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A gift from within

South Boston News
From left: Nancy, Will and W.J. Long and W.J.’s sister, Kelly Long Weatherford. / January 11, 2018
Last summer, W.J Long was in the kind of physical condition many 51-year-old men can only wish for: he worked out regularly with weights, played golf as often as he could, didn’t smoke, and followed a diet that would put a junk food lover to shame.

Yet by August, “he looked like a ghost,” said Kelly Long Weatherford, his sister.

The cause of Long’s decline took some time to discover. Sometime during mid-July, he began to suffer bouts of fatigue, and by the end of August he had lost a disturbing amount of weight. He did enjoy a brief respite in mid-August when he won two golf tournaments at Halifax Country Club — the Memorial Tournament and the Club Championship.

Not bad for someone who had Leukemia.

Today, Long is patiently waiting for Jan. 31, when he is scheduled to receive a bone marrow transplant. His outlook is brightened by having a ready marrow donor: his sister, Kelly Long Weatherford.

Weatherford, a teacher at Halifax County High School, found out that her bone marrow was a perfect match to W.J.’s the day after Christmas. She has an appointment at Duke Hospital on Jan. 31 for the transplant procedure. Her brother will have checked in a week earlier.

Undergoing the marrow transplant — and hopefully reclaiming his health — is something that Long, a Halifax County Middle Schooll math teacher and veteran coach, is very much looking forward to.

“I don’t want to live like this the rest of my life, being sick all the time,” he told his wife Nancy after he was diagnosed.

After feeling weak for a good part of the summer, Long went in for tests on Sept. 1 that showed his blood count levels had hit rock bottom. On Sept. 5, after additional blood tests and a bone marrow biopsy, local oncologist Dr. Neil Schacht delivered the news to Nancy: “W.J. has one of the nastiest blood cancers you can get, but he’s young with no underlying illness, and we’ve caught it early,” recalled Nancy of the conversation with Schacht. The formal diagnosis was Acute Myeloid Leukemia, a fast-growing disease in which too many myoblasts (immature white blood cells) are found in the bone marrow and blood.

Schacht expressed confidence that W.J. could beat the disease, and sister Kelly and wife Nancy were believers, too.

WJ’s reaction upon hearing the diagnosis, said Nancy, was along the lines of: “Well, we’ll deal with it…somebody’s got to have it, why not me.” That type of attitude, reflecting W.J.’s outlook on life, is the foundation of his physical resilience, she believes.

During his 50-day-plus stay at Sentara Halifax Regional Hospital, W.J. endured three rounds of chemotherapy. The first round did nothing; holed up in a hospital room, the patient was often seen lifting weights and doing squats.

Schacht doubled down on the chemotherapy for the second round, which resulted in remission of the leukemia. Yet while everyone celebrated, nasty complications waited in the wings: W.J. went septic for ten days, sending him almost into a coma. Friends supported Nancy and W.J. with prayers and companionship.

W.J. recovered, managing to avoid the worst effects of sepsis: shock, organ failure, even death. (Sepsis results when the body’s immune system kicks in to fight an infection, but instead goes into overdrive and damages its own tissues and organs.) But two days after the sepsis cleared, W.J. complained of a serious headache.

This time, testing revealed a potentially deadly fungus in the patient’s sinus cavity. Nancy got the call while she was shopping at Wal-Mart with their 13-year-old son, Will.

The doctor said W.J. was headed for surgery, but warned that fungus in the brain is fatal. In addition, if the fungus attached to any bones, they would need to be cut out. Nancy and Will said a silent prayer together before she dashed to the hospital.

W.J. explained the experience this way: “I went from miserable to brutally miserable.”

The surgery showed the fungus was localized in W.J.’s sinus cavity and hadn’t spread further, but there was yet another dose of bad news for the family to process: doctors thought WJ’s cancer had returned. Nancy refused to accept this news and she and the family spent several days in renewed prayer for W.J.’s health. Their prayers were answered: the doctor told them there had been a mistake; the report had been misread.

The sepsis, the fungus, and the fear that W.J.’s cancer had returned took a toll on the patient’s usual optimism and physical stamina. He looked more like an 80-year-old man after losing 45 pounds. “But not an ounce of fat,” he can now joke.

While W.J. was home resting up for a third round of chemotherapy, his doctor found a DNA marker that showed his leukemia was resistant to chemotherapy. “It was a shock,” said Nancy. That is when the doctors told the family that W.J.’s best — his only — chance for a cure was a bone marrow transplant.

W.J. offered a characteristically chipper response: “Why not? It has to work — I’ve got a son to raise and a lot of golf to play.”

With sister Kelly at his side to donate the marrow that will hopefully bring about a restoration of his good health, W.J. and Nancy Long know they have much to be thankful for.

How was it to go through eight weeks of emotional highs and lows, watching her husband suffer through disease and the chance of an ever-declining prognosis? “I never lost hope,” said Nancy. “I went to chapel every day and prayed healing prayers from a binder my friends brought me.” She added, “I also stayed close to W.J. — in fact, I slept in the hospital chair three nights each week plus weekends. Being with him allowed me to keep him grounded and optimistic.”

When asked if she ever worried about impending death, she replied: “No, that is not an option … the only thing that concerned me was having to watch him go through the process and suffer the pain.”

Their faith carried the family through the ordeal, recalled Nancy. She would pray with Will, a straight-A student, every morning on their way to school. When a nurse asked Will who he turned to when he needed someone to talk to, he said, “God,” without missing a beat.

Nancy’s oldest daughter, who lives at home, acted as chief nanny for Will. Friends and family have helped out as they can, offering prayers and sending meals over daily so Nancy doesn’t have to cook. Many friends have provided rides back and forth from Duke. And Nancy is quick to thank her boss and co-workers at Edward Jones Investments in South Boston for their support during these difficult times.

W.J.’s students at the middle school sent him cookies, and both the high school and middle school held fund raisers for the family. People who the Longs haven’t seen in years — old friends, students, members of the many ball teams that W.J. has coached in his 27-year career — have sent cards, money, and their love.

After the transplant operation, Kelly will be able to quickly return to her teaching job at Halifax County High School, but W.J. has another three months of follow-up care ahead: 30 days in the hospital, and another 60 days in an apartment next to the hospital because of the need for daily checkups.

After that, it is a waiting game to see if W.J.’s body will accept his sister’s bone marrow. Nancy is confident the operation will take; her faith tells her it will be a success, she says.

W.J. will not be able to join his family on a pre-planned Caribbean cruise in June, but he has definite plans to play golf at the famed Pebble Beach layout to celebrate his new life.

The Longs want people to know they are doing fine and want to pay it all forward. Two of Nancy’s friends have just recently been diagnosed with cancer, along with hundreds of others in Halifax County. Their greatest wish is for others to receive the same support they have enjoyed.

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This Article was so touching,it just shows how having faith in God prevails.W.J. and family are in my prayers for a complete recovery.

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