As the Dean for the School of Business and Economics at Sonoma State University, I teach my students that the ultimate goal of leadership is to make a difference – a difference for the organizations in which we work and for the communities in which we live.  This year, I am acting on my own lessons and am the Leadership Chair for The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s (LLS) Light The Night Walk.

[caption id="attachment_91451" align="alignleft" width="320"] Bill and Benji Silver celebrating Benji’s birthday on top of Hood Mountain[/caption]

Let me tell you the story about why.  It is a story with a happy ending, but it may not seem that way at first . . .

Around this time fourteen years ago I was riding high.  I had just been promoted to chief operating officer in my organization; my wife Adrienne had become a partner in her pediatric medical practice; we were living the rocky mountain life in Colorado surrounded by friends, family and life was good.  On Dec. 12, 1999 our first child, Benji, was born.  For those of you reading this who are parents, you know that the birth of your child is truly one of life’s most joyous and special moments.

And so it was for us.  Benji was a beautiful, happy, boy whose little gurgles and giggles brought smiles to our faces, and the sparkle in his eyes brightened our days.  For the first three months of his life, we counted ourselves lucky for how easy and how much fun it was being parents.

And then, he started to get a little fussy.  Not very fussy mind you, just a little.  At first we thought it was a winter cold or an upset tummy or an “owie” we couldn’t see, and we expected it to pass.  But it didn’t.  After a week of fussiness we brought him to see his doctor who proclaimed, “Everything checks out and it is not uncommon for babies to become occasionally irritable.  He might be developing some colic or possibly he has a slight breast milk allergy.  Why don’t you try some formula and we’ll see what happens.”

A week or so passed with no change.  He wasn’t any worse per se, but he didn’t seem to be feeling better.  Adrienne, being the pediatrician-Mom, was worried.  I said to her, “You know of every horrible thing that can happen to kids because you’re a doctor.  Stop worrying.  You always tell me that kids are resilient.  He’ll be fine.”  She responded that something just seemed wrong to her and that she was going to take him in to see her colleagues with whom she trained at Children’s Hospital.  I said that she was being paranoid and that I was going skiing.

Driving back from the slopes, I got a call from Adrienne asking me to come by the hospital.  She told me that she didn’t know anything yet, but that the doctors didn’t like the blood test results and wanted to run them again.  Likely nothing to worry about but they want to do some more tests.

About a mile out from the hospital I got another call, but couldn’t really hear what she was saying because she was crying so much.  She said something about cancer and that I better get to the hospital as fast as I could.  I remember flooring the gas pedal and ignoring all traffic laws (and frankly common sense) as I sped to Children’s Hospital.  I remember running down the hospital corridor, finding my crying, devastated wife, and wrapping my arms around her. 

She said, through tearful gulps, “Benji has leukemia.” 

“What’s that?” I replied.

“It’s a blood cancer.”

“Is it bad?”

“Very . . .”

Leukemia is a type of cancer that affects the blood and bone marrow, the spongy center of bones where our blood cells are formed. The disease develops when blood cells produced in the bone marrow grow out of control.  Benji’s leukemia had progressed quickly to a near fatal stage.

We sat with the oncologist who told us, “We need to get this boy to surgery immediately.”  She handed us a 60-page document listing in excruciating detail all the risks, complications, and probable awful outcomes.  She describe a very complex course of treatment and then went on to say that even then, Benji had a small chance of survival. 

No parent should ever have to hear the words “chance of survival” and their own child’s name mentioned in the same sentence.

So our three-month-old little boy was rushed down to surgery where they inserted a tube into his chest so they could pump him with chemotherapy drugs and placed another tube into his stomach so we could feed him, and we sat in a room and waited for him to come back to us.  Five hours later they brought him back in the room and hooked him up to the monitors. 

What happened next will haunt me until I take my last breath.

As soon as he was plugged into the monitors, alarms started going off.  More doctors started pouring into the room.  I was watching the screens and saw the numbers starting to fall, the arrows scrolling downward.  The noise and commotion grew cacophonous.  I had no idea what was happening and looked over to Adrienne for an explanation and some reassurance. 

As I looked up at her face, I saw our son Benji dying through my wife’s eyes.  And time froze for me.

That’s when Adrienne said, “Try giving him the counter.”  She said it again, “Give him the counter!” I thought she was talking to me but she was trying to get the attention of the doctors.  Benji was having a reaction to the anesthesia he had been given during surgery.  The “counter” was the medicine needed to counteract the effects of the anesthesia drugs.  As soon as he received the injection, the numbers started to come back up, the alarms started silencing and time started moving forward again.

The next three years were extraordinarily difficult, and yet I have no right to complain.  Benji did all the hard work.  Chemotherapy.  Total body irradiation.  Experimental targeted drug therapy.  Bone marrow transplant.  As a parent, you watch your child go through these ordeals wishing that you could trade places. Wishing that you could take the pain away.  Wishing that you could make a difference.

Fast forward to today.  It is with a great amount of pride and relief that I can say my son Benji is an ordinary kid who enjoys fencing, biking, hiking and playing video games.  But he is also an extraordinary kid, because he is a conqueror.  He defeated cancer, and this year he is the Honored Hero for The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Light The Night Walk. 

The Light The Night Walk is The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society's annual evening fundraiser to bring help and hope to those affected by cancer. Co-workers, friends and families form walk teams to raise vital funds for blood cancer research and local patient services. Walkers symbolically light the dark world of cancer by carrying illuminated lanterns: white for survivors, red for supporters and gold for those walking in memory of a loved one. These unique evening walks are marked by celebration, remembrance and hope. 

By providing patient support services, advocacy for lifesaving treatments and the most promising cancer research anywhere The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society was there to help us when we were fighting Benji’s cancer.  Now we can be there to help others.

I’d like to invite you to join us for this year’s Light The Night Walk.  If you have been touched by cancer in your life (and unfortunately too many of us have), this is an opportunity to do something.  Form a walk team and rally family and friends to join you.  Gather colleagues at work and be a sponsoring organization.  Or simply come out and walk with us.

Together we can make a real difference. 

Register at LightTheNight.org/gba or call 707.544.4350


Dr. William Silver is the Dean of the School of Business and Economics at Sonoma State University.  Benji Silver is a 7th grade student at Sonoma Country Day School.  If you would like them to come speak to your organization about the Light The Night Walk, please reach out to them at wsilver@sonoma.edu.