Warden’s legacy one of hope, determination

Back in April, and again in May, then once again in June, I chatted with Maj. Gregory Sanborn about the challenges he faced.

Sanborn, the deputy chief of the Maine Warden Service, didn’t talk about budget constraints. He wasn’t worried about public reaction to the reality TV show — “North Woods Law” — that focused on the men he helped lead. He didn’t talk about moose or deer or bear or poachers.

He talked about life. About trying as hard as he could to hang onto his own. About realizing, when you decide to have your last will and testament prepared, at the age of 47, the challenges ahead are a bit more serious than the ones you regularly face.

Gregg Sanborn had cancer: cutaneous T-cell lymphoma.

His only chance, he said back then, over three conversations and three months, was a longshot: He had to put his faith in others. He had to hope that a stem-cell donor was found. And he had to pray that after his own immune system was systematically, intentionally destroyed by chemotherapy, those donor stem cells would slowly rebuild him, and allow him to live.

Deputy Chief Game Warden Gregory Sanborn chats with friends at a stem cell drive hosted by the University of Maine football team at the Memorial Union on April 25, 2012. Sanborn died on Tuesday at the age of 47. BDN photo by Linda Coan O’Kresik D

Sanborn talked about trading one painful, horrible year — the year he would spend in hospitals, getting well — for 40 more. About how he hoped to return to his job guiding Maine’s game wardens. How he hoped his stepson, David Currier (Sanborn always called him “my young fella”), didn’t kill all the plants in his garden before he got well. About how he hoped to go trout fishing once before heading to Boston to undergo treatment. About how he hoped to play a round of golf.

Through it all, Sanborn smiled. He greeted well-wishers, all of whom knew that the tall, lean warden was battling cancer. He joked with some, nodded to others.

And he kept on smiling.

That’s the image I’m left with this morning: A smiling Gregg Sanborn, telling me that everything would be OK.

Or it wouldn’t.

And that he was prepared for either outcome, but was going to fight like hell for his life.

Gregg Sanborn died on Tuesday.

I could say that it was a battle well-fought, and that he taught us all lessons about ourselves. True. But trite.

Instead, think about this: Before Sanborn got sick, how much did you know about stem cells and marrow donations? How much did you know about the National Marrow Donor Program (bethematch.com), which pairs patients with potential donors? How often did you feel like sending away for a donor kit to find out if you might, possibly, help someone like Gregg Sanborn?

My answer to those questions: Not much. Not much. And never.

Now, I know more, and think about the process often. And hundreds of you do, too.

By going public with his struggle — and yes, by smiling and answering dozens of personal questions along the way — Sanborn did more than try to help save his own life.

He tried to help save others.

As a Maine Game Warden, that comes along with the job description, I suppose.

One of Sanborn’s colleagues, Wdn. Lt. Adam Gormely, summed up his boss best back in April, when we spoke at an Orono bone marrow donor drive.

“He’s tough as nails,” Gormely said, going on to explain that as long as he’d known Sanborn, he had had the ultimate faith that his fellow warden would be there when needed.

“If we’re going to be rescuing somebody, I’ve got to know who’s got the end of the rope,” Gormely said. “If we’re going to be diving, I’ve got to know who’s got my rope. If I’m going to be on a boat on eight-foot swells, I’ve got to know who has the rope.

“You know what?” Gormely continued. “I know who has the rope. And when it comes to things like this, if I can hold the rope [for him], I’m going to do it.”

During his career, Sanborn interacted with thousands of Mainers. He arrested some, saved some and was loved by many.

This morning, as we pause to consider the man and his legacy, let’s not forget that Sanborn’s passing doesn’t mean all battles are lost.

Others, he would likely tell you, might need your help.

Just like he did. And while his fight ended too soon, others are in his shoes. They’re sick. They need help. Not just from doctors and family members and loved ones.

From anonymous potential donors. Like you.

Who’s going to hold their ropes?

I know how Sanborn would answer that question.

And I suspect you do, too.

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John Holyoke

About John Holyoke

John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. Today, he's the Outdoors editor for the BDN, a job that allows him to meet up with Maine outdoors enthusiasts in their natural habitat. The stories he gathers provide fodder for his columns, and this blog.