'I Lived Through These Characters': An English Teacher's Life-Changing Impact On A Student

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Dan Wise (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Dan Wise (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Dan Wise was born with Diamond-Blackfan anemia, a rare bone marrow disorder that made him tired and weak.

He said in grade school, dealing with the condition was hard. He never told any of his peers about it.

"I was the pale kid who stuttered all the time. I didn’t need any of the added bonus points against me," he said. "I read a lot to escape."

Initially, Wise opted mostly for choose-your-own-adventure stories and popular books like "A Wrinkle In Time" and the Indiana Jones series. But he credits his sophomore English teacher at the now-shuttered St. Dominic Savio Preparatory High School for developing his appreciation of a broader range of literature.

Gerald Sullivan — "Sully," as he was known to his students — introduced classes to classics like "Catcher in the Rye," "Fahrenheit 451" and "The Bridge Over the River Kwai."

Wise said Sully's class was fun in a way that most of his high school classes weren't. He remembered Sully doing imitations of the characters in the books the class was reading to keep the students engaged.

"He was probably the best teacher I've ever had," he said. "I learned through him that I could live through these characters and have these adventures and do great things through the authors' words."

While he insisted he was always an active participant in the discussions, Wise said he did earn a reputation in Sully's class as a "wise guy," which, he admitted, was deserved. He said he often answered class questions in what he describes as a "smart alec-y" manner.

Wise transferred to East Boston High School after sophomore year and lost touch with Sully. Wise eventually graduated high school and started working.

During that time, Wise said he was managing his Diamond-Blackfan anemia with increasing doses of steroid medication. But eventually, the drug stopped working. His doctors spent a few years experimenting with other treatments, but finally told him the news he was dreading: Wise needed a bone marrow transplant.

"I was scared out of my mind," he said.

Wise remembered being so nervous when he first went to the bone marrow transplant program at Massachusetts General Hospital for pre-procedure appointments that he started shaking. But then, he said he found a familiar face.

"I get a tap on my shoulder and he says 'Hey, what are you, a wise guy?'" remembered Wise. "And it was Mr. Sullivan behind me."

"I learned through him that I could live through these characters and have these adventures and do great things."

Wise saw Sully several times in that waiting room before his transplant. Just before the procedure, Wise said Sully gave him a copy of "The Odyssey" by Homer and reminded him the story and the characters could help him escape the reality of the painful procedure he was about to undergo.

It was a tactic that Wise said worked like a charm.

"So as [my body] is getting radiated and Chernobyl'd, in my mind I'm Odysseus and I'm outsmarting the Cyclops," said Wise. "And then when I was in my darkest days in the hospital, when I was sick and miserable ... I was in the land of the Lotus Eaters."

After the procedure, Wise had to go back to the transplant center for several months to complete a series of blood and plasma transfusions. Once again, he ran into his friend and mentor, Mr. Sullivan. Wise said they often talked about books and played cards while drinking from the small cans of ginger ale that the doctor's office provided.

"It was like 'Tuesdays with Morrie,' but it was more like Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays with Sully," Wise said, referencing the best-selling memoir about a man who reconnected with his favorite professor during the last months of the teacher's life.

Wise's bone marrow transplant was successful. He no longer lives with Diamond-Blackfan anemia. But Sully's health battle was not as successful. He died last year at the age of 69.

But Wise said he'd always be thankful for the time he spent with Sully.

"He gave me that book and that hope. It was life changing," said Wise. "It got me through the scariest time of my life."

This segment aired on July 29, 2019.

Carrie Jung Senior Reporter, Education
Carrie is a senior education reporter.



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