Tom Garrett is a frequent volunteer and board member for the Emily Whitehead Foundation. His contributions include running with our team in the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh Marathons and hosting several of his own unique fundraisers. He is also the founder of the annual Blood, Sweat & Tears 5-Miler, of which Emily Whitehead Foundation is an official charity partner.
In his own words, Tom shared with us his story of how he turned his own battle with cancer into a mission to help others.
“You have cancer.”
Those are probably the three most dreaded words in the English language. No one wants to ever hear them. However, in November of 2002, I heard them. That was followed by more bad news when I was informed my cancer was a very rare form of leukemia. With that news, so many thoughts raced through my head with visions of laying in a hospital bed, hooked up to tubes and watching your life slowly drain away.
But, like most things in life, I tend to overreact. I was informed that despite the rareness of the disease, they had a treatment that was proven successful in the few patients they had treated. Along with the fact I was still fairly young, in excellent physical shape, and had a positive attitude, my doctor was very optimistic we were going to win this battle.
A couple of months later, I sat in that same office and heard my oncologist say “Tom, you are in full remission.” Probably for one of the few times in life, I was speechless.
As I reflected back over those months that changed me forever, I began thinking “what’s next?” I was blessed with amazing medical care and a drug (cladribine) that probably saved my life. So what do I do now after this life changing experience? Do I go back to my BC (before cancer) life or was this the beginning of a new chapter of using this experience for a greater good?
As luck would have it, shortly after my treatment, I ran into the director of the local chapter of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society (LLS). She found out I liked to bike and introduced me to their sports endurance training program, Team in Training (TNT). Within weeks, I signed up for a century bike ride around Lake Tahoe in which I had to raise $4,000. Yikes, that sounded impossible. But when I sent out letters of support, the response was amazing. I not only received financial support but kind notes that informed me how much they appreciate what I was doing. Notes would include how “my sister died from leukemia when she was six,” or how “I lost my mother to that disease when I was 14.” Within a couple months, I met and actually exceeded my fundraising goal.
In June of 2004, I anxiously waited at the start line in Lake Tahoe, savoring the experience and assuming this was going to be a one time thing. Hey, I raised a lot of money and figured I paid back society for what I went through. So, after this ride, I could pat myself on the back and finally go back to my normal life. However, a couple hundred yards in that ride I saw a man standing on the sidewalk, holding a large picture. It was of a beautiful little girl and written under it were the words, “Ride for Gabrielle”. I started crying. He apparently was her father and he had to bury this beautiful child who lost her life to a blood cancer. A couple of hours later I crossed the finish line, but I knew in my heart I wasn’t finished. I was just getting started.
The years went by and the events started adding up. I completed more century rides and then added marathons to the list of events. Then I participated in events on my own outside of TNT where I still raised money to help those afflicted with cancer. I biked across Death Valley and even did a 50-mile ultramarathon to test myself how far I could push my body. In time, I added coaching responsibilities, ran for LLS Man of the Year, and eventually was selected to serve on the Central Pennsylvania Board of Trustees for LLS. Since I liked making goals, I made a goal of raising $100,000 for LLS.
As my involvement deepened, I saw in more detail how blood cancer has impacted the lives of so many, especially children. I got to walk the halls of the 7th floor of the Hershey Medical Center and visit kids with cancer. They amazed me with their courage, optimism, and belief that tomorrow will always come. Sadly for some, their tomorrows ran out. Some people wondered if I went there to inspire these kids and I said “no, I go there for them to inspire me.”
During one of those visits, I finally got to meet a very special hero named Emily whose story I was following everyday on a CaringBridge website. Through mutual friends, I became aware of her battle and would hurry home every day to check on her progress. My heart was touched by her struggles and every night I would close my prayers with the words, “Lord, let Emily win!”
As Emily fought and slowly won her battle, I was totally awed by what doctors and researchers are doing today to beat blood cancer. Gleevex, Rituxan, and Cladribine were all developed with funding from LLS and now this new ground breaking treatment called immunotherapy held great promise thanks to LLS funding and the amazing dedicated work of people in Philadelphia.
So I figured, why not do more. In 2012, I started my own yearly event in Lebanon County called the Blood, Sweat & Tears 5-Miler. This run, along with a food and bake sale and prize drawing, has grown each year and so far, we have given over $18,000 to LLS. In 2015, when the Emily Whitehead Foundation (EWF) was formed, we decided to add EWF as a second official charity since I was inspired by their passion to help other children. We were glad to give EWF a check for $500 and hoped to make that a much larger check in 2016.
On Saturday, November 5, 2016 we will be holding our fifth annual Blood, Sweat and Tears 5-Miler. Our goal this year on our fifth anniversary is to get the whole community involved with the theme, “One Event, One Community, One Cause: Stop Cancer.”
Despite the fact that over 13 years has passed since walking through that hospital door and into the cancer clinic to face an uncertain future, my passion for a cure has only increased. I started out thinking only of me and my situation but learned along the way that was only the first chapter.
Each additional chapter has been inspired by the people I have met on this journey. The wonderful people who have come up to me with donations of all sizes and told me they wish they could give more. The individuals who have volunteered to help make subs, bake, and volunteer at my fundraisers. The businesses that have donated items for our prize drawings or offered their facilities as fundraising locations. The adults I have met along the way who for no fault of their own, have been dealt a bad hand in life with a cancer diagnosis and just want to beat it so they can wake up next to their spouse every day and watch their children, and hopefully grandchildren, grow up.
And finally, and probably most importantly, for these beautiful children I have met on this journey. I see their innocent faces as they lay in their hospital bed and the worried looks on their parents’ faces. They don’t belong there. They belong in classrooms, on soccer fields, in dance studios, and at boy and girl scout meetings, not in hospitals with tubes attached to them. We need to get them out of those hospitals, home, and healthy. As long as I have breath in my lungs and there is a bike or run course out there, I will be on it and will keep fighting for the kids.
I know now I serve a loving God who spared me for a purpose. This is my purpose.