Michael White: The 1997 American Cancer Society's Courage Award Winner

Last Modified: March 27, 2002

September 26, 1997

My Dear Friends,

This is without a doubt one of the highest honors one might ever dream of receiving. With humbleness, I thank you all for this very special recognition.

It is with mixed feelings that I address you in writing rather than in person. I am currently strong and healthy and have accepted a management position with a subsidiary of Sarasota Memorial Hospital. My new responsibilities place me in Puerto Rico as you meet. However, this situation provides an opportunity for me to express some important thoughts in response to this meaningful award.

It is fitting that Sherri Morris agreed to present the courage award at this year?s annual meeting. Last year at this time, I was undergoing some extraordinarily strong chemotherapy that shook my confidence. This was in preparation for my wife and I to leave our children and live in Houston for 100 days for a bone marrow transplant. The future was filled with darkness and I was filled with deep fears, both real and imagined. In this mode, I watched and listened as Sherri received the 1996 Courage Award. My friends, last year at this very meeting, Sherri and her story provided things I desperately needed ? courage, determination, and a positive attitude.

Ironic, is it not, that a touching letter addressed to me from Mr. Miles Davis and Doctor Gray Mason Jr. of the American Cancer Society states that I have demonstrated the very traits I observed in Sherri. It is strange to read this knowing I was very fearful, wavering, and frequently negative about the future. This would suggest we have something important to ponder here.

If courage is defined as weighing one?s options, and deciding on a particular path in spite of risks, pain, and the unknown, then I ask only that this award be given in recognition of every courageous patient and family member that wrestles with cancer. In my case, the fact remains that I do know fear. I desire an easier path. If there is courage, where does courage come from?

For me, courage continues to come from exposure to my peers. Hope flows from my peers. Knowledge is shared by my peers. Inspiration is ignited after learning about my peers. Simply buying time can make all the difference, and this is a lesson I learned well from my peers. Last year I composed my last will and testament, experienced some tearful good-byes, and went off to Houston to dance with death. My physician?s in Sarasota and Houston are some of the best in the world by any measure, and in consulting with me the decision was made that I was in a very high-risk situation and I should not receive the bone marrow transplant until my condition absolutely forced it. I was sent home. Would I ever muster that courage again?

September, 1997 ? one year later, I am told that the high-risk transplant is not the preferred treatment option at this time. New studies indicate that if and when I need to be treated, it may very well involve stopping by the doctor?s office as an outpatient four or five times. New treatments are proving to be remarkably effective for others with my particular disease, even where transplants failed them in the past.

I can accept this recognition of courage under one condition. I accept this on behalf of all patients and family members, our peers, that share and communicate their experiences. We must realize that courage, hope, and inspiration are often gifts that we receive from others. Many people have endured far worse than I, and continue to do so with incredible courage and determination. Perhaps some gifts can only be given by a peer. In any case, it is all peers that should be recognized for their unique and powerful gifts. It is our peers that forged a path where there was no path. I am eternally grateful to my peers.

Memories of my darkest days also include memories that will continue to inspire me until the day I die.

As you know, a bone marrow transplant today costs over a quarter of a million dollars. My managed care insurance provider was ? shall we say ? "un-supportive". However, my friends organized a fund raising rummage sale on my behalf. It became an event -- appropriately called ?friends helping friends?. Friends and family put in incredible hours of very hard work, filled with frustration. On the day of the event, I was too weak to shower or shave, but was compelled to drive to our church where the sale was taking place, just to make an appearance. In my car I sat in stunned silence as I looked at a bicycle someone had donated. I began physically shaking and crying because that bike was at the end of a very long row of donated bicycles. The bikes were outside of the building, along with lawn mowers, furniture, and other large items that had been collected. The building?s interior was literally overflowing with other donations. Weak and tired, I went home to rest as my friends worked on until, mercifully, the event day came to an end.

I drove back to the rummage sale, and saw my friends and family completely exhausted, with many of them actually sprawled on the cold hard floor. Some of my friends came by our house that evening and presented me with a huge poster-board "check" they had fashioned. The amount was filled-in for many thousands of dollars ? generated from a rummage sale! My friends also established a fund in my name at a local bank. Multitudes of mystery donations poured in week after week. An unknown executive at my place of employment (yet another managed care insurance company), quietly and secretly arranged to cover cost of lodging for my wife and I during the entire 100-plus days of treatment.

So off I go to Houston ? backed by an entire community! While in Houston, unpleasant procedures were performed followed by chilling test results. At the end of that week, Lori and I were sent home to Florida as a world-wide search for a marrow donor began. To this day, no match has been found.

While in Houston, I needed and found strength beyond myself. I was buoyed-up ? rendered completely unsinkable in spirit because of my friends. I had been sent to Houston by a powerful entourage. No matter what happened, I knew every thing would be all right ? even when my doctor in Houston stepped into the exam room and stated "We have a problem." The Apollo 13 analogy was not lost on me. In my mind I could hear the crackling radio message received on earth, "Houston, we have a problem."

I will be forever grateful and inspired by my family and friends, my employers and co-workers, Lori?s employers and co-workers, and the hundreds of others that signed the well-wishers board during the rummage sale. I will be forever grateful to those that make anonymous donations.

Regarding the courage award ? you now know as I do what it truly represents ? coordinated support from health-care professionals, peers, family, friends, and good people that will forever be unknown to us. So ? what to do with the award? Certainly ? I cannot keep it for myself knowing what an award such as this truly represents.

The answer comes from this board of directors. I received a memo documenting a board meeting I was not able to attend and it states the American Cancer Society will continue taking steps to work closely with The Wellness Community. This will surely be to the benefit of patients and their families. I applaud this effort. I enjoyed the quiet and comfortable surroundings of the Wellness Community on Clark Road as I listened to a peer tell her story of the Houston bone marrow transplant that cured her. She now has a new blood type ? that of the donor ? a marrow donor she was actually able to meet in dramatic fashion.

Only now can I accept this award, because it is on behalf of many devoted health-care professionals, peers, family, and friends. This will be presented to the Wellness Community in recognition of their mission and good work. I will remember many peers, friends, and family each time I see this award, and I will recall a secret (perhaps naïve) dream of someday working with both the American Cancer Society and The Wellness Community towards a common goal.

Once hospitalized for a week with serious complications, I shared a room with another boat captain ? an old man. Each of us were wondering if we would survive and you can only imagine the crusty fishing stories we shared. One evening the old man broke the silence with, "Mike ? you only need three things in life. Something to do, something to look forward to, and someone to love."

I have learned from my friends we only need someone to love, for with that - we will always have something to do and something to look forward to.

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