Thirty-five years ago Blair Wingfield was making a decent living selling life insurance. What he didn’t realise was that he was ineligible for his own policies.
“I was selling stuff I couldn’t buy. I didn’t qualify.”
The 39-year-old had undiagnosed acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) – at the time a serious and uninsurable blood cancer that was causing a rapid deterioration in his health.
“I didn’t feel 100% and I had no energy. I also had a huge bruise on my leg. I kept wondering if I had banged myself on the table.”
Encouraged by his wife, the father of two young boys decided to get a blood test. The next day his doctor called him in to his surgery and told him he had leukaemia.
“I thought ‘oh, not only is that a nasty word, it’s pretty deadly’. I couldn’t believe it. I’d always been as fit as a buck rat and then, all of a sudden, kaput.”
Blair later learnt that his condition had been so bad, his doctor didn’t expect him to live through the night.
Blair needed an immediate injection of white blood cells. Fortunately, a doctor in the cardiac unit next-door had compatible cells.
“They took them off her and injected them between my toes – the only place they could find a good vein.”
“If she hadn’t given me those cells, I wouldn’t have made it through the night. It was that touch and go. I was literally bleeding to death.”
Blair’s next stroke of luck was being treated with amsacrine. At the time the drug was thought to be revolutionary, but compared to modern, targeted treatments for AML, the side-effects were severe.
“It’s rotten, yellow, stinking stuff that saved me.”
Since Blair’s diagnosis thirty five years ago, AML treatment has developed substantially and the side effects have significantly decreased.
“It was like, up against the wall, get a shotgun, blow you apart and then sweep all the bits together and say ‘oh you’re strong enough to have some more chemo now’.“
“They did that for 18 months, in 5 week cycles. Every cycle I’d go home and vomit for 3 days.”
He also lost all his hair, developed multiple blood clots and permanently lost feeling in some of his fingers.
But he survived. His last treatment was in February 1983.
“As far as I know I’m the only one who’s still around. People say you’re cured but I wouldn’t be that presumptuous. That’s just how I handle it.”
“Right from the beginning I knew what I had to do to stay alive – trust the doctor, have faith in myself and family and surround myself with positive people.”
Blair’s incredible survival has earned him the nickname ‘Miracle Man’.
“I can’t run away from it. I met a woman in her 70s recently and she said ‘oh you’re the ‘Miracle Man’. I always get embarrassed when people say that.”
What he’s not embarrassed about is the role he’s played in helping people stay positive in the face of their own blood cancer diagnoses.
“Just the other day I had a guy text me saying my example had helped him survive 15 years with the disease. There’ve been lots of examples like that.”
He’s also proud of his role in helping shape Leukaemia & Blood Cancer New Zealand into the organisation it is today.
“When we started we had a budget of $135,000 and two part-time staff. We’ve now got a work-force of 20 full-time staff, have sponsored a room in the new Motatapu Ward at Auckland City Hospital and have been instrumental in establishing the Leukaemia & Blood Cancer Research Unit at the University of Auckland.”
“It gives me goose bumps when I see what we’ve achieved.”
Blair’s hard work on behalf of LBC was recognised in 2015 when he was appointed as an officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for his contribution to health and sport.
Now 74, Blair has no plans to hang up his boots. He’s still on the LBC board, still giving motivational talks and is still determined to keep his humour and to live life to the fullest.
“I’m better than I ever imagined I could be. I’ve now got grandchildren who are older than my kids were when I was diagnosed.”
“But I can’t run away from the responsibility. It’s a prick of a disease. And it’s hard to spell.”