered Rick family,” said Mary Ally, Rick’s wife. “She is the one who told him to go to Hopkins.”

Under the supervision of Dr. Michael Choti, chief of the Handelsman Division of Surgical Oncology at Hopkins, Ally had a 14.5-centimeter tumor removed from his side. “This was a large, challenging tumor that required a radical operation,” Choti said. “It was bigger than a softball.”

Following surgery, Ally was given a 5 percent chance of survival. “Even with successful removal of the tumor, this is a form of cancer that is extremely aggressive and has high rates of recurrence,” Choti explained.

Ally was forced to undergo daily chemotherapy treatments, taking the drug Mitotane, one of the only drugs used to treat ACC. Mitotane is a derivative of the pesticide DDT, which was banned in the United States in 1972.

Recovering from such an invasive surgery — a portion of Ally’s liver was removed — while undergoing such debilitating daily treatments was brutal. “He was curled up like a ball for eight months,” Mary Ally said. “It was terrifying.” Rick Ally lost 45 pounds during his recovery. Luckily the couple’s two children — Jack, 4, and Melissa, 2 — were too young at the time to understand their father’s pain.

Ally continued to progress in recovery, helped along with support of family, friends and sound medical advice. Though there have been setbacks in the two and a half years since the first diagnosis, Ally’s last scan in early April came back cancer-free. “It’s been a remarkable turnaround,” his wife said. “We were very fortunate.”

Throughout both men’s cancer struggles, Ally and Kennedy stayed in contact. The last time Ally saw Kennedy was March 2009, when Ally brought his wife and children to Kennedy’s home. “We were trading stories of what we were going through,” Ally remembered. “It was amazing how at peace he was with everything. He was a fighter. It inspired me.”

The Ally children last saw their father play softball in October 2009, playing in the final game of the Ted Sox. Rick struggled through the game but insisted on playing in memory of Kennedy. “It’s weird not having the Senator around,” Mary Ally said. “But for Rick, being on the softball team, that is what spring is all about.”

Jack and Melissa understand now that their father is feeling much better. Jack loves baseball, just like his father, and is already playing tee ball. Rick Ally looks forward to his family coming out to root for the Green Monsters, Kerry’s team, this summer.

The Allys are not the only people excited to have Rick Ally join the Green Monsters. “Rick’s a scrappy gamer. He is keeping up the fight as an all-star Ted Sox veteran joining the Kerry team. He’ll be a great source of inspiration in this year’s competition,” said Christine Wiskowski, captain of the Green Monsters.

“It is great to be active again,” Ally said, sitting in the cafeteria of the Russell Senate Office Building. Ally drank tea instead of coffee; he has given up red meat, sugar and salt, in addition to coffee. He is back to lifting weights and playing in a men’s over-40 baseball league.

He has picked up where he left off on a bill to overhaul the 1971 National Cancer Act, hoping to see the bill pass as a final salute to Kennedy. “It is remarkable we were going through cancer together while working on the bill,” he said.

Ally is thankful to be working as a special assistant to Kerry; he considers his new position a godsend. “I never thought I would find an office so wonderful to work with again, but there must be something about the senior Senator from Massachusetts,” he said.

Ally lives with the possibility of a recurrence of his cancer, and to fight it, he still takes a daily chemotherapy treatment of 25 pills. “There is always this sword hanging over our heads,” Mary Ally said, “but I am much more hopeful this year than I was last year.”

For now, Rick Ally is excited to get back on the field. In his own way, he will be honoring Kennedy, while he is also excited to begin his career in the Senate anew.

“Life’s just begun. It’s been a roller-coaster ride, but this is the best I have felt in two and a half years,” he said.