ORONO, Maine — As a steady parade of college students, game wardens and other law enforcement personnel streamed past on Wednesday afternoon, Gregory Sanborn smiled, accepted kind words, and thanked folks for showing up for the stem cell drive that may save his life.
In a more guarded moment, Sanborn, the deputy chief of the Maine Warden Service, reluctantly admitted that some days are tougher than others.
“There are parts [of life] that aren’t so fun,” he said. “On Friday at 9:30 I’m meeting with the funeral director. That’s a bummer. But it’s also reality.”
The reality is this: Sanborn has cutaneous T-cell lymphoma. He needs a stem cell transplant if he hopes to survive. And on Wednesday, a lot of people showed up at the fifth annual Jeff Cole Memorial Bone Marrow Drive to be screened as potential donors.
Organized by the University of Maine football team in honor of an assistant coach who lost his own battle with cancer in 2004, the drive could produce a donor match for Sanborn. The results of cheek test swabs also will be entered into a worldwide database and patients around the world could benefit.
Jack Cosgrove, head football coach at UMaine, said turnout for the event was higher than in many past years.
“The thing that strikes me is, we’ve usually done 150 or so [screenings],” Cosgrove said. “We’ll probably double that today because now there’s an identifiable need, there’s a real-life situation playing out in the minds of everybody. [With] our players, there’s a greater sense of urgency to go out and recruit donors.”
One of those players was junior linebacker Sam Shipley.
Cosgrove said all 80 football players would be working one-hour shifts during the drive, and Shipley took his job seriously. At one point, he sat down with a table full of students and told them how important their participation was.
“I think when people get involved with a cause, it’s hard to see the immediate results,” Shipley said. “But being able to come here and see someone who’s actually going through these trials, to talk to his family and see how it’s affected them, I think it really creates a more intimate connection [to the cause].”
UMaine football players are familiar with the National Marrow Donor Program, bethematch.com, through participation in past drives. Many conferences in the Football Championship Subdivision support regular screening drives by their teams. Cosgrove said all UMaine football players register as potential donors during their first year on campus. At Wednesday’s event, the entire UMaine softball team also participated, arriving together in uniform to be screened.
Among the game wardens who made the trip to Orono was Neal Wykes, who patrols the Naples district. Sanborn worked the neighboring Sebago Lake district alongside Wykes for three years earlier in his career.
Their friendship was obvious: When Wykes showed up, he greeted the deputy chief warmly, looked him up and down, and asked a question that made Sanborn chuckle.
“Are you here to donate?” Wykes said.
Sanborn said he chose May 7 as the “soft” date of his transplant, should a donor be found, so that he could attend the May 5 graduation of his “young fella,” stepson David Currier. Currier is a senior member of the track and field team at UMaine. Cosgrove and Shipley said the fact that Currier is also a UMaine athlete added to the sense of urgency.
And while he continues to work in Augusta while undergoing regular chemotherapy and radiation treatments, Sanborn said his doctors have been getting more strict about his exercise regimen.
Since last fall, Sanborn’s health has deteriorated. So, too, has his physical fitness. Eventually, doctors told him that the better shape he can get himself into before his hospitalization, the stronger he’ll be during recovery.
“I started April 1 and I couldn’t run a whole mile,” Sanborn said. “When I got up this morning, I ran two miles, I did 30 pushups and I did 40 situps. My goal each week before I go down [to Boston for the anticipated transplant] is to increase that.”
So far, Sanborn proudly points out, he has progressed quite a bit.
“I could go to the [Maine Criminal Justice] Academy today,” he said, based on his performance against the standardized test that is used to judge candidates.
Longtime colleague Adam Gormely, a game warden lieutenant, shook his head at his boss’s tenacity.
“He’s tough as nails. He really is. He hasn’t missed a day of work,” Gormely said.
And as more and more game wardens showed up for the drive — some from districts far from Orono — Gormely said he was proud, if unsurprised, by the support.
It’s part of being a Maine game warden, he said.
“If we’re going to be rescuing somebody, I’ve got to know who’s got the end of the rope. If we’re going to be diving, I’ve got to know who’s got my rope. If I’m going to be at the end of a boat on 8-foot swells, I’ve got to know who has the rope,” Gormely said. “You know what? I know who has the rope. And when it comes to things like this, if I can hold the rope, I’m going to do it.”