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Men Making a Difference: Mark Gregory

By David Greisman

10:00 AM EST, December 12, 2011

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Mark Gregory remembers.

He remembers dates. There was the day after Thanksgiving in 1989, when doctors found a tumor near his brain. Then there was July 26, 1991, when Gregory, who’d been diagnosed with multiple myeloma, underwent a bone marrow transplant to try to keep the cancer from returning.

He remembers names. Two decades later, he recalls the doctors who examined and treated him. His oncologist has become a longtime friend.

And he remembers Hope Lodge in Baltimore. After an extended stay at The Johns Hopkins Hospital, doctors wanted him to remain within half an hour of the hospital while he continued outpatient treatment. At the time, Gregory lived in Greenbelt. “If you can’t get here within 30 minutes or less, you can die,” he recalls the doctors telling him.

Hopkins staff connected Gregory with Hope Lodge, a Baltimore facility funded by the American Cancer Society that was able to accommodate him free for 30 days.

“Think of it in terms of a Ronald McDonald House for adult cancer patients,” he says. “I went back and forth to the hospital every day, without cost, and that is absolutely a time that was critical continued treatment, and it didn’t force us into a backbreaking financial endeavor trying to stay someplace.”

Gregory remembers Hope Lodge, and for the 20-year anniversary of his bone marrow transplant, he decided to raise $15,000 for the facility -- equivalent to one month of its general operating expenses.

“First the concept was that I was going to do something to pay them back,” says Gregory, now a 56-year-old photographer living in Clarksville. “You learn you can’t really pay back in life. You pay forward.”

Gregory had noticed swelling behind his left eye for a few weeks in November 1989 but didn’t have it checked out until his future sister-in-law, who was studying to become an optometrist, joined the family for Thanksgiving. His swelling was becoming more pronounced. She told him of an ophthalmologist friend who could see him the next day.

One examination couldn’t explain the swelling. A CAT scan found the tumor on his meninges, the membranes surrounding his brain and spinal cord. Within weeks, he also learned that his wife, Kathy, was pregnant with their third child.

Surgeons removed the tumor, which was malignant, in January 1990. Doctors continued to monitor his health; there were no traces of cancer in his system, but doctors saw the telltale signs that it could return. He would later be diagnosed with multiple myeloma, which the National Institutes of Health defines as a cancer of the plasma cells in bone marrow.

“The options for treatment, they said, would be ‘ignore it and be dead in two years,’ or ‘take a shot at the bone marrow transplant,’” Gregory recalls.

He opted for the transplant, of course. His youngest brother, Joe, was the donor. Gregory remained in the hospital for two months then transitioned to Hope Lodge.

The facility has 26 private rooms, each with two beds and a bathroom. There are a library and a common area with a kitchen, and those staying there are taken to and from treatment (within a 3-mile radius of the facility), according to its website.

“It was a warm, comforting place,” Gregory says. “They basically provided an oasis in all the hell that I was going through.”

There are now 31 Hope Lodges in 21 states and Puerto Rico. Gregory held a fundraiser in September directly benefiting the Baltimore location. Generous donors beat the goal, bringing in more than $17,000.

“It’s an amazing thing,” said Karen Seaberry, manager of the Hope Lodge in Baltimore. “This man has a heart of gold. We are honored that he has kept the Hope Lodge in his heart all these years. He’s helping people that he will never meet. His gift will touch thousands.”

Gregory has helped out other causes in smaller but nonetheless important ways, donating his services as a portrait photographer to charity fundraisers. He also donates certificates for portraits to organizations or schools seeking to raise money.

“It simply costs me the time that it takes to do it,” he says. “But I can help them raise a couple hundred dollars here and there when I couldn’t otherwise write a check, and I support some people doing good things out in the community.”

He is considering eventually holding another fundraiser for Hope Lodge, a possibility that comes to mind when he thinks of the patients there, their families, and what they endure.

“I know the thoughts that permeate their being. I’d like to be able to do something, just a small thing, on the periphery of their world, that will give them at least some relief for all of that,” he says. “If I think I can get my family and my friends to support me again -- because my friends came through in huge ways -- then I’d do it again.”