If you are suffering, sick, brokenhearted or the just plain broken it is my mission to help you find your way back to hope and healing. How could I ever begin to imagine I could achieve such a seemingly impossible goal when facing the enormity of your torment, misery and fear? My confidence to accomplish this didn’t come from the last 30 years of experience as a licensed therapist, but because I know firsthand what it is like to suffer. When I'm done telling my story, most people say, “Wow, Dean, I have it pretty good!”
I'm a guy who's not only been to years and years of graduate school, but I've also been to what I call “The Graduate School of Hard Knocks.” It takes the average doctoral student around six years to complete a PhD. From 2007 to 2014, I was hit with so many tragic and traumatic circumstances I feel like I can honestly say that I've earned a PhD in despair.
My Graduate School of Hard Knocks Curriculum Vitae-
- 5 days before Christmas in 2006 I was diagnosed with leukemia for the first time.
- June, 2007- My immune system was so suppressed by leukemia I almost died of pneumonia.
- 2008- 2009 I had a roller-coaster of up-and-downs depending on how I was doing physically which most of the time was poorly.
- August, 2010- I got severe food poisoning and my kidneys failed. I was in the ICU for 8 days.
- By the time I got out of the hospital, my wife's face had mysteriously dropped on one side.
- 3 days later, we consulted a world-famous brain surgeon and he told us that Mary had an inoperable brain tumor and did not have long to live.
- 52 days later, she died 15 days before our 30th anniversary and less than a month before my daughter's 18th birthday.
- The grief was so overwhelming, I truly understood for the first time what it was like to not be able to function…(my healthy functioning did not come back for 4 years!)
- In less than a year after Mary’s death, and even though I knew better, (don’t forget, I am a marriage therapist!) I decided to disregard my better judgement and rush into a relationship with another woman. Needless to say, this turned out terrible.
- 2011- I contracted leukemia again and this time it was joined by a tag-team partner named lymphoma.
- In an attempt to regain a zest for life, I decided to swim across the lake in Oklahoma. The lake had blue green algae and 4 days later I fell unconscious and nearly died from viral meningitis. When I awoke, I was covered in fever blisters all over my body and had lost 60 pounds. I was in the hospital for a week. My recovery took 6 months. (Imagine having the worst migraine that never lets up and constant flu-like symptoms at the same time and you’ll understand what my first two months of recovery were like. I was so weak, I had to using hiking poles just to stand upright. I couldn't walk one lap around the track until week 3.
- This hospital stay cost me over $120,000 out-of-pocket.
- After I finally recovered, I closed my thriving therapy practice (which had taken 20 years to build) and moved back home to Oregon only to realize I now had no friends, no work and no purpose in life.
- August, 2013- I had dwindled down to 159 pounds (at 6’1”). I had become a pasty-white, broken down, old man with red-rimmed eyes. The shock of what I had become, made me wonder if it was time to give up. I'd had “a good run” and if the leukemia took me, I rationalized that it wouldn't be a bad way to go. No need to leave a note. No one would blame me for having given up.
Could I really be that selfish? I remembered I had a beautiful 21-year-old daughter who had just lost her mother to brain cancer only two years previously. She deserved for me to at least try to live! I knew one of the most potent ways to come regain the will to live was by hooking into the power of purpose. I had gotten so low I couldn't think of one thing I was willing to try, much less become passionate about.
And then… One day, I ran across an old journal I had kept as a kid. In it, I had scribbled out a buck-list. At the top of this list was my dream to swim the English Channel. At first glance, I laughed at the thought “death by doing the channel.” However, the thought stuck like Velcro and the more I thought about it the better I liked the idea of attempting the impossible—completing a marathon event as an active cancer patient!
Don’t wait for your dreams to make sense- Like most inspired notions, it made no sense. I was broke. I was sick. I was over 50. Logic screamed that I should be practical and conserve my energy, perhaps find a job, not run off and swim a marathon! My friends and family, were all too ready to remind me that it takes warehouse loads of time and money to make a serious Channel attempt. And…even if I raised the money, found the time, the weather was perfect and I didn’t kill myself training in a public pool (my immune system was almost nonexistent because of the leukemia) only ten percent of those who try to swim the English Channel are successful (and those are healthy swimmers!). My doctors objected, my family protested, my friends pleaded but, I felt I had nothing to lose. I thought, “I'm dying anyway what do they want me to do? Die on my couch watching TV?”
