Damian O’Doherty: Cancer Confessional – Papa’s Home

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First in a series dedicated to The Johns Hopkins University’s Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center, music, and our power, together, to heal.

We awoke slower than the morning arrived. My wife and two year old daughter lay groggy and lethargic on the bed. Still clutching each other. Two days in a row for mom and her inseparable 2-year-old. The night before, as I crept into bed after a late night at work, Alycia had said something about waiting for a test for strep from Pavilion Pediatrics. Maybe the kid had strep throat. Why not, the hits keep coming, I thought. My wife had a miscarriage just three weeks before.

I shook off the weary morning and the work travel that weighed on me, setting off on a short run through Towson. It felt good to escape the sick-yellowish hue of our bedroom to the orange morning glow outside. I was running. Creaking. Soon, I was soothed by the autumn sun peeking above the construction activity just beginning on Towson University’s growing West Campus. Then, I felt a peculiar insight come over me as Widespread Panic’s “Papa’s Home” was delivered on my iPod. 

The driving travel anthem dominated me entirely from my headset, to my eardrums, to my heartbeat, to my sluggish feet.

“Papa’s hitting the road again
Takes the show cross country for hire”

The often-indiscernible difference between drumming up business with late night client dinners, catching up with referral sources and friends after a long public hearing, and the never-admitted dinnertime avoidance of the demands of a fierce toddler and weary wife had taken its toll. Alternating sparks of guilt and righteous indignation lit up my head. Long drives to political events and after-parties with friends seemed like an equally unnecessary and necessary part of my gig.

“To the highway where some new cowboys go
Drivers and drifters and rouges
And the crew’s still working
Everybody’s cracking jokes
Morning comes so easy
Sharing stories and forgetting time”

I turned up the lane picking up as much speed as an overweight, late 30-something can muster uphill. Clearing out the conflicting thoughts, the chorus in my head tracked the lyrics with its own disdainful and judgmental agenda. “You are out late driving all the time. What if you are jamming out emails on your Blackberry, lose your attention, and BAM,” I said to myself. “You think a toddler is trouble? Do you really need to be with clients until 11:30pm?” Echoes of my friend, DI, admonishing, “Nothing good happens after midnight.” 

Then I thought, “You think your marriage is tough now? They are there in bed. You’ll go to work all day and night. And there they are at home – alone – again?”

Playing the tune over and over again.

“Mom’s holding sister in the chair
Turning pages of photographs
Warm in their memories
Falling asleep by the fire”

After 25 minutes on the road, I was closing back in on my house and running past all our neighbors’ Craftsman homes that line Park Avenue in West Towson – delicately decorated for the approach of Halloween. A surge of energy constricted around my detergent dry throat and continuously gulping Adam’s apple. The tears came like a flood – out of all sides of my eyes, down my face. They got to my shirt. Wicked away. This is Under Armour country after all. Some tears hit the alternatively black and grey patched pavement you find in parsimonious Baltimore County.

The tears were running across my face now. They were running all the way just under my ears, as I picked up speed to my door front. The tears weren’t pain. The tears weren’t sadness. Certainly, they weren’t tears of joy. It was an indescribable feeling of flushed energy all around me.

“He’s working his way to make it home
The old man gonna be a sight”

With all my energy, I bounded up the steps. Alycia and Avey were still asleep.  A collision of energy and somnambulance occurred. It ricocheted me to the shower in the guest bedroom with a small Bose speaker in hand. I played the song again as I washed off all the sweat and calmed my huffing down. The lyrics. The thoughts. The tears. Gushing. All over again. Tears again, greeting the showerhead water as if they were saying, this is a job for salt water, not City water. I got out. Got dry. Back into shape, I dressed and drove to work for another long day scheduled ahead of me. 

To the highway where some old cowboys go”

Around 11am, I was in our conference room looking out over the intersection of Pratt and President in downtown Baltimore.  A bright and cool fall morning in Charm City is the reason we live here, I thought. My assistant Katlyn, the sunniest person you could ever meet, called out, “Dr. Michelle Singer from Pavilion Pediatrics is on the phone.”

“Damian, Alycia asked me to call you,” Dr. Singer said with utmost confidence and calm. “She is heading downtown now. Right now. To the emergency room at Hopkins. 

“Avey’s blood test showed some results that lead us to believe she may have Leukemia,” the doctor said with extreme clarity. “We aren’t sure yet.” 

(Thank goodness Tiffany, the nurse practitioner, alerted Dr. Singer to the blood from Avey’s mouth swab for strep, my wife would later remind us. That nurse’s insights triggered the additional blood test.) 

“Look, the tests downtown at Hopkins will tell us definitively, but this is incredibly serious,” she insisted compassionately. “You can meet Alycia and Avey there. Don’t call her while she’s driving. You should have someone drive you,“ the doctor urged.

All those words seemed to happen at once as if they were literally stacked atop one another, and then knocked down like Jenga blocks into complete incomprehension. Widespread panic shot through my whole body. “Oh, my G*D, oh my G*D, oh my G*D,” I said repeatedly, almost as if it were a meditation on horror. The constricted feeling that was around my throat earlier that morning had migrated and reappeared entirely around my beer-shaped belly. My gut was pressed against itself. For the first time I felt muscles there. Completely constricted. Unflinching. “Oh, my G*D, oh my G*d, oh my G*d.”

I couldn’t stop saying it aloud. Louder and louder. I eschewed offers from Katlyn and my partners Howard and Steve to drive me to Hopkins. Tears down my face. “Oh, my G*d!” I was off to Hopkins.

I got lost 3 times driving the 15 blocks to Hopkins from my office. I should have taken the doctor’s orders and gotten a ride. I called my buddy Martin. Not because he shared the same name as the Knott campus - atop which the great teaching hospital grows. Not because he could get me there, but only because he could get me there. He’s a force of will. Positive will.

“Calm down,” Martin urged. “You don’t even know if it’s leukemia.” 

“But, but,” I yelped.

“Look, even if it is childhood leukemia, you won’t know what the prognosis is until you discover which kind of leukemia it is,” he continued clinically. “Childhood leukemia is 95% curable.”

“You are going to the best place in the world,” he asserted. “They are doing amazing research at Hopkins. Avey is going to be fine.” We hung up and I could finally find my way.

“The old man is gonna be sight…
Papa’s coming home.” 

The research occurring at Johns Hopkins is driving amazing outcomes. But, it takes enormous investment in research and incredible professional sacrifices from a team of the most educated, compassionate healers in the world to make these outcomes possible. Together, we must do more to support these researchers.


Damian O’Doherty is a partner at KOFA Public Affairs. He is looking for swimmers and sponsors to raise money and awareness for Johns Hopkins Bayview’s team effort to earn support for Johns Hopkins University’s Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center.  You can make a credit card donation by clicking here or by sending a check to Swim Across America, c/o Meadowbrook Aquatic Center, P.O. Box 10493, Baltimore, MD 21209
To purchase “Papa’s Home” or any Widespread Panic music click here.

Just five days, before the Baltimore Open Water Swim, Widespread Panic will be performing at The Hippodrome in Baltimore. To join Damian for an exciting pre-party highlighting Johns Hopkins University’s Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center, please email .

To purchase tickets to the show click here

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