Tall and poised, Doug walks gracefully among the stately red brick buildings on the Middlesex School campus, students waving and grinning as they approach him. Carrying overly stuffed backpacks and eager-to-please smiles, they are brimming with excitement and curiosity. School is back in session after the long, lazy days of summer and the maple trees welcome everyone with hints of fall colors.
Doug sees his younger self among these fresh faces––he was once a student on this very campus. Like these kids, he was afforded both the privilege of an outstanding education and the burdens and pressures that come with the expectations of boarding school life. “I watch these students and they are trying so hard. I know they feel fearful about how well they are doing, and many are consumed with worries,” he says. “I hope to support them in their relationship to these worries and cultivate compassion for themselves and others.” Through a circuitous path, Doug has returned to Middlesex, only this time as a teacher of meditation and mindfulness. In a first-of-its-kind program, the school has hired him to guide students, teachers, and even parents toward a deeper appreciation of life in the present moment.
When Doug attended Middlesex, he was popular with a tight-knit group of friends and captained both the football and lacrosse teams. The supposed path that lay ahead of him––set in place by his family’s culture, particularly by his father, was one that seemed both doable and daunting: He would graduate from this prestigious boarding school (as did his sister), continue to develop as a great athlete, pursue an MBA, and eventually take over the family business. “My grandfather started our family’s manufacturing company,” he explains. “My father and all of my uncles worked there. My father was very passionate about the business and it was always in the background, even when I was young, that I might take over one day.”
This path continued when he received an athletic scholarship to the University of Virginia, but lacrosse on the collegiate level was a different type of animal. “Going from being a big fish in a small pond of 400 students to playing on one of the top lacrosse teams in the country was a massive step,” he explains. He trained ceaselessly and fully dedicated himself to his team, but the competition was fiercer than anything he had ever experienced. For the first time in his life, simply “trying his best” wasn’t working. “The vision of who I could become was so much greater than the role I was actually playing on the team. I could only see what I wasn’t.” One day in the locker room, he broke down in tears. There must be a better way to go about life, he thought. A few days later, his uncle gave him a book about mindfulness—a practice and skill that advocates being more present in one’s life, rather than living with worry about the future or the past. Doug was taken with the idea.
From his readings about mindfulness, he learned about retreats––places one could go to learn from experts, to share the process in a community and to do so intensely. Doug had spent some years out of college restlessly adventuring on his own. He bought a sailboat and sailed the Caribbean with a friend. There he became fascinated with scuba diving. His path was transforming, and meditation seemed paramount to whatever shape his future would take. After teaching diving in Hawaii for a year, he flew to Australia for his first Vipasanna retreat. “I decided to go alone to Australia and attended a 10-day mindfulness retreat that was mostly silent.” Through practice, Doug started to understand how his own mind was responsible for so much reactivity and unease in his life.
“One moment that stands out for me at that first retreat was that I was sitting next to a man who was breathing loudly and for the first half of the day, it made me irritated that he would be so noisy. Then, as I sat with the actual sounds of the breathing, the vibrations themselves separated from the reaction and thoughts, suddenly realized that my mind was creating so much of my own suffering. I had always been running away from unpleasantness. When I accepted that, his breath just became the vibration of sound. It did not control my feelings. From that moment on, I worked to stop blaming external circumstances for my unease and start working, instead, with my relationship to whatever the external circumstances were.” Doug found this small lesson could be applied to so many other seemingly negative experiences in life. Retreats such as these, some as short as a few days and others as long as a month, became regular excursions. Over the years, he has attended over twenty retreats, each one deepening his dedication to his practice.
After that initial retreat, Doug felt drawn to return to his family and home in Massachusetts. He spent the next four years working alongside his father and his uncles, becoming a successful and integral part of the team. “After a while, I applied to an MBA program in Hong Kong. We were thinking of expanding our family business in Asia.” As he was preparing for his trip, he pondered how to maintain the integrity of his spiritual practice. “How do I infuse the insights from meditation and mindfulness into the intense and highly competitive business culture in Hong Kong?” While these questions were stirring in him, however, something far more dangerous was silently spreading throughout his body. “I was having night sweats and I was getting sick a lot and throwing up. It was weird because I was 29 and I was very healthy and athletic.” While his primary doctor missed the signs, a nurse practitioner took one look at his swollen lymph nodes and told him he needed to go to a major hospital. Two weeks after acceptance into business school, Doug was diagnosed with a rare cancer: stage four peripheral T-cell lymphoma. Doug and his family had endless questions. What does this mean? Is this diagnosis terminal? What do we do next?
