Brett Wilson creating better life for cancer patients
TEAYS VALLEY, W.Va. - As he puts it, Brett Wilson has never, ever, ever considered himself disabled, although he is.
It would be very easy to do so considering the seemingly endless medical mountains he’s climbed in 46 years of life - beginning at age 2 when he was diagnosed with leukemia. There’s never been a point in his memory when he wasn’t impacted by illness.
Although it’s been omnipresent, it’s never been all-consuming. He’s never thought of himself as disabled because he’s always found a way forward no matter how rocky the road or uncharted the territory.
And while what’s on paper may look like a hard-knock life, Wilson’s forged it in a life well-lived for others. As a counselor and founder of his own successful patient advocacy nonprofit, he’s translated lessons learned in his own life. These life lessons have transformed his compassion and understanding into sharing knowledge with those currently undertaking the journey through cancer.
“I love that,” Wilson said, reflecting on his life and career at Drip Coffee House in Teays Valley, West Virginia. “I’ve been in these people’s shoes, and I can talk to them in a different way than the average person could.”
Wilson was born in Charleston in 1972, the second child of two Kanawha County teachers on a working-class income. Two years later, he was diagnosed with childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia - the most severe kind of cancer, with a survival rate in those years of just 20 percent. His earliest memories were filled with five years of radiation and chemotherapy.
He was paired with 10 other children for treatment almost daily. Some days, however, those children simply stopped coming. It was essentially poison given to them to kill the cancer, as he described it, and out of that original 10, he is the only one still alive.
“That’s just the dice they had to roll and hope that something happens,” Wilson said.
His remission was quick, but it took a collateral toll on his formative years. Much of his schoolwork was completed in hospitals almost daily. He felt like trash, as he said, and never could relate to healthy children his own age.
“I was fat, I was bald, I was bullied a lot,” he remembered. “People were really ignorant about cancer as a whole. There was a lot of ‘Oh, don’t get near him; he has cancer, you might catch it.’”
Wilson went to George Washington High School for two years before transferring and graduating from Charleston Catholic High School, where the rigid structure helped boost his poor academic showing. At Marshall University, he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in counseling in 1995 and 1998, focusing specifically on cancer patients.
And while that seems commonplace now, counseling was a trailblazing, if not underutilized, part of the continuum of cancer care, he remembered with visible frustration.
“When I graduated, nobody knew how to counsel cancer patients,” he said.
It’s now the norm, and now commonly called “patient navigation,” a broad term used for talking to families, explaining treatments and side effects and generally tending to their needs.
These were courtesies not extended to the Wilson family in the earlier days of cancer treatment.
After interning at Charleston Area Medical Center, Wilson found work in North Carolina in Duke University Cancer Institute.
But in 2006, at age 35, he suddenly began having long-term complications from his childhood treatment - issues he was never told he might have.
After arriving to the doctor with a heart rate of 28 beats per minute, Wilson had a pacemaker put in. Also, his gallbladder had calcified and had to be removed.
His health brought him back to West Virginia, but the move unknowingly helped lay the groundwork for realizing a childhood dream first floated in 1982 - to provide resources to families with cancer.
That dream materialized in 2012 when Wilson founded Walking Miracles Family Foundation, which provides travel reimbursement twice annually to families traveling to cancer treatment in West Virginia and surrounding states.
“Once you leave the hospital system, you’re basically on your own until you have to go back to the hospital,” Wilson explained.
“We found that the biggest barrier that families face is travel. In West Virginia, the average travel for cancer treatment is two hours to Morgantown, Charleston or Huntington, and that’s usually for three years.”
During that time, he added, roughly 38 percent of a typical family’s income is spent on gas and lodging for treatment.
Walking Miracles gives to each participating family $250 twice yearly. To date, the foundation has aided more than 200 families in 33 of West Virginia’s 55 counties and given more than $35,000 in travel assistance.
The “Walking Miracles” name wasn’t chosen by accident, either. It’s what Wilson’s grandmother once called him - a walking miracle.
And since then, one walking miracle has made it a mission to grant as many little miracles as possible to those still walking the journey he’s completed.
Follow reporter Bishop Nash on Twitter at @BishopNash.