It is funny how we get to where we are today; the experiences that shape us, the people that influence us. Major global events and significant personalities, though powerful in the moment, often fade in persuasion as time passes, while small occurrences and ordinary people sometimes possess tremendous power and provide life altering memories. This is the story of three ordinary people whose extraordinary lives have provided inspiration and urgency and have brought forth what is to this day the most important and difficult challenge of my life.
I first met Brad Ludden, professional Kayaker and the founder of First Descents, at the Teva Mountain Games in Vail, Colorado. A mutual friend provided cause for the initial introduction. Common interests and the Mountain Culture built our friendship. From the beginning I admired Brad’s zest for life and charitable personality. When we met, First Descents was a fledgling organization with a simple goal: Provide free adventure therapy to young adults with cancer. As our friendship grew, so did First Descents. Watching mostly from the sidelines, I followed the organization as it grew from a single adventure camp serving 14 participants to a well-respected charity that has now affected the lives of over 600 campers. Though I could easily see the positive affect FD was having on young adults with cancer, I maintained a certain distance from direct involvement with the organization. Confronting cancer is no doubt a daunting task. For me, confronting those with the disease was equally intimidating. It meant confronting my own weaknesses, my own immortality. As a young adult myself, in a profession with a higher than average cancer risk, I did not particularly want to face the reality of the deadly disease.
When I finally did come face to face with Cancer, the affect was unexpected. The moment came in April of 2008 at the Second Annual First Descents Charity Ball and Fundraiser. I attended alone while my wife stayed home recovering from a hard pregnancy and the birth of our first child, Max. It was at that Ball that I first made contact with the “campers” as they are known, the young adults who have attended the First Descents Adventure Camps. I saw first hand the impact that FD had on their lives. I listened to the stories they told as they spoke of their exhaustive battles against illness, the affects on their bodies, families, lives and dignity. I laughed at their jokes and admired their will. I held back tears as they spoke to the fear of dying and appreciated their courage as they justified their fears in the remembrance of fallen friends. I left that night affected in ways that I did not anticipate. I was not discouraged or afraid, depressed or angry. I was inspired. I had found a cause that touched my heart. I wanted to do more…
Running the New York Marathon is hard. For my friend Ethan Zohn, not running it was even harder. I had agreed to meet Ethan in New York for a head to head battle in the 2009 running of the City’s famous marathon. The effort would be to promote and raise money for Ethan’s charity, Grassroot Soccer. That was before Ethan was diagnosed with a rare form of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and would begin what he would later describe as “the ultimate test of strength and will known to humans.” For Ethan to say that means something. Ethan is a former professional soccer player and winner of the hit reality television show Survivor: Africa. He once dribbled a soccer ball nearly 500 miles from Boston to Washington DC to raise funds and awareness for HIV/AIDS in Africa, the final portion of which he did with a torn ACL. Ethan knows pain. He knows commitment, perseverance, devotion and hard work. He knows them and he needed them as he fought for his life against cancer.
Ethan’s treatment was grueling. It began with 6 months of chemotherapy treatment resulting only in confirmation that the treatment was unsuccessful and that the cancer was spreading. For the first time Ethan faced the conscious reality of death. Just one year earlier he was a healthy young adult kicking a soccer ball across the Brooklyn Bridge. He now faced the frightening reality of a disease with no proven cure and treatment that would test the thresholds of his physical and emotional strength. Cancer was going medieval. Ethan went for his sword and prepared to slay the dragon.
After building up his strength Ethan would undergo 4 more months of treatment. Because his immune system would be almost completely erased, he would be confined for the duration in an isolated and sterile environment. His blood would be chemically scrubbed clean then re-booted and replenished, hopefully cancer free, with new cells produced after undergoing a painful stem-cell transplant process. In an uncontrolled environment, Ethan’s depleted body would be too weak to survive. Essentially he was brought to within a germ of death so that he may have a chance to survive. Ethan’s battle demonstrated the often-unrealized potential of the human mind, body and spirit. The strength that Ethan summoned, the indomitable will required in his fight against cancer, it is there inside us all. Though life’s relative ease may not require its company, it’s there, available and wasted by most. First Descents inspired me to do more; Ethan proved to me that I could…
Zoe was three months old when I met her. Though HIPAA laws prevent me from knowing or revealing much about that day, it’s impact has profoundly influenced the course and direction of my life. Not a day passes unaffected by our brief encounter. No decision is made without a consideration towards the lessons learned from a three-month-old girl whose life would never see its fourth month. Zoe died three days after our meeting. Her life was short. Its affect was infinite. No single moment demonstrated more effectively the importance of each day. Though Zoe’s life would eventually pass, the efforts of emergency crews and hospital staff regained and preserved it long enough for her family to say good-bye. They were by her side as she took her last breath, as her heart beat for the last time.
I wonder sometimes, if she were given the choice, what Zoe would have been willing to endure to live. Would she have agreed to a broken arm, a bad hair day or financial hardship? Would she have traded her peaceful death for a battle with Cancer and the chance to see her 30th Birthday? I think she would have. I know I would have. Unlike Zoe, I can choose. I can choose how I live each day, what I do with it. Knowing they are a blessing, I make choices now with a conscious understanding of life’s delicate nature. That is the gift of life as taught to me by a three month old baby girl.
Small occurrences and ordinary people are what have had the most influence on my life. Intimate encounters have revealed the details of life’s balance. From the power and support I gain from my own family, to the inspiration of an organization, to the strength of a man and the precious life of a little girl, I have seen both rock and rain drop. I have bared witness to the tremendous force of life alongside its equally powerful fragility. It is for these reasons I live an inspired life, undeterred by challenge, appreciative of each day. It is for these reasons that I am part of Team First Descents.
Help inspire someone. Click the link to First Descents to visit my page and join the revolution!