Delaware Tech Grad Gets Degree While Waging Battle with Cancer
At Age 64, Man Doesn’t Let Illness Impede His Goal of Earning Degree
The 64-year-old, back in school after first starting in 1980, was determined not to let a cancer diagnosis stop him from earning a degree after he had pushed that goal aside to be a father and care for his family.
He sat in a chair outside Linda Collins’ classroom to eat, but something felt off. Reich’s head was spinning and he couldn’t concentrate. He lost consciousness and passed out on the hallway floor.
“I was in the hospital for four days,” Reich said.
It was one more delay for the determined father of five.
The last two years haven’t been easy for Reich who hasn’t yet gotten that medical lab tech degree, but did get to walk across the stage this spring to get an associate in general science. Now, he’s determined to finish the lab tech program, despite his health issues.
In 2016, soon after reenrolling in classes, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and started chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
Reich did not take classes that fall semester due to his treatment schedule and a surgery to remove cancerous masses.
He came back for classes in the spring.
“Everything looked good, so I’m thinking we got it, we beat it,” Reich said. “But that didn’t end up being the case.”
The next fall he learned that his cancer had metastasized into his lungs. He signed on for a second round of chemo, but this time wasn’t going to miss any classes.
The New York native served in the Air Force from 1973 to 1979. When he got out, he started attending Delaware Technical Community College in Dover, where he had been stationed for the last six years. He wanted to study architectural design.
But soon after enrolling, Reich’s wife Bridgette became pregnant, and the new father quit school to care and provide for her and his son Paul in 1981.
Just 363 days after Paul was born, Sean came along.
“We had a running joke in the house that we didn’t know what to get Paul for his first birthday, so we got him a brother,” Reich said laughing.
Reich and Bridgette would end up having five children. To support the ever-expanding family, “I did lots of things, wherever I could find work,” he said.
For a while, Reich worked for himself as a painter. Then, while the family was living in Salisbury, Maryland, he worked as a baker at a bagel shop.
From there, he went on to work for several sign companies, making and installing signs for local businesses.
Years went by. His kids grew up, got married and started families of their own. Reich now has three grandchildren, he said.
Then, 2004 struck. “That was a bad year for me,” Reich said, staring off into space for a minute.
Bridgette, his wife of 23 years, died in January. Then in June his mother died. Reich also turned 50 that year, another significant date for the widower.
“Bridgette and I were together for 26 years,” Reich said. “So basically, she was half of my life.”
Reich remarried and moved to Ohio, but the new relationship wasn’t a happy one, he said. His health was also on the decline and in 2009 he had triple bypass surgery.
He just happened to be walking past the hospital, on his way to work, when he started experiencing chest pain, Reich said. Since he was so close, he decided to get it checked out.
Two hours later, he was being operated on.
“The cardiologist walked in and said: ‘You’re a lucky man,”’ Reich said, explaining that one of his arteries actually had a little extra growth on it, which allowed just enough blood to pass through that he didn’t die.
Eventually, Reich divorced and moved back east, settling in Seaford, Delaware. He puttered around a bit before deciding that he needed to find something to occupy his time.
“I’m on Social Security and disability,” Reich said. As a result of being diabetic, he has peripheral neuropathy, nerve damage that makes his fingers and toes numb and makes it difficult to stand for long periods of time or work.
“I felt like I had to do something rather than sit around the house all day,” he said. “And you’re never too old to learn. I wish I had been able to complete college when I first started, but family comes first.”
So, several years after moving to Ohio then moving back, Reich enrolled in classes at DelTech’s Georgetown campus. At first, he went for radiology but found it too difficult to wear the heavy lead aprons needed to perform X-rays. He began classes to be a medical laboratory technician, specialists who perform routine laboratory procedures on blood, tissue and other bodily fluids.
Soon after he started classes, Reich got the 2016 cancer diagnosis. The disease was found after he had an endoscopy to place a stent in a collapsed bile duct.
Though Reich was afraid he’d have a poor reaction to chemotherapy and took off a semester, he didn’t experience much nausea or diarrhea, and that is what he feared the most.
“I figured if I didn’t have them, no matter what, I can still do other stuff,” Reich said.
During his second round of chemo, he attended classes wearing a chemotherapy fanny pack, which contains a small pump that administers the medication. Tired and run down, he still smiled at everyone he met. He joked with his instructors and classmates, completing his lessons with gusto.
When his peripheral neuropathy got so bad he could no longer drive, Collins, who is the program coordinator for the lab tech program in Georgetown, began picking him up for classes. None of his children live nearby.
She also lives in Seaford and takes him shopping and to doctor’s appointments. Collins doesn’t mind doing it, she said, and has come to regard Reich as a colleague as well as a student.
Reich is open about having cancer and will often share his experiences with his classmates, giving them a new perspective on hospital visits and what it’s like for a patient to undergo lab tests. He is matter-of-fact and practical, doesn’t gloss over details and doesn’t let anyone feel too bad for him.
“Fred is a very interesting gentleman and has gone through a lot and has a tremendous amount of life experience,” Collins said. “He’s a great asset to our program because he’s a good example for our students.”
He also demonstrates grit, she said, a combination of passion and perseverance that makes a student successful.
“Grit is the perseverance of going through just life and being able to be tenacious and getting through challenges,” Collins said. “And he without a doubt is, to me, the ultimate person with grit.”
Reich began his third round of chemotherapy in January 2018 but continued coming to classes with his fanny pack strapped on.
He only missed school when he had procedures or was admitted to the hospital, Collins said.
When he lost consciousness outside her classroom last month, he was dehydrated and had an infection.
Collins and another DelTech instructor, Shirley Murray, help Reich analyze his lab results and pore over his blood panels with him. They know his protein levels are low, so they take turns bringing him high-protein meals to eat.
They also make sure he always eats breakfast and that his blood sugar doesn’t get too low.
It can be hard to tell when Reich is feeling sick though, Murray said, because he’s always so upbeat.
“His personality has not changed,” she said. “Every so often he has a down day, but it doesn’t last all day. It lasts a couple minutes.” Collins is also keeping Reich on track academically and is partly responsible for Reich graduating with an associate degree in general science on May 15. Though Reich does not have the credits needed to graduate from the Medical Laboratory Technician Program yet, Collins was going through his transcript when she noticed he qualified for the other degree.
It gave him a chance to walk across the stage and celebrate an early milestone while he continues classes.
Four of his nurses from the Nanticoke Cancer Care Center in Seaford attended the commencement ceremony, as well as Collins, Murray and Reich’s good friend Mary Klein from New York.
“The fact that I have so many people helping me just makes me want to fight more,” Reich said. “I told my doctor I don’t care what we’re going to do, I’m going to beat this.”
Collins and Murray want to see him become a full-fledged medical laboratory tech. He only has four classes left, which he hopes to complete by next spring.
“We’re definitely advocating for keeping him alive for as long as we can,” Murray said.
“He keeps saying he’ll be able to beat this cancer, and I think he will,” Collins said. “We’re going to make sure he makes it through.”
Information from: The News Journal of Wilmington, Del., http://www.delawareonline.com