By ERNEST HOOPER
Published June 2, 2007
There comes a time when we allow a person to be selfish.
When a friend grieves, when a woman is pregnant, when a person battles a life-threatening illness, we give each a pass if they choose to focus on themselves.
And we marvel when they still find the capacity to care for others.
Jeff Wagner spoke to me from his room at Moffitt Cancer Center Friday. That in itself is impressive, because the 44-year-old Wagner finds himself battling leukemia for the second time in four years.
If I got diagnosed with cancer, I think I would crawl into a dark hole and demand to be left alone. Wagner, however, speaks to reporters, welcomes visitors and chases aides with the help of a walker.
Oh, did we mention he serves as one of the driving forces behind a bone marrow donation drive being held at Moffitt Wednesday?
Of course, he still has to make time for blood transfusions, bone marrow biopsies, CT scans and chemo injections into his spine. He endures, as he did four years ago.
“He’s always been that way, ” his friend Scott Brogan said. “Even when he was sick in 2003, he was always worried about me and my family. He sees this as a much larger picture.”
In 2003, doctors diagnosed Wagner – an avid runner, triathlete and beach volleyball player – with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. After a series of radiation and chemotherapy treatments, Wagner’s cancer appeared to be in remission.
He ran the Disney Marathon in September. In February, he completed the 13.1-mile Gasparilla Half Marathon in two hours. Wagner seemed so healthy that doctors removed his surgically implanted medical port.
Then in May, back pains led Wagner to get an MRI. Doctors found another tumor and eventually diagnosed Jeff with a different kind of cancer, acute myelogenous leukemia. Wagner can go into detail about the differences, but the bottom line is this time he needs a bone marrow transplant.
Still, he remains upbeat.
“The doctors are just amazed at how well I’m handling everything, ” Wagner said. “Obviously, it’s many things, but my faith, my family, my fitness and my friends are helping me beat the odds.”
After his father died in 2000, Wagner’s relationship with God was strengthened. He became more involved in the community, serving on various boards and becoming a Big Brother. The University of South Florida graduate says he also draws inspiration from his love of Tampa Bay. He has a framed picture from Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio in his room, and he counts USF football coach Jim Leavitt among his well-wishers.
The combination of faith and community has Wagner looking beyond his own needs. He’s reaching out to the media to encourage Hispanics, African-Americans, Asians and people of mixed race to join the bone marrow registry because their numbers are so low.
“I feel like God has empowered me to bring others to the bone marrow registry, ” Wagner said. “I feel my mission is so much bigger than having a transplant. Win or lose, live or die, it’s a win because I know I’ve got a place in heaven.”
The other night Wagner dreamed of standing on the altar before friends and family at Idlewild Baptist Church. In the dream, he meets his donor a year after receiving the transplant. He chokes up as he recalls the vision, but the story reflects his resolve.
Wagner says his motto is “Finish strong, ” and I know he’s going to, in a manner more selfless than most of us can comprehend.
That’s all I’m saying.