Amid cancer, Hogan finds 'a real camaraderie'

Erin Cox
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
To cancer buddy, Gov. Larry Hogan is 'just another dad who's sick'

Andrew Oberle didn't mean to make the governor cry.

It was just that Andrew started chemotherapy a year ago, when he was 4, and he thought Gov. Larry Hogan could use a list of tips about how to get through it. So he handed the governor, bald like Andrew from the chemo drugs, a cheat sheet at a cancer awareness event. Hogan read aloud with a flourish.

No. 1: Remember to put the numbing cream on before they give you a "pokie," Andrew advised for the myriad needle sticks.

No. 4: Pray to God.

No. 7: Make a friend at clinic who knows how you feel.

No. 9: It's OK to cry, just make sure you have your "hugging person" with you.

By No. 10, the governor was in tears.

"We get hundreds, thousands of these kinds of things," Hogan said. "But meeting him, seeing him, having him give it to me … it really touched me."

Since revealing his cancer diagnosis in June, Hogan has forged a sprawling yet intimate support network that includes friendships with a middle-aged mother of three, a man with Down syndrome and Andrew, the 5-year-old boy who now considers the governor his pen pal.

Hogan carried Andrew's letter with him, tucked safely among his work papers, for days before giving it a place of honor on his desk.

While the Republican governor has delegated many of his public appearances to deputies, he has nonetheless put his cancer and chemotherapy treatment on full public display. He, or his staff at his direction, posts hundreds of photos to his Facebook page, many with his chemo port visible beneath his polo shirt, most taken at Hogan's insistence as he works the cancer floor at the University of Maryland Medical Center like it was a parade route.

"There is a real camaraderie of people who are going through similar experiences," said Hogan, 59. "It doesn't matter if you're white or black, young or old, they're going through the same thing."

He has taken on the role of advocate, presenting the image of a joyful warrior that political experts say has engendered a lot of goodwill. All the while, he's stayed intimately involved in running the state, with some top staffers bemused at how the governor seems to stay on top of details — summoning them to his Baltimore treatment room for a briefing if they forget to send him an update. Despite doctors' repeated urging to avoid crowds, Hogan holds news conferences and attends big cancer awareness events, like the one where he met Andrew.

He's hosted pediatric and adult cancer patients for Ravens and Redskins games in the government-owned skyboxes. He's chatted in the Orioles dugout with manager Buck Showalter, and star outfielder Adam Jones lent the governor a batting glove so Hogan could shake 500 hands without completely compromising his immune system. It was the first time Hogan shook hands in two months. Afterward, he ached for days.

"He really is energized with his connection and contact with people," said Aaron Rapoport, a hematologist-oncologist treating Hogan. "It's hard to tell him he can't engage in that way because it's important for his emotional health."

Hogan's affable perseverance and humility while undergoing treatment "has really reached across partisan lines," said Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College.

His cancer diagnosis has been humanizing, in part because the disease touches so many people — roughly one in three Americans will develop cancer in their lifetimes.

"It's brought a level of warm and personal affection for the governor," Kromer said.

People like him better whether or not they support him politically; he has made decisions that have rankled Democrats, aborting plans for Baltimore's Red Line and abruptly closing the troubled Baltimore City Detention Center without consulting city officials, among them.

Perhaps inevitably, his cancer has become political fodder. A columnist suggested Hogan's cancer treatment was affecting his judgment. In response, Hogan's re-election campaign sent out a fundraising email soliciting donations.

"Make no mistake," the message read. "The liberal media will use every tactic in the book to stop him."

None of that matters to Shelley Jones-Wilson, who didn't vote in the last election and never talks politics with her cancer buddy.

The first time she encountered Hogan, the governor was heckling her in the hallway.

A scarf shrouding her bald head, she was walking laps at the medical center to ward off some of chemotherapy's side effects. And here was this gray-haired man from the news, new to cancer, giving her a hard time and telling her to slow down.

"He teased me about how he could never keep up with me," said Jones-Wilson, 51. "That broke the ice. Eventually I said to him that I saw his news conference, and I was glued to it."

