Walter Devins makes me feel terrible. Why? Because he is so darn inspirational and accomplished. I feel meek in comparison. He is the king to my pauper. He is Nostradamus, and I'm a second-rate employee of the Psychic Friends Network.
Devins is a 31-year-old Wake Forest man who has his own small law firm based in North Raleigh. That seems a young age to be a business owner in the law world, but that is just a small accomplishment in the life of this hard-working young man. Almost 13 years ago he had to fight for his life. Cancer launched a sneak attack. He laughed in its face and survived.
OK, so he didn't really laugh. But he handled the situation better than anybody I know. In 1998, he was a freshman at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It was the second day of fall final exams when he got his diagnosis: Hodgkin's lymphoma. The news came from a medical student at UNC's Campus Health Services. Devins handled it well. The med student didn't.
"It was obviously really upsetting for her, so she started crying," Devins said. "And so, I started comforting her."
Devins was scared. Cancer is bad at any age, but an 18-year-old never sees it coming.
"You're a kid and your most important thing is, 'What party am I going to go to on Thursday night in college?'" he said. "And then it becomes, 'What should I do to live?'"
What he didn't do was let his schoolwork fall to the wayside. The day after his diagnosis, Devins took his final exam for Spanish class. Later, at the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, he embarked on a 10-month course of treatment - chemotherapy and then radiation. He could have taken a break from the rest of his life in the meantime, but that's not Devins' way.
"I was kind of, you know, a little defiant in that you can take off a semester, relax, whatever," he said. "I was like, 'No. I want to be a normal college kid.'"
Fortunately, Devins' treatment was successful. Hodgkin's lymphoma has a good survivability rate and Devins has been cancer free ever since.
Devins volunteered at the hospital after that and helped with fundraising. He graduated college and went to UNC's law school. Eventually, he went off into the world seeking success. But he never forgot UNC's Cancer Center. Devins opened his own law firm in North Raleigh in 2010. And when it started succeeding, he decided he owed some payback to the institution that saved him.
"I started thinking ... I'm becoming financially successful now...but I want to give back."
He recently donated an undisclosed amount of money to UNC's Comprehensive Cancer Support Program. It's part of UNC's Cancer Center and takes care of what Devins calls the "softer side" of cancer treatment - psychological counseling, gas cards to help people get to and fro, wigs and the kind of emotional and social support he wishes were more prevalent in his day.
"Much of what I felt was lacking ... now all the money that I have given is going to go toward those particular elements," he said.
Those elements are what make UNC's Cancer Center unique, said Nicole Pratapas, the director of major gifts there.
"The faculty and staff do look at the entire patient and their families and try and identify these opportunities to make the journey through treatment just a little bit easier," she said.
She has overseen a number of donations over the years. But in Devins, she found a rare gift giver.
"Walter did something that most young people don't always consider doing," she said. "When I look at his age, I'm pleased and surprised that he finds giving back so important."
In addition to his successful law firm with offices in Raleigh and Durham, Devins also has a wife, Judith, and two young children, Alister, 3, and Penelope, who turns 2 in a few weeks. These are just some of the gifts that UNC's Cancer Center made possible. But, of course, the credit can't go to UNC alone.
Devins is a rare type of man. One who makes the best of all the cards he's dealt, even the jokers that shouldn't have made it into the shuffle.
"People deal with adverse situations - either they try to make the best of it, or they can wallow in sorrow," he said. "And I tried to make the best of it."