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The Alabama angel: how one cancer patient is fulfilling wishes of others

Joseph Thompson was an average 22-year-old college graduate. He enjoyed hanging out with friends on the weekend, going to work, attending music concerts and watching every sport that was on his television screen. But on March 3, 2022, he received news that would change life as he knew it.

A dizzying diagnosis

One day while at work last February, the Somerville, Alabama, native noticed that he was feeling odd.

“My vision was blurry, and I was dizzy,” Thompson said. “I just played it off; but when my co-workers started noticing, I thought something could be wrong.”

Thompson decided to go to a nearby walk-in clinic and seek treatment. He was diagnosed with vertigo, a spinning or moving sensation, and given medication to ease the side effects.

After a week of taking the medicine, he noticed that his symptoms were not getting better but, in fact, were becoming worse. He began having a hard time walking straight and fell in a supply closet at work. After his fall, his parents convinced him to go to the emergency room at a local hospital and get another opinion.

“After hours in the emergency room doing CT scans and diagnostic testing, an MRI showed swelling on my brain,” Thompson said.

The next morning, Thompson heard the words no one wants to hear: “You have cancer.”

The neurologist explained that he had a 2 centimeter tumor mixed into his brainstem. Sitting in a small hospital room on that early morning in March, Thompson was overcome with shock as he considered what this could mean for his future. He immediately decided he was not going to sit back and let this control his life.

“I looked at the doctor and said, ‘So what’s the plan? What are we going to do to fight this?’”

Ready for the fight

Due to the location of the tumor, his doctor informed him that it was inoperable. There was nothing more they could do, but he knew of a doctor in Birmingham who could possibly help him. Thompson was referred to Burt Nabors, M.D., associate scientist at the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB.

“Joseph was referred to me in March 2022 with an inoperable brainstem glioma,” Nabors said. “After examining his case and talking with him, we sat down and made a treatment plan that would offer him his best chance.”

Because the tumor was intertwined with his brain stem, both biopsy and surgery were not options, so he decided to utilize the cancer treatment options available at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

“We are able to offer a comprehensive treatment plan to patients because we have a nucleus of experts in specialties at UAB Medicine like brain cancer who dedicate all their research and time to those areas,” said Nabors, who is also the director of the Division of Neuro-Oncology in the UAB Marnix E. Heersink School of Medicine.

Inside Alabama AngelJoseph Thompson and Burt Nabors, M.D.,
Photography: Steve Wood
Nabors decided that the best course of action for Thompson included six weeks of radiation to try to shrink the tumor followed by chemotherapy in efforts to stabilize the tumor.

Wishes do come true

After being diagnosed in 2022, an adolescent and young adult social worker with the Institute for Cancer Outcomes and Survivorship at UAB introduced Thompson to the Nikolas Ritschel Foundation, an organization that grants wishes of young adults diagnosed with cancer. He was excited to learn about this because he was past the cutoff age of other wish organizations.

Two months after submitting an application, he received notification that his wish had been granted.

“I was so ecstatic to find out that one of my lifelong dreams was going to become a reality. I get to go to the Kentucky Derby!”

This May, Thompson will travel to Kentucky with his mom, dad and twin sister to attend the race.

Becoming the Alabama Angel

Finding out his Derby wish would be granted filled Thompson’s heart with excitement, but something was still missing. Having to quit his job due to the time commitment of his treatment plan, Thompson was lost at what his next step would be.

“In the short time that I had known of Nik’s Wish, I came to love the organization,” he said. “I reached out and explained that I appreciated their granting my wish to go to the Derby, but my real wish was to work for them and help fulfill the wishes of other patients.”

Thompson now works for Nik’s Wish and is the organization’s first contract worker. He is tasked with coordinating fundraising efforts in the state of Alabama as well as assisting with granting other Alabama patients their wishes. They call him the Alabama Angel.

Since gaining his wings with the organization, he has announced two wish fulfillments to patients in central Alabama. And seeing the smiles on the faces of other cancer patients is helping Thompson find his purpose in life.

At his one-year appointment in March 2023, Thompson received news he had been hoping to hear. His tumor is 75 percent smaller than it was 12 months ago and was declared stable.

“I understand that I am not going to be here as long as I would like to be. I’ve come to terms with that. But if I can make a difference in just one person’s life, I’ve done what I need to do. That’s all that matters to me.”

(Courtesy of UAB)

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