Teaching cancer a lesson

As the world adjusted in March to stay-at-home orders and social distancing, Wil Loesel was making even bigger adjustments. He was diagnosed with cancer.

After months of feeling fatigued and battling a sore throat, Loesel sought treatment. He developed a large bump on his neck that caused breathing difficulties. After many tests and specialist visits, the Albemarle Road Middle teacher found out that he has stage-four non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma. It is a rare type, called a triple-hit lymphoma. Loesel is currently undergoing an experimental, in-patient treatment, but that isn't stopping him from teaching, even from his hospital room. He teaches daily and stays in contact with his 117 eighth-grade math students through Zoom, sometimes while receiving high doses of chemotherapy.

"He has shown a tremendous amount of tenacity and dedication to our kids," said Principal Toni Perry. "One thing I am learning from him is perspective. He is so positive and giving to others. He is overcoming this battle, just with his attitude. He is uplifting so many others."

When schools closed for in-person learning in March, a recently diagnosed Loesel knew he wanted to keep teaching. "It didn't feel like a decision," he said. "It was just something I had to do. The students were freaking out. We are a Title 1 school and our students have many challenges. Some of them only get regular meals at our school, their parents have to work. Working from home is a privilege that not everyone enjoys. After seven months of building trust with them, I knew I couldn't leave them."

With the encouragement of his principal, Loesel would go to appointments and hospital stays with his iPad in hand to keep in touch with his students. "I told her if she wanted me to take leave so she could get a full-time teacher in that spot, I would," he said. "But she let me know that she and my colleagues have my back. My health is the most important thing and my job will be there for me."

Loesel is a first-year teacher. After working in the corporate sector for 17 years, he decided to go back to school and become a teacher, following some life changes. "I suffered from chronic depression after the death of my parents," he said. "Depression and sadness are two very different things. I couldn't feel anything. I didn't care if I was alive or not. I couldn't experience love. And I made some changes."

The Teach for America (TFA) program became Loesel's saving grace. "I gained a new appreciation for life," he said. "My time at TFA prepared me for everything I am going through right now. Ms. Perry has been so supportive. I am not a good teacher yet. I went through a rocky start, and lots of teachers have helped me become an adequate teacher. This experience is only making me better."

Loesel uses his own struggles with mental health as he helps his students. "We do check-ins and I ask them what emoji represents how you are feeling today," he said. "We are checking their work, but we are mostly finding out what is going on in their lives. Some of them are having a really hard time with this transition."

Despite insurance, Loesel is dealing with some large medical bills. He is the oldest of seven cousins. They started a GoFundMe to help with his bills. "I really didn't want that, but my uncle said to let them help," he said. So far, the fund has received more than $13,000. Over the last week, Loesel's story has earned local and national media attention, and donations have steadily increased. On May 20, Loesel was featured on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. A sponsor made a donation of $25,000 for medical bills, and the show donated an additional $25,000.

"I've heard a lot from my students as the attention has grown," he said. "Yesterday, one of my students said, 'Mr. L, you've got clout, huh?'"

Loesel is currently hospitalized to complete his second round of a 96-hour chemotherapy infusion. So far, he is responding well to treatment. He is maintaining a positive attitude, despite a cancer diagnosis amidst a global pandemic. "There are so many people out there that have lost their income and their access to health care," he said. "I am very sad for those that are suffering and having to make these tough decisions. When I was depressed, I never knew if I would feel anything again. I had incredible therapy and learned how to keep my perspective. If I don't make it, I don't want my final happy experience to have already happened. I will be happy now."

When Loesel isn't in the hospital or teaching, he is spending time with his sons, ages 10 and 7. He records videos to share with them in the future. "I fully expect to beat this," he said. "But if I don't, I want them to have these videos to remember me by."

Loesel is setting a valuable example for his students. While some students have excuses for not completing online learning assignments, they aren't acceptable to Loesel. "Our students are going through so much," he said. "Our students have difficult challenges, but there is a fine line between developing empathy and having high expectations. What these kids are going through is not fair, but you still have to do really well. There is every excuse to not care. I have cancer and that sucks, but I will keep going."

Now, Loesel is focused on the future. "A year or two from now, I hope to look back on this time and remember how crazy it was," he said. "Remember when you had cancer and the whole world shut down? That's how I plan on looking back at it."


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