Even the Smallest Step Will Help Children's Hospital Campaign

By John Kelly
Monday, November 17, 2008

The fastest Chuck Wagner ever drove in his Dodge Daytona Turbo was on a June afternoon in 1988. His 3-year-old son, Greg, was in the back seat dying.

Chuck's destination as he tore down I-270 20 years ago was a hospital in Gaithersburg, but Greg wasn't there very long before a helicopter was summoned and he was choppered toward a place all we parents hope our children never have to go to but a place we're so glad exists: Children's National Medical Center.

Recently, I was in the large, airy atrium at Children's when a helicopter came in. I heard a low whoomp-whoomp-whoomp as it approached and then noticed what seemed like the lightest of snowfalls: The helicopter's rotors had dislodged tiny bits of insulation and dust from the five-story atrium, and the specks were slowly drifting down. Another dangerously ill child was on his way to the emergency room.

Today we start our annual fundraising campaign for Children's Hospital. It's a long tradition here at The Washington Post. For nearly five decades, readers have supported the proposition that anyone should be able to be treated at Children's. The money we raise each year goes to pay the bills of poor kids. As we enter this season of giving, I hope you'll consider making a tax-deductible gift toward our goal of raising $500,000 by Jan. 9.

Greg's parents at first thought that their son had been stung by a bee, so quickly did he collapse while playing with a friend in their Damascus neighborhood. But it was no bee sting. On X-rays, the back of Greg's head was awash in white, an indication of a torrent of blood. He had suffered a brain aneurysm.

The lifesaving operation at Children's lasted 14 hours, and when it was over, Greg's doctors couldn't say for sure what the future held. Would he be able to talk again? Would he be able to walk?

I'm happy to say that Greg, now 23, can walk and talk -- and do much more besides. We had lunch together recently in the cafeteria of the Rosslyn-based consulting firm he works for, the Potomac River spread out below us. He described his two-month stay at Children's and the hard work that started when he was discharged, as physical therapists helped him gain balance and flexibility and strengthen his right side. It was, at times, excruciating, but spurred on by his parents and his therapists, he persevered.

"Being a 3-year-old, I'm not going to want to do these physical therapy exercises when I know I'm not going to do them properly," he remembered. "No kid wants to fail, especially when they know that they're going to fail."

But failure was followed by success. By the time Greg was in college, it was hard to tell that he suffered from any disability. Exercise was still hard, though, and he was a bit plumper than he would have liked. So one day he started running.

"I ran for a quarter-mile," Greg said. "The next day I said, 'Okay, I can run a quarter-mile. Let me try a half-mile.' "

By running every single day for six months, in Damascus and at school at McDaniel, Greg lost 53 pounds. "A friend didn't even recognize me. He said, 'Greg, go run a marathon.' I said, 'Okay.' "

Greg ran his first marathon in October 2007 in Baltimore. Since then, he has run three more, including the Boston Marathon, where he finished first in the mobility-impaired division. Now he has a message for any child slowed, like he was, by a medical emergency: "Yeah, I'm a 20-year brain aneurysm survivor, but I can still finish first in my division in the Boston Marathon. . . . Hopefully, I'm going to go back and defend that title this year."

I see in Greg a metaphor for our campaign: If we just put one foot in front of the other -- thousands of tiny steps, thousands of small donations -- we can reach $500,000. The race starts today. Please help us make it to the finish line.

How to Help

To donate, write a check or money order payable to "Children's Hospital" and mail it to Washington Post Campaign, P.O. Box 17390, Baltimore, Md. 21297-1390.

To donate online using a credit card, go to http://www.washingtonpost.com/childrenshospital.

To contribute by phone using Visa or MasterCard, call 202-334-5100 and follow the instructions on the recording.

My blog: Read it and join in at http://voices.washingtonpost.com/commons.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company