By BRAD RICH
Tideland News Writer
Two close-knit communities – one local and another far-flung – rallied around Jeffrey Fisher and his family last weekend as the Swansboro resident graduated from East Carolina during a special, emotional ceremony in his hometown.
Fisher, a Swansboro High School graduate who for more than two years has waged a courageous and inspirational battle to overcome a brain tumor diagnosed as Stage 3 in late 2010, received his bachelor’s degree in sociology during a surprise event Saturday in the Swansboro Rotary Center.
He then left home Monday – his 24th birthday – for another round of crucial and hazardous treatment at Duke University in Durham.
Although the prognosis from doctors is not good, Fisher, during the event Saturday and in a brief conversation Monday morning, displayed the good humor, optimism and fighting spirit that have endeared him and his family to all who have read or heard his story.
“I’m just figuring that the doctors aren’t too good at math,” he said Monday, just two hours before leaving for Duke. “I think they just haven’t been able to calculate how strong my spirit is. I think they’ve left that out of he equation. But if you include that, I think my chances are 99 percent.”
He knows this round of treatment will be painful and risky.
But, he added, “I told them (doctors) I can handle the pain; bring it on.”
During the ceremony/party Saturday, four professors from the the ECU Sociology Department faculty were on hand. Marieke Van Willigen presented Fisher his diploma. Richard Caston presented Fisher the Melvin J. Williams Academic Excellence Award; they were joined by Ken Wilson and Christa Reiser. Many of Fishers’ friends and fraternity brothers were also among the 200 or so gathered.
Swansboro Mayor Scott Chadwick served as master of ceremonies Saturday. He opened with a comment that he said Jeffrey and his fraternity brothers believe: “Always be yourself, unless you can be a Pirate, then be a Pirate!” In fact, the theme of the day was, “Everybody is a Pirate.”
Van Willingen, Jeffrey’s faculty advisor, said the fact that four faculty members showed up for the event, “says a lot about the impact he’s had on our department.” When Jeffrey said he wanted to finish his degree work, “ECU stepped up,” she said, and worked him into on-line classes that had been considered filled.
An anthropology professor, Van Willingen said, thanked her for helping Fisher and told her, “Jeffrey made the class a better experience for everybody.”
Fisher, she added, “made the Dean’s List this semester.
Caston then presented the departmental award, which he said is named for the founder of the ECU Sociology Department.
Before presenting the diploma, Van Willingen said that one of Jeffrey’s classmates in his senior seminar, a member of the ECU football team, had presented him a football, signed by all the members of the team. He also gave him videotaped messages of support and encouragement from several team members, including Dominique Davis, who now plays for the Atlanta Falcons.
Fisher played one year of football at Swansboro High School. Tony Hamilton, SHS football coach that year, said his former player had amazed him with his courage fighting through the adversity he has faced in the last two years.
Debbie Fisher, Jeffrey’s mother, was the final speaker Saturday. She thanked everyone for being there and said, “It has meant so much to us.” She called it, “A community coming together.”
She expanded on that theme Monday morning.
“It was amazing to see how this community came together to pull this off in such a short time,” she said of the effort, which was organized in less than two weeks. “The people at the Rotary Center. People parking cars. All the people who decorated. All the people who donated food.
“I can’t really tell you how much it all has meant, and not just for this event, but over the whole last two years. People have helped in every way imaginable, with medical bills and other expenses.”
Jeffrey’s story, and his courage and optimism, obviously touched the community “and the community has made such a difference in our lives,” she said. “But,” she added, it’s also clear that the effort has been good for the community, bringing good-hearted people together. She also had high praise for ECU faculty and staff.
“What other school would do this?” she asked rhetorically. “They worked with Jeffrey so much these past two years and gave him half-credit for some courses he wasn’t able to quite finish, in order to make this possible. Then, so many of them came all the way here from Greenville to do this special graduation. We can’t thank them enough.”
Because of “ECU Nation,” and Jeffrey’s wide network of friends, she said, “people from all over the nation” have been and are praying for him.
She also praised Jeffrey for the incredible spirit and perseverance he has displayed in pursuing his goal to earn his degree despite debilitating illnesses and frequent travel for treatment.
“It’s hard to put into words what he’s been through,” she said. “But it’s been an amazing experience. The most important thing Jeffrey has wanted people to understand is that life is a great thing even with all the hardships and problems we all go through.”
Back in October 2010, Fisher, a standout athlete in soccer as well as football in middle school and high school, was living a normal college student’s life until he started experiencing severe headaches, blurry vision and difficulty focusing on his studies. After about three weeks, it culminated when he passed out; the family set up an appointment with a neurologist at ECU.
“The doctor didn’t seem too concerned,” Jeffrey said in November 2010, sitting on a sofa as the family dogs skittered around, checking out a visiting reporter during an interview. “They were kind of vague.”
Jeffrey’s parents, Debbie and Robert, were not satisfied. So when the symptoms continued, Jeffrey dropped his classes and came home. He went to Onslow Memorial Hospital, where, on the Sunday after he dropped his classes, a CAT scan found the tumor, an anaplastic astrocytoma, which doctors indicated was one of the most aggressive tumors, most often found in young children.
Doctors at the hospital said that if the tumor hadn’t been found then, Jeffrey likely would have been dead by Thanksgiving. Instead, he went directly to Duke University Medical Center and began treatment, receiving chemotherapy, through an IV and in pills. Treatment has continued almost constantly since then.
In that 2010 interview, Jeffrey said he would beat the dire prognosis, but added that he viewed the challenge positively.
“What this (tumor) has done is give me more of a sense of urgency,” he said then. “Before, it was easy to get caught up in the monotony, the day-to-day routine. Now, I more appreciate every moment.”
In fact, that has been Jeffrey’s message, more than anything.
“You don’t want to take any moment, any relationship for granted,” he said, “because you’re not guaranteed another moment. Each and every moment should be the greatest of your life.”
Although optimistic, he also was realistic and not afraid.
“There’s nothing that worries me,” he said then. “I’ve been as much at peace as I’ve been all my life. I’m not scared to die. Everyone dies. Its just a matter of when and how. I could walk out the door right now and trip on the steps and break my neck.
“The only thing that scares me is not being able to accomplish the things I want to accomplish. “I’m feeling more pressure than before to do anything I can to better other people.”
There’s no doubt Fisher has reached one of his goals – earning his degree – and no one would disagree he has also reached another: helping other people, by catalyzing entire communities.