A leap that led to life- I summoned my courage, took a leap of faith and started swimming. The first time I went to the pool I only was able to swim 11 laps. It took me over an hour. Rather than feel defeated, however, something beautiful happened that day. I felt alive again for the first time in years. I was moving. I was active. I wasn’t afraid.
A dream so big it has to be crazy- The more I swam the better I felt. Much to everyone’s surprise, I started gaining weight and my blood counts for the first time in three years were going in the right direction. By November, my head started to clear for the first time since my wife had died. I learned, firsthand, the extraordinary becomes possible when you make it impossible to remain ordinary.
As my body continued to heal and head cleared I got to thinking, “Who cares if another middle-aged man puts on a speedo and swims to France? It does the world no good. And in my case, it isn't even a very pretty picture!” I started asking myself, prayerfully, “How can my dream do the world some good and leave it a better place?”
When my crazy dream finally made sense- I grew up in Portland Oregon. I love it here. It is an adventurer’s paradise. We have it all—the mountains, the ocean, and so many rivers and lakes that you could never get to them all in one lifetime. The granddaddy of all rivers in Oregon is the Willamette. It is over a hundred and eighty miles long and runs through the state passing through Salem (the state capitol) and Portland (the largest city in Oregon). Obviously, a bigger and better dream than swimming the English Channel was to become the first person in history to swim the entire 187-mile length of the Willamette River. Better yet, I decided that I would do it as an active cancer patient and prove to the world you don't have to give up your dreams or your drive simply because you received a diagnosis. Finally, I had found a pursuit that made sense. I could give this impossible dream my all, because even if the worst possible outcome occurred and I died while swimming the Willamette, I would leave my daughter and the world a legacy of courage and hope.
The preparation for this impossible dream was impossibly agonizing. However, every day that I survived another long swim I watched hope bubble up to the surface.
From hopeless to historic- From June 2nd to June 27th in 2014, I swam 9 to 12 miles a day (taking every Sunday off) to become the first person in history to swim the entire 184 miles of the Willamette River. More importantly, the power I found in my purpose gave me to courage, and good sense to say goodbye to torment and tragedy and say “hello” to a new, amazingly strong will to live and an overwhelming zeal for helping others.
The sweet spot for summoning miracles- Anytime we find the courage to passionately pursue our dreams, I believe we put ourselves in the best position to experience miracles. All I wanted at first was to regain my will by swimming a marathon. It grew to become the need to inspire other cancer patients. However, one of the most outstanding miracles that happened because I found the courage to follow my heart and accomplish what seemed impossible was both unexpected and shocking. Upon completing my first blood test after the swim my doctors were shocked and to find my leukemia was mysteriously gone without a trace! What the doctors feared would kill me had actually healed me.
So many miracles I am swimming in them! Since that time one miracle after another has happened. My lymphoma has healed and gone into remission. I've gone from cancer patient to cancer survivor to cancer thriver to what I happily call a “cancer adventurer.” In July of 2017, I accomplished another “historic first” by becoming the first person to swim the entire length of the River Shannon in Ireland raising money and awareness for the Childhood Cancer Foundation there.
My daughter was my safety boater guiding me through our 25 tough days on the River Shannon. After this adventure, she decided to stay in Ireland, lived in Dublin for a year and earned her Master’s degree in Creative Writing.
Also, I've done something I would have never had the courage to imagine! I have fallen in love again. This time with a wonderful woman who is as beautiful on the inside as she is on the outside... And believe me she is beautiful on the outside!
My story is special, because I am not! As much as I hate to admit it, my story is special, because I am nothing special. If I can do the impossible and regain health, happiness and find true love, anyone and everyone has the power to experience these miracles. I am living proof that you can come back to life after tough times, tragic events and chronic illness. When you dig deep and find the courage that is always there just waiting beneath the surface, you’ll quickly be on your way to summoning so many miracles you will be swimming in them.