The University of Missouri is the oldest land-grant university west of the Mississippi. The school (my alma mater) is proud of its history. I’m not usually one for big pep rallys and choreographed celebrations, but at Mizzou homecoming is unavoidable.
For the weeks (and months) leading up to homecoming weekend, the campus is a frenzy of activity. Floats are constructed, skits rehearsed, songs and dances perfected, hotel rooms reserved, parties planned, community-service projects performed, and blood is donated.
That last one might sound odd, but at Mizzou, one of the largest (and most inescapable) homecoming traditions is the annual Blood Drive. It’s the part of homecoming that everyone, from undergrads, graduate students, staff, faculty, administrators, alumni, and the community at-large takes part-take in. Rumor has it that at some point it was the largest organized blood drive in the world.
Donors schedule a donation time weeks in advance, and still the process takes hours, as hundreds and hundreds of people are herded through lines, forms and finger-pricks. Grab a clipboard and wait; take a number and wait; answer the questions and wait; lay down on the cot and wait; just a little prick; now squeeze the ball gently and wait; you get the picture. It was a huge production, and one that carried on from sunrise to sunset for the better part of a week leading up to homecoming weekend.
Looking back, the blood drive was one of the few times that I felt truly connected to Mizzou as a community. For that blood drive, we were more than just a collection of individuals who worked and studied on a common campus, we were a community of people united by a common cause of donating blood to those in need. And if felt good!
At some point from 2001-2005, amongst the lines and forms and finger-pricks, I put an innocent check in a seemingly innocent box: “Would you consider making a donation of bone marrow, in the unlikely event that you are identified as a match for someone in need?”
Sure, why not?
At the time, I thought nothing of it. Perhaps I was caught up in the giving-spirit of the drive. Perhaps I thought that I would never be called on to donate marrow. Whatever the reason, I checked the box.
That fuzzy memory came flashing back to me in early 2011 when I received a phone call.
“Mr. Wagner, this is so-and-so from the bone marrow donation program. We are calling because our records indicate that you are a preliminary match for a recipient in need.”
I had almost forgotten about that innocent little check box.
“If you are still interested, we would like you to answer a brief set of questions and would need to collect some blood samples for additional testing to determine if indeed you are a match.”
What are the odds? I thought. No harm in answering a few questions. And, I’ve never had trouble with needles, so I guess can spare some blood for additional labs…
So I answered the questions, and went to the lab, thinking it was only a matter of time until I received that inevitable phone call saying “Mr. Wagner, thank you for your participation, but you are not a match.”
Fast forward several months, and I received the phone call. Only, wasn’t what I expected.
“Mr. Wagner, we are calling to inform you that the additional tests have shown you to be a good match, and we would like to schedule you for an extensive physical exam and an appointment for marrow collection.”
Suddenly that innocent little check box didn’t seem so little and innocent.
From there, the process became a bit complicated. The organization collecting marrow only worked with a few hospitals in southern California, and were unable to see me in San Diego. I would need to travel to LA, or Vegas, or Phoenix. Once for an extensive physical exam, and a second time to make the marrow donation. It was a big decision, a significant commitment, and one that I wrestled with–and lost sleep over.
Ultimately, I decided I wasn’t comfortable proceeding with the donation. The combination of time and travel and some lingering doubts that I had about the organization collecting the donation just made me uncomfortable. I called my liaison and informed her that, regrettably, I was not going to proceed. I apologized, and agonized, and lost more sleep. Was it the right decision? Did I make a mistake? Did I pass on the opportunity to save someone’s life?
Fast forward two weeks, and I found myself in the ER at UCSD Medical center, seeking treatment for breathing problems which I assumed were being caused by asthma. As it turns out, my breathing problems were symptoms of a much bigger, more serious issue. Something called T Cell Lymphoblastic Lymphoma.
And therein lies the irony.
Even if I had decided to go through with the bone-marrow donation, I wouldn’t have been a match. I would have gone in for the extensive physical; I would have complained of recent back pains and tightness in my chest; and I would have learned about the abnormal mass that now sits in the left side of my chest, pressing on my lung and partially surrounding my heart.
I would have learned, as I have learned in the past several days, that I have a rare, but curable form of cancer. And I would have learned, as I have experienced this week, through an outpouring of phone calls, and emails, and text messages, and care packages, that I’m not in this alone.
So here we are. T Cell Lymphoblastic Lymphoma. Scary words, no doubt. But words, and a diagnosis, that with strength and determination, and the support of my loving, caring, powerful, dedicated, spiritual, and TRULY AMAZING group of friends and family–words that can be beaten into submission. A disease that we can cure.
It’s not going to be easy. And, I’m going to need your help. The last few days have given me time to think. About the people and things in this life that are truly important to me. The relationships and shared experiences that make my life worth living.
Our time in this life, inhabiting our mortal physical bodies, is short; and the experiences and emotions that we share help to give our lives meaning. We all share a similar struggle as humans beings. Each of us faces adversity, challenges, and obstacles. But, in that adversity lies opportunity to grow, to learn, and to reaffirm what is truly important to us.
I have a big fight in front of me. But I have a bigger team behind me, and the love and support that you all have shown to me and my family give us the courage, and determination to take this on without fear.
I love you all beyond words, and I know that together, united by love and divine spirit, we will beat this. One day we’ll look back at this challenge with pride and think, “that was one crazy ride, but we did it together, and we’re stronger for it.”
Welcome to Team Tyler. Treatment starts tomorrow. It’s go time!