Willie: Working with Opportunity

Willie J. is talking on the phone from the house he built for his mother in North Carolina in a recently added room that he's using as an office. Lately he's been travelling back and forth between Columbia, Maryland, where he lives, and the Carolinas, where he's helping care for his mom.

Rather than just relax on these Southern trips, or take a little time off, the 66-year old entrepreneur and cancer survivor instead is working the phones, moving forward, staying on task.

This is Willie. He's a half-full guy. He does not stop because he can, he moves forward instead because he's been given the opportunity to.

"I'm not entitled to anything,” Willie says. “I have a new lease on life.  I intend to use it.”

Willie's story is a remarkable and inspiring one of a man who believes that if you give someone a chance they should take it and run. In a three year span he was diagnosed with cancer in two major organs, had to stop working for a time, went through chemotherapy, radiation wave, and received a liver transplant.

But today he’s sitting at a desk, back on the phone.  He’s gotten another chance, and he’s not letting it go.

“People ask me sometimes why I don’t just sit back now after all I’ve been through,” he says. “But I’m not cut from that cloth.”

Willie’s cloth is a little more old school. It’s a material that, when worn correctly, encourages hard work that eventually pays off in good things. And sometimes, with the hard work, if you’re smart and a little lucky, things will really work out. They did for Willie, thanks in part to his deep-rooted work ethic, Mercy Medical Center, some great doctors, and the stars.

Headed in the Wrong Direction

Several years back, Willie, who owned his own business selling and distributing research instrumentation for the biotech industry, went to Dr. Paul Thuluvath, Medical Director of The Institute for Digestive Health & Liver Disease at Mercy, for a routine colonoscopy. What was routine became exceptional when the procedure uncovered colon cancer. Dr. Thuluvath referred Willie to Dr. Armando Sardi, Medical Director of The Institute for Cancer Care at Mercy for treatment of the colon cancer.

But in addition to treating Willie, Dr. Sardi had some more news for him. He also had liver cancer.

“The liver cancer was much more life threatening,” Willie notes. “Things were headed in the wrong direction.”

But Willie is not a man to panic. Despite the mounting challenges, he had trust, and his own internal strength. Plus, he always knew he was in good hands.  “I wouldn’t go anywhere but Mercy Medical Center for an illness like this,” Willie noted. “I’ve always said that in life I want to work with the teacher and not the student. That’s what I got at Mercy.”

Willie describes Dr. Thuluvath as “like an architect,” in that he drew up the plans for his treatment and managed the complex process of addressing cancer in two different organs at once.  But in order for the architect’s plans to work, some things had to line up, some kismet was required.  And that’s exactly what Willie got.

A Team to Turn Things Around

Dr. Thuluvath’s initial plan was that he would treat the liver cancer with chemotherapy, while at the same time Dr. Robert Liddell of Mercy’s Radiology Department was also performing direct chemotherapy injection onto the liver tumor.  That plan changed, however, when the direct injections of chemo didn’t produce the results Dr. Thuluvath was looking for. So he  again consulted with Dr. Liddell and together they started a different procedure, this one involving radiation wave bombardment of the liver. That worked, as the liver tumor growth was retarded.

All this was  good news, because it meant Willie’s condition was stabilizing, and it was time to take the next step.

About this time all the doctors involved in Willie’s case had agreed that a transplant was the best option to treat his liver cancer.  Taking the lead, Dr. Thuluvath had gotten Willie interviews with the surgical transplantation team at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore and MedStar Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C.  Willie was accepted by both institutions and placed on the waiting list for a liver transplant.

Opportunity Knocks

In the meantime, Willie’s treatments were going so well that his positive spirit took over. After he returned home from a trip to the beach he received a phone call from the University of Maryland Medical Center saying they had found a liver and could he be at the hospital in three hours. He tried to refuse. “I was feeling so good by then that when they called I said you might want to give it to someone else.” But the nurse on the phone knew better, she said,” I think this is an opportunity that you don’t want to pass up. It doesn’t get any better than this.”

Willie received the liver the next morning from a 21-year old woman.  Appropriately, since he has the spirit and drive of a twenty-something himself.  A week later he went home.

That was two and a half years ago. Since then he’s only experienced one additional rough patch, about six months after the transplant when his liver enzymes “went off the charts.”  As usual, Dr. Thuluvath started to “work his magic” by putting him on medication that stabilized the condition. Since then he’s been fine. Maybe better.

“I feel pretty good now,” Willie said. “It’s difficult to express, but when I look back on the experience I feel like all the stars aligned for me, from the colon cancer being arrested to the liver transplant timing. It all somehow worked out right, and I have to give a lot of credit for that to Dr. Thuluvath and the staff at Mercy Medical Center.

“Dr. Thuluvath and his staff were truly remarkable. They made me feel as if I was the only patient he had, even though I know he had many, many more. When you’re at death’s door, that kind of personal attention is quite comforting.”

The Greatest Reward

So Willie has come full circle. Though he had to stop working when he was dealing with his dual cancer diagnosis, he has since started a new business, a recruitment firm for professionals in the Life Sciences, Pharmaceutical, and Biotechnology industries. On the phone now, three years after his initial diagnosis, you don’t hear a cancer patient, you hear a bright, intelligent, polite, focused and healthy man.  Willie’s working again. He’s spending time with his two grandchildren, helping his mom out in North Carolina, going to the beach when he can, and spending time with what he calls “a wonderful friend” who he plans to marry someday.

And on those rare occasions when he’s not pushing ahead, Willie takes a brief second to look back, and he’s awed by what he sees.

“It’s amazing that sometimes you have to go through so much to figure out the important things,” he noted. “At the end of the day it’s all about love and family.

“Again, things just lined up right for me with my illness. It all seemed to work out, and I can trace a lot of that back to Mercy. It’s like I told a friend, because of the medical staff, Mercy was the best place for me to be treated. Life has its grateful rewards. Getting another opportunity at it is my greatest one.”

Willie's Treatment Team