His father Rob channeled his energy into research––finding the country’s best doctors, researching treatment options, and at times, grilling the doctors on their knowledge. In July of 2007, seven rounds of chemo were ordered. Doug started writing “care pages” on a blog so that friends and family could keep up with his progress. He often injected humor into these pages in order to keep everyone’s spirits up. A month into his treatments, he wrote, “I know I will come out of this healthy and strong. I currently feel really good, even though my body is bald as a newt and getting a bit soft and doughy.” The treatments took a toll on him over the coming months. At one point, he weighed 128 pounds (in college, he had weighed 200). He was frail, he vomited often, and endured painful treatments and uncomfortable medical exams. Of the care pages, he says, “Reading them now I see how what I was doing was reassuring everyone and actually taking care of them by letting them see I was coping well with the situation.”
Doug’s cancer didn’t respond to chemotherapy, so a stem-cell transplant from a donor was decided as the best treatment option. After a hefty dose of more chemo, a week of total-body irradiation, and immunosuppressants, he was ready for the transplant. In his care pages, he wrote, “The doctor and nurses, and family joined me in my room and over the next hour the two bags of stem cells from umbilical cord blood (from two different babies in Europe) was painlessly infused into me.” During this time, his parents moved into an apartment near the hospital. “I used to sleep with my clothes on,” his mom, Sue says, “in case Doug needed me in the middle of the night.” They stayed there from September through Christmas.
Doug’s body became listless, his muscle tone weakened, and he had trouble keeping food down. His weight decreased steadily. Laying on the thin, plastic hospital mattress surrounded by sterile white walls with sometimes only a TV to look at, he spent hours meditating, focusing on sensing the present and the body. “My mind was throwing thoughts out there. There was a lot of opportunity to work with thoughts and my meditation skills were absolutely invaluable. It was an all-day practice––constantly observing the mind and watching it go into worry or a train of bad thoughts, and bringing that subtle tension and stress into my body. Every day, I started practicing my meditation earlier and earlier in the day, trusting the unfolding. One of the biggest joys were the people coming in and out, those moments of care and beauty, even in a hospital room. The nurses, doctors, friends and family. In a way this time was like scuba diving again—new creatures coming by and I saw the beauty in each person. I learned to cultivate wonder about life’s simple moments because I didn’t know how many moments I had left.”
Over time, Doug’s white blood count began to improve. His new immune system successfully began making its home in his body. Doug attributes the success to his team, which consisted of his adoring parents, a dedicated group of long-term friends, his loving sister, and doctors, whom he believes are some of the best in the country. “My new immune system was born at 3 p.m. October 11th, 2007 and my blood type officially changed from O- to A+.”
Six months later, however, Doug felt increasingly ill. Tired, feverish, and weak, the symptoms could have been from something as simple as mononucleosis, but the diagnosis was much more harrowing. Doug was diagnosed with PTLD, post-transplant lymphoproliferative disorder, a complication from the transplant which is often fatal. The standard treatment failed. “At that point my GI tract was covered with cancer lesions and statistically, my life expectancy was days to weeks.” After all he had been through, this was the first time in his journey that Doug felt death was imminent. “It was a pretty surreal meeting when the doctor was telling me my situation. I remember looking around the room and my doctor, the nurse, and my mom all had tears in their eyes. We were out of options.”
Luckily, a clinical trial was testing an experimental immunotherapy for PTLD. Doug enrolled in the study and responded to treatment. Doug’s cancer went into remission after a few infusions.
While Doug’s health slowly improved, his father’s quickly declined. Diagnosed with colorectal cancer, he did not respond to treatment, and T-cell therapy was not applicable. With time running out, Doug felt compelled to talk with his father about his future. “I needed to tell him that my plan was to teach mindfulness to youth as a career. I was really scared. I thought he was going to be devastated that I wouldn’t be committing to the family business.” To the contrary, his father responded with acceptance, support, and love, before passing on. “It was incredible and meant so much to me.”
Only two days after Doug’s father passed, while still in mourning, he met his future wife, Jess, also a meditation teacher. Still weak and underweight from his treatment, they went skiing on their second date. “I was pale, weak, thin, and still had no hair. I was completely in love, and completely amazed that she was into me. I thought, ‘If she could fall in love with me when I was in that condition, that was a good thing.’” After four years dating, they married.
These days, Doug and Jess continue to teach mindfulness professionally. They are both dorm parents at Middlesex School where Doug also serves as a lacrosse coach. “It’s been eleven years since the transplant,” Doug says. “Bit by bit my immune system has been getting stronger. Here I am working with all these teenagers, who are always getting sick and I’m hanging in there.” His practice in mindfulness, that which brought him through his trials with such grace and intention, is now seeing ripples that extend past his teaching at Middlesex. Other private schools are adopting similar programs to the one he started, helping students understand their minds and reduce stress in demanding and competitive environments. Next summer, Doug plans to lead his first mindfulness retreat specifically for people with illness, teaching them how to see moments of beauty and awe beyond their suffering. Deeply grateful for the second chance he has been given, he’s on a mission to support others in coping with the challenges and wonders of the human mind and the beauty that lies within.