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Paul Chimera: Cousin faced illness with heroic dignity

Courage is usually dressed in familiar clothing. The police officer who fends off an assailant. The firefighter who risks his or her life to rescue a child recoiling under a bed. A pilot who famously pancakes an airliner onto the Hudson River, averting a disaster.

But courage played out in Buffalo recently with a distinctly quiet, heroic dignity.

My cousin Robert Nigro had been diagnosed with leukemia. He waited patiently until he finally got word that a bone marrow donor match had been found – from a thoughtful soul in Switzerland. Bob bravely took up residence at Roswell Park Cancer Institute, never complaining or shaking his fist to a chorus of, “Why me?”

Instead, he took to chronicling his experience every few days on Facebook. In posts that were candid, poignant, even at times amusing – and always honest and instructive – he shared both his baby steps forward and the days that were impossibly dark. All the while praising the staff at Roswell Park – everyone, even the custodial help – and expressing his love for the family and friends who got to share his journey in such a unique way.

The transplant was a success. And, taking to social media one last time, Bob posted a video clip showing him ringing the “I’m going home!” bell at Roswell Park. I’ll never forget Bob’s raised fist, thrust high above his handsome, nearly hairless head – the jubilant conquering hero so proud and pleased to be returning to his family and his home in Tonawanda.

But a short time later, a few complications necessitated that he return to the hospital. Shortly thereafter, Bob unexpectedly suffered a heart attack and we lost him.

This man – a decorated high school track and field star in the 1960s – ran his final race as courageously as any police officer, firefighter or soldier. Indeed, he was himself a volunteer firefighter for some 20 years, and his fellow firefighters’ tribute during the services for Bob left not a single dry eye.

Winston Churchill wrote that “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” And that’s what Bob did. He did everything he was supposed to do. He endured the stress and challenges of a bone marrow transplant without protest.

And he had the concern, courage and grit, through it all, to journal about his most significant life test, so that others could get a glimpse into what undergoing a bone marrow transplant was like. He sat down and listened to his outstanding medical caregivers. He learned. And he endeavored to educate us in a most personal and special way.

“On a much better note,” he’d written in mid-August, “the transplant was a complete success. The bone marrow in me is 100% that of the donor. This is important because if any of my bone marrow had survived the chemo, there would always be a chance it could still be diseased. Right now, there is absolutely no leukemia left in my body. So I guess everything I am going through right now is worth it. Hope to be home soon.”

It’s sad to read these words. Especially in light of how my cousin fought so heroically to get through such a trial, feel the joy of knowing the transplant was successful, and then suffer a cardiac event no one saw coming. But it is also remarkably inspiring – life-changing, in fact – to have known a hero like cousin Bob.

Courage? You can find its meaning in the dictionary, right next to cousin Bob.

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