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In Spidey vs. cancer, UPS standout wins

Mon., April 30, 2007

On the docks at United Parcel Service, they called him “Roller Ball.”

Shin guards popping, kneepads crashing with thuds of no consequence, Greg Wilkinson hefted box after box from the back of a drab gray freight trailer. One cardboard box plopped onto the chattering steel rollers of a conveyor every three seconds, 1,200 boxes an hour for four hours with no time to count them before the arrival of another truck and more boxes.

Someone realized if Greg Wilkinson added a crash helmet to his ensemble, he’d be ready for the roller derby, hence the term “roller ball.” Everyone understood why Wilkinson was so geared up. He was 54, doing work usually done by men half his age. Doing it faster, sometimes at an hourly pace of 1,600 boxes. And so when they wrote it on his get-well cards, it was done with sincerity.

“Hey, Greg. We miss your smiling face and all that roller ball gear …”

Wilkinson, the healthiest guy anyone could think of, was diagnosed last year with squamous cell carcinoma. Cancer. It started on the base of his tongue and, before anyone realized, it metastasized. He worked as long as he could but had to leave last July.

The UPS hub in Spokane Valley is one of those massive operations that never sleeps; an ant pile, really. Armies of part-time workers like Wilkinson clock in at all hours of the day to load and unload trucks. The turnover is pretty high. People clock out and never return for all kinds of reasons without being noticed.

But Greg’s departure was different. Greg was a giver known for helping not only the guys on the dock, but total strangers. If some soul working some other shift in some other part of the UPS hub faced a medical crisis, Greg not only volunteered; he recruited his wife, Vernie, into the cause. Together they’d offer meals, money and prayers, always prayers, until the crisis was over.

He was the guy who was always doing small things on shift to boost morale, like two years ago when he came to work around Halloween in a muscle-padded Spiderman outfit. As his fellow unloaders were gathered for a preshift meeting, Greg sprang from the shadows, handed out M&M candy bars and informed everyone that they could give their aching bones a rest – Spidey had things covered.

After that incident, “Spidey” became another one of Greg’s alter egos, a do-gooder lurking beneath the surface of an already extraordinary do-gooder. Though when word came the following summer that Greg needed radiation treatment, the superhero upon which everyone relied seemed down for the count.

The last time anyone at UPS saw Greg, he was embarking to Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Zion, Ill., near Chicago. It was last September. He stopped by work during a break to thank them for everything they’d done for him. With Vernie at his side, he addressed a crowd of about 100 workers.

“Hey, guys, the way I see it, this cancer challenge is a win-win situation,” said Greg, a man of deep faith. “Either I die and get to be with my Lord Jesus who will give me an immortal body, or I survive and get to come back here for some more unloading. I can’t lose.”

A couple UPS workers presented Greg with some money they’d collected, not one fat check, but several checks as well as small bills and coins. They knew that Vernie had also left her job to spend what could be the last days of Greg’s life with him. An engineer named Steve, whom Greg hardly knew, handed him $100.

The giving didn’t stop there. After leaving for Illinois, the guy not everybody knew became the guy everyone was rooting for.

Lorrie Campbell, an employee in another part of the warehouse, began offering fresh coffee in the break room priced by donation for Greg. There were silent auctions and bake sales.

Greg’s six months of minimal disability ended. His co-workers kept him afloat. In the break room, they posted e-mail updates of Greg’s treatment.

Tears well up in Greg’s eyes when he talks about the way his co-workers stuck with him. His cancer prognosis was not at all good. The carcinoma that started in his tongue had spread to his lymph nodes and then to his skull and spine, eventually reaching his hip. Once a day for 40 days in Zion, doctors strapped a special mask on Greg’s head and sent him through a radiation tunnel to burn whatever cancer they could.

The chemotherapy was worse. Once a week, drip bags of Taxotere and carboplatin were pumped into Greg through a tube surgically implanted in his chest. The toxins filled his sleep with nightmares and a burning fever.

“I sometimes imagined myself crawling out of bed to the nearby street to await a semitruck that could quickly squash my mounting misery,” Greg said in a rough draft of a book he started while undergoing treatment.

He got Christmas off but was expected back in Zion for more aggressive treatment early this year. Doctors didn’t think they had a lot of time. Then Greg’s appendix gave out, which required surgery.

Doctors weren’t sure he had the immune system to endure much more. They brought him for blood tests to weigh his body’s will to fight.

The test results startled everyone, not because Greg’s immune system was more beleaguered than expected, but because there were no traces of cancer.

Greg, sporting a deep red burn around his throat from radiation’s bite and a voice that rasps like he’s gargled with Ajax, will be back to work May 14. He’s already walking around the house in his Spiderman costume. When he smiles, it’s obvious the best part of him was not burned or poisoned away.

“I’m going to go back and visit them May 4 during break time,” Greg whispered. “I don’t know how I’m going to do it, but I’d like to get quite a few of them tickets for the new Spiderman movie.” Because great power isn’t the only thing that comes with great responsibility.


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