Monday, April 30, 2012

Faces of Thyroid Cancer: Reggie Deal

Thyroid Cancer Survivor Reggie Deal is Blind

From his seat in an upper-reserved section of Rangers Ballpark on Sunday night, Reggie Deal couldn't see the ballgame the Rangers and Rays were playing.  But he could hear it, he could smell it, he could sense it. For Deal, baseball provides a pull that goes beyond the boundaries of the blindness he's been inflicted with virtually all of his 39 years. Baseball is his passion, if not his outright obsession.

"There are a lot of things you're able to experience," he said, "when your faculties take over and supplement what's not there."  Simply being there -- in the stands, with the game playing out in front of him, his fellow fans beside him and the sounds of the sport surrounding him -- is an experience that means a lot to Deal.And that's why Sunday was the start of something special.

In the span of 30 days, Deal is going to visit each of the Major Leagues' 30 ballparks. He'll traverse the country, mostly on his own, via bus and plane, taxi and train, all with an end goal of fulfilling a lifelong dream while simultaneously showing others his is a life without all the perceived limits.

Crazy? Sure, it's a little crazy.

But having survived a thyroid-cancer scare a few years back, having married a woman who's a big believer in scratching items off life's "bucket list" and having spent weeks poring over team schedules and laboring over the logistics, Deal, an Afton, Wyo., resident, realized this little dream of his was just crazy enough to come true.

"I want people to have a different visual of what blindness entails," he said. "People get caught up in the negative, but there are ways to work around it."

Deal has had to work around it essentially from the beginning. He was born prematurely in 1973, and doctors told his parents his odds of survival were one in four. He was placed in an incubator that helped his lung tissues develop and heal, but the environment was 90 percent pure oxygen, or roughly 4 1/2 times the typical atmospheric setting. The prolonged exposure caused Reggie's retinas to hemorrhage and detach from his eyes, permanently blinding him.

"They're much more watchful for signs of issues now than they were back then," Deal said. "While it's still a threat for kids born that early, it's something they can mitigate now, more than 35-40 years ago."

He's never felt cheated, never felt wronged. His blindness is all that he's known, and it certainly didn't stop him from earning his bachelor's degree in journalism at Texas A&M or his master's in education counseling from Texas State University-San Marcos. Yet it wasn't until the cancer diagnosis four years ago when Deal truly gained perspective on life's fickle and fleeting nature. And that only further fueled his desire to do the 30-in-30 tour.

"I had planned to meet a friend in California, and we were going to go to a Padres game and then an Angels game," he said. "But I had to cancel that at the last minute because I had not been feeling well. Only a couple weeks after that, the doctors noticed I had an enlargement on the thyroid. They said, 'This has got to come out.'"

The cancer diagnosis came in late June of 2008, and the surgery was performed on July 14. One week post-op, Deal met with his doctor and was given a green light to start traveling again. He went straight from the doctor's office to the airport, hopped on a flight to Philadelphia and took a train to New York to see consecutive games at Yankee Stadium and Shea Stadium.

Yep, it's an obsession, all right.

"With everything that went on that summer, baseball was the one distraction that I had," he says. "It kept me halfway sane." And so when Deal, now cancer-free, met his wife, Lorna, through an online dating service in 2010, she quickly caught on that baseball is part of the package. "He picks up on so many aspects of the game," she said. "He can explain to you everything that's happening, and he just has an intense passion."

The passion to experience every park became a little more realistic when Deal left his job in student affairs at a Texas community college to move to Wyoming to be with Lorna, a teacher. He'll be looking for a new job in the fall, but in the meantime, he's taking full advantage of the time off. And when he inherited some money after his father passed away last year, he had funding to apply to the trip.

So Reggie plotted his Major League map as soon as the 2012 schedules came out. His travels will involve some tight turnarounds, late nights and early flights. And though he'll be meeting up with several friends along the way, he'll largely be flying solo.

"It makes me a little bit nervous," said Heather Compton, a friend of Reggie's who accompanied him to the Rangers game, "because it's so easy for somebody to take advantage of him. But he's pretty aware. He's learned how to handle himself, and he's one of those people that it only takes a few minutes to become friends with him. You can be perfect strangers one minute and friends the next."

Deal plans to make many new friends on this trip. At each game, he'll have the local radio broadcast playing in one ear -- loud enough to follow the action but quiet enough to interact with those around him. He'll be recapping his experiences on his MLBlog and on his Facebook page, and he'll also be wearing a wristband and shirt promoting ThyCa (the Thyroid Cancer Survivors' Association) -- a cause that's obviously grown near and dear to his heart.

Why would a blind man go to such great lengths to experience and document something he'll never see? Easy.  Because he can, and because he wants you to know he can. "People ask me, 'How can you enjoy the game without seeing it?'" he said. "I say, 'You don't realize how much of the game you can pick up on until you close your eyes.'"

Article by Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

A blind fan's journey through the Major Leagues
April 29: Rangers Ballpark, Arlington
April 30: Minute Maid Park, Houston
May 1: Turner Field, Atlanta
May 2: Busch Stadium, St. Louis
May 3: Kauffman Stadium, Kansas City
May 4: Tropicana Field, St. Petersburg
May 5: Citi Field, New York
May 6: Nationals Park, Washington, D.C.
May 7: Oriole Park, Baltimore
May 8: Citizens Bank Park, Philadelphia
May 9: Yankee Stadium, New York
May 10: Fenway Park, Boston
May 11: Target Field, Minneapolis
May 12: Chase Field, Phoenix
May 13: The Coliseum, Oakland
May 14: AT&T Park, San Francisco
May 15: Dodger Stadium, Los Angeles
May 16: Petco Park, San Diego
May 17: Angel Stadium, Anaheim
May 18: Rogers Centre, Toronto
May 19: Comerica Park, Detroit
May 20: Coors Field, Denver
May 21: Safeco Field, Seattle
May 22: Miller Park, Milwaukee
May 23: Progressive Field, Cleveland
May 24: Great American Ball Park, Cincinnati
May 25: PNC Park, Pittsburgh
May 26: Marlins Park, Miami
May 27: U.S. Cellular Field, Chicago
May 28: Wrigley Field, Chicago

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