Don Fitzgerald’s voice will never go silent

Don Fitzgerald has a long history of survival.

He survived a tour of duty in Vietnam as a young draftee with the U.S. Army more than 50 years ago.

He has survived 11 surgeries since 2002, when he was diagnosed with a rare form of low-grade sarcoma in his larynx.

He also survived two false-negative pathology reports before his cancer diagnosis was confirmed.

Any of those things could have ended his life or crushed his spirit, but that didn’t happen.

And despite all these setbacks, he never fully lost his voice — even though two thirds of his larynx was removed 17 years ago.

A 12th surgery, scheduled for August, will remove the remaining third of his larynx – and any remaining cancer with it. During the same procedure, doctors will insert a prosthesis, giving him a new voice. The procedure itself will be grueling, lasting about eight hours.

Fitzgerald is not only a veteran and member of the Wicomico County Board of Education, he’s a longtime baseball and softball coach, and life member of the Salisbury Optimist Club.

His seat at the Board of Education table will await his return.

“I’m not one to sit around doing nothing,” said Fitzgerald. “I’ll be watching the proceedings on TV. But no speaking. I have a whiteboard at home that I’ll use for communicating.”

The 1964 graduate of Wicomico High School, paradoxically, owes his life to a near-death experience during a surgical procedure in Baltimore that was supposed to relieve his gastric reflux symptoms, he said. The surgical staff encountered an obstruction in his throat while trying to insert a breathing tube when he stopped breathing.

“I’ve been like a guinea pig the last 17 years,” he said, “because this cancer is so rare, there was no good history on treatment. When I was diagnosed in 2002, mine was only the 20th documented case in the world.”

His Vietnam experience and the subsequent cancer diagnosis decades later are related. Exposure to Agent Orange, used during the Vietnam conflict, is thought to be responsible.

There is, however, no connection between the gastric reflux and the cancer, he said, except that the reflux is what led doctors to catch the cancer early.

“Since I’ve had no radiation or chemo treatments, chances of the tissue healing are good,” he said. “When it’s done, it will probably be a three-month healing process. Once it’s healed, I’ll be going to speech therapy to learn how to use the prosthesis.”

Although cancer itself is no longer the biggest issue, Fitzgerald said, there’s only so much room in his throat for scar tissue from past surgeries.

His most recent surgery was in February.

“Since then, the tumor has come back,” he said, “affecting my swallowing and eating.”

Removing what’s left of his larynx should mean the end of Fitzgerald’s long and difficult ordeal. And he will be in good hands during his recovery. His wife, Sharon, and one of his daughters, Jennifer Fitzgerald, are both nurses. Jennifer has worked 25 years at the University of Maryland Neonatal Unit. His other daughter, Kim, is a Spanish teacher.

As a young man, Fitzgerald went to work for E.I DuPont in Seaford, first as a service operator and mechanic, a career interrupted briefly but significantly by his military service. Following his honorable discharge in 1968, he returned to DuPont, where he worked until his retirement in 2002.

“God works in mysterious ways,” Fitzgerald said. “If not for the reflux, they wouldn’t have found the cancer until it was too late to correct. I’ve been so lucky despite what I’ve been through.”

Fitzgerald grew up near Prince Street Elementary School.

“I played Optimist baseball as young man,” he said, “and in 1981, I asked to join Optimist Club I knew a little about it, so I jumped in. I coach baseball and softball.” He said those are the only two sports he coaches.

Fitzgerald has also coached baseball at James M. Bennett High School since 2000.

“I’ve been coaching probably since 1974,” he said, “and both played and coached at the same time for a time.”

It almost goes without saying he’s a Delmarva Shorebirds fan.

“My wife and I have a 12-game plan now with the Shorebirds,” he said.

There’s one more thing Fitzgerald is passionate about in his spare time.

“I’m a big hunter,” he said, “mostly deer, but also goose.” He hunts mostly in Somerset County. His wife is from Mount Vernon.

“West Post Office is where I hunt most often, near Five Bridges,” he said. “I told my wife I plan to be in deer stand on opening day, which is Nov. 30.”

When he’s not working with youths, coaching, hunting or taking in a game at Arthur W. Perdue Stadium, Fitzgerald spends time each winter helping with the Community Emergency Shelter Project, an overnight shelter for homeless men that is hosted by several area churches during the coldest months. Fitzgerald volunteers for overnight shifts while the men are staying at his church, Grace United Methodist Church.

“I’ve been doing this six, seven, eight years now,” he said. “We talked about this at church recently, there have been some changes, new leadership, in the organization. Some churches are backing out because, well, some of the guys can be abrasive. If you don’t have someone there who can stand up to them in the proper way it can be difficult. But it’s probably one of the best things I’ve ever done, other than working with youths.”

He praised Salisbury Mayor Jake Day’s efforts to build better relationships with the area’s homeless.

As for his own ordeal, Fitzgerald tries to look at the positives.

“I could be bitter, but where does that get you?” he said. “It doesn’t change anything. Really, if you feel sorry for yourself, just go walk through a nursing home.”

High on his wish list is a desire to see county government work more cooperatively and put the needs of kids first.

“The council-executive bickering needs to stop,” he said. “I don’t like it when the Board of Education and kids are put in the middle of adult arguments.” 

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