Joe Henderson Columns
Wagner Determined To Finish Strong
First came the tingling feeling in his feet and toes, but soon there was no feeling at all. Not long after that, he couldn't stand or walk. He feels nothing from his rib cage down. Even after all the hospitals and all the tests, though, doctors can't tell Jeff Wagner for sure why this is happening. It might be cancer - again. It might be something else. "All of them basically suggested I learn to live life in a wheelchair," he said. "One of the doctors told me that if I get better, the doctor that comes up with the cure will win the Nobel Prize in medicine. They tell me they've only seen five or six cases like this in the world."No one has said this is a battle you can't win. What they do say is if the cancer is back, it's incurable. They say I'll never stand or walk again. I'm ready to fight it, though. I don't care what anybody says, I'm going to finish strong." Finish Strong. Jeff Wagner's name is perhaps only vaguely familiar to the average sports fan, but his cause - and his "Finish Strong" battle cry - became a national story last fall. His beloved University of South Florida football team used those words as motivation when it rose to the No. 2 ranking in the nation. When people asked what the words meant, they were told about Wagner's five-year battle against leukemia. They were told about his close relationship with USF football coach Jim Leavitt. They were told about a marvelous man of faith who has ventured deep into the pit of human fear and refused to be conquered. He used to compete in triathlons but now he needs help getting out of bed. Rather than give in, though, he'll tell you, "I am really blessed to have this platform to help me and other battlers, whether it is cancer, spinal cord injuries, or anything else. I feel like God is calling me for that." Waiting To Hear Inside treatment room 16 on the fourth floor of the Bone Marrow Transplant Clinic at the Moffitt Cancer Center, Wagner waited last week for news - news that things were getting better, or worse, or anything that might shed light on the baffling ailment that stalks him. He flexed his fingers repeatedly as he lay on his hospital bed. He fears the paralysis is hunting fresh game there. Losing movement in his fingers would rob him of a vital communication outlet. He spends a lot of time on the Internet, either researching his condition, sending e-mails or updating a Web site (carepages.com) to provide information about him to well-wishers. "He is an amazing person and patient," said Ernesto Ayala, one of doctors working on Wagner's case. "He has been through so many issues and problems, yet he stays positive and upbeat. A spinal cord injury after a stem cell transplant is very unusual. You see spinal cord injuries but they usually result from some trauma. To see a post-transplant condition like this is rare." The news on this day was mixed. Ayala briefed Wagner for 20 minutes or so behind closed doors but left the room smiling. "There are some concerns with blood counts going down, but there's nothing definitive," Wagner said. "It's a to-be-continued story." Blood counts could be the body's alarm bell that leukemia has returned. Wagner has already fought that beast twice - acute lymphoblastic leukemia in 2003, then acute myeloid leukemia in 2007. He ran the Gasparilla half marathon and finished a triathlon after the first battle with leukemia. And the stem cell transplant in August sent the second round of leukemia into remission. The creeping paralysis began to set in not long after that, however. Doctors don't know if it is linked to the transplant, or the chemo he had to use, or - ominously - if it indicates leukemia is back for another go. One theory is the disease has invaded his spinal cord, causing swelling and paralysis. Wagner went to the renowned Miami Project last week to let doctors there examine him. Doctors at Shands Hospital in Gainesville have been working on the case, too. They're all sharing information, trying to find out what is causing this and what, if anything, can be done. Miami has suggested "aggressive intervention" for the paralysis but, Wagner said simply, "If the cancer is back, that complicates things." His medical bills have topped $1 million, but it hasn't been a problem. He has good insurance. "One less thing to be concerned about," he said. Relies On Faith You can't talk about Jeff Wagner without talking about God. They're on a first-name basis and in constant communication. His is a deep faith, and it's real. "I remember visiting him in the hospital at Moffitt and I got the sense that he knew God has something planned for him," said Kevin Miller, a pastor at the sprawling Idlewild Baptist Church, where Wagner is a member and attends Miller's Marriage Building class. "Even in the midst of tragedy, he will use this for God's glory. He is always so positive. He has kept on believing he has something positive to share. His faith hasn't weakened through this. If anything, it has gotten stronger." Wagner talks about wanting to write a book about his experience, give motivational speeches, maybe even go on "Oprah" - all so he can tell people about the source of his healing, if that is to be. "I'd like to tell people how Christ and prayer helped me overcome," he said. "I don't want to have any pity parties." So instead of focusing on fear and dread, he talks about the upcoming football season at USF. Leavitt calls and visits regularly. Wagner's immune system is strong enough right now that he can get out in public. He already has seats picked out at Ray-Jay for the games this fall. As he talked about that, though, Wagner's voice choked and a tear formed at the corner of his left eye. "I know Leavitt feels a sense of urgency to win the Big East with my situation," he said. "Whether my seat is here or in heaven, though, I'll see it. I love USF." The tear quickly dried and Wagner pulled himself up a bit in the bed. He flexed his fingers some more. The doctor was gone now but the battle goes on. More tests will follow. There will be more mountains to scale. There are USF football games to watch. There are fears to be confronted. There is life to be lived. "I look at what he has been through in his life and the path he is on and wonder how he can do it," said friend Troy Puleo, a leader in his Sunday School class. "Jeff is a complete inspiration for me and our class. We have about 100 people in our class and Jeff still comes when he can and gives us updates. "When you hear the things he has been through, it makes any problems you have seem minute." The long road Wagner has traveled is longer still. He thinks about that, about the battles he yet must face, but if he is scared it doesn't show. The smile is bright, the jaw resolute, the resolve still strong. "God never gives you more than you can handle," he said. "I say that to myself every day and I truly believe it. I really think we're going to win. I really do."