Jones-Wilson and the governor have little in common, save for happenstance. Doctors diagnosed both with the same form of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma within months of each other. She is Stage 4, he is Stage 3. They both have reason for hope. About 70 percent of people diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma survive five years or more.

The two also share a bubbly personality, a sharp wit, and a treatment schedule. They talk shop about symptoms, struggles and fears.

"He convinced me that I was beautiful bald, and now you almost never see me in a scarf," Jones-Wilson said. "The governor calls me his inspiration. I don't know why. I respect him, and I know he's the governor, but unlike most people, I don't see him as the governor first at all. He's a patient."

Jones-Wilson was the first cancer patient Hogan met. He noticed the bright smile on her face while the other patients were lying in bed. Now he does laps, too, having figured out it takes 17 revolutions to do a mile, hauling the chemotherapy drugs on a cart alongside him.

"I want to be just like you," he recalls telling her. "That's where the camaraderie comes from. … I don't act like the governor, they don't treat me like the governor. We're just buddies walking around."

He's also a patient with an active Facebook page, and Jones-Wilson takes him to task when she sees he was out in public again, shaking hands. The fact he wore a glove makes no difference.

"He knows how I feel about that," she said.

"She's so funny," Hogan said. "She gives me a little lecture, like my mom. 'I saw those pictures, and you're still shaking hands. I saw you again last week.'"

Hogan has arrived early for each of his chemotherapy treatments, the sixth and final one scheduled to begin Friday. He visits other wings, chats up doctors who have nothing to do with his treatment, regales his own medical team with stories about the sick children he's met.

When Hogan teared up as he told Rapoport about the courage he saw in a girl named Juliana, he warned his doctor with faux seriousness: "Don't tell anybody that the governor cries easily."

Juliana Carver, 13, is preparing for a bone marrow transplant, now that her muscle cancer has returned for the fifth time in eight years. In August, her parents brought her down to Annapolis, wearing a pink "Cancer fears me" bandanna to meet Hogan and his wife, Yumi, at a charity event.

Juliana's dad, John W. Carver, is on the board of the Children's Cancer Foundation. He posts footage of his daughter's many encounters on his YouTube channel and manages her active "Angels for Juliana" Facebook account. By the time she spent an hour with the Hogans, Juliana was used to inspiring grown-ups.

"To her, he's just another guy, another dad who's sick," John Carver said. "When I saw his face, he was very pale, his eyes were very dark. From caring for a sick kid all of these years, I know that pain, and I know that exhaustion that comes with treatment."

Juliana and another girl, Carver said, seemed to have a profound effect on Hogan. "He was pulling from them. He was pulling strength and pulling power and pulling hope."

Hogan has no illusion about why he surrounds himself with cheerful cancer patients.

"People say to me, 'Oh, it's so great what you're doing with the kids, and it really inspires them.'" Hogan said. "I actually get more out of it than the kids because it inspires me. … Look at what they're going through. Look how positive they are. … I feed off of it. I feel better every time I meet one."

He doesn't always look better. His Thursday news conference about the threat of Hurricane Joaquin coincided with what's typically the nadir of his chemotherapy cycle.

"We saw him on TV," said Hogan's friend Jimmy Myrick, 33, a leukemia patient with Down syndrome. "He's not looking so good, and that's not good with me."

Myrick and Hogan once had side-by-side rooms during treatment. Since Hogan's the governor, Myrick jokes that automatically makes him a mayor.

Hogan says he finds Myrick infectiously positive. But he was stunned to see a photo of them garner dozens of comments on Facebook because Myrick has more friends than him. "He's a rock star," Hogan said.

Though the governor widely publicizes his treatment, he less often discusses its physical toll.

He says he looked up one day and realized his eyelashes were gone. One chemo drug gives him splitting headaches. Another drug robs him of feeling in his hands and feet. "I went to sign something," he said. "And nothing showed up, because I couldn't tell how hard I was pressing on the pen."

When he responded to Andrew, Hogan chose a typewritten note. He thanked Andrew especially for tip No. 7.

"I'm so glad we are friends," Hogan wrote. "Keep showing everyone how strong you are. Let's kick cancer's butt."

ecox@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2017, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
45°