Sam Tippit organizing a special event at FirstEnergy Stadium
There were spinal taps. There were biopsy procedures. There were shots that felt like 1,000 swords piercing your entire body.
"It's not even the needle that hurt," said Sam Tippit, a special events employee with the Cleveland Browns. "It's the actual chemo that feels like fire spreading in your veins."
Tippit woke up on January 22, 2006 and was the cookie-cutter version of what every 17-year-old boy should resemble: focused on books, baseball and babes. During a workout, a cramp in his leg quickly became a blood clot. And that blood clot shockingly morphed into Leukemia.
Fighting off the deadly blood disease interrupted what should have been one of the most memorable years of Tippit's life. He missed the entire second half of his junior year, appearing only a few times in the hallways of University School in Hunting Valley, Ohio, just to say hello to his buddies. He didn't get the chance start in the outfield for his baseball team.
During those first six months when Tippit was first diagnosed with Leukemia, hospitals seemed more like home while his own bed felt like a hotel. The treatment was aggressive. It was taxing. The only dream keeping Tippit going was the longing to be normal.
"I wanted to be outside, read a book, play a round of golf," recalled Tippit. "I wanted to leave the IV machines and the hospital beds behind. I wanted to be me."
Months later, Tippit did return to normal.
Those visits to the hospital were now weekly instead of daily. Needing a sense of freedom in his life, the Ohio native chose to attend Elon University in North Carolina. He kept his passion for baseball by managing Elon's nationally ranked program. Following some relaxation time after graduation, a minor league baseball team in Montana offered Tippit a job. Cancer free for nearly five-and-a-half years, life was as normal as Tippit could've ever imagined.
LIGHTNING NEVER STRIKES TWICE IN THE SAME PLACE
There's a famous quote from the novel The Alchemist: learn to recognize omens.
On his way to visiting a friend in Philadelphia, Sam Tippit felt an omen. A rock flew up towards the windshield of his car, cracking the glass. Unbelievably, on the ride back, another rock hit the same exact spot on the windshield, on the same exact spot of the highway, making the crack even bigger.
"It was kind of a saying of mine that 'Lightning never strikes twice in the same place,'" Tippit remembered. "And immediately after that second rock hit in the exact same spot, I could tell something was wrong."
Tippit's hunch was right: he had Leukemia, again. Eerily, he was diagnosed on January 22, 2012 – six years to the day of his original cancer detection.
"The first time I was overly confident because I was still a kid," said Tippit. "This time I knew this could literally be it. I was terrified."
Round two was going to be different. Studies show the older you get, the harder it is to fight off Leukemia's blistering pace. Doctors from all over the country articulated to Tippit and his dad that there was only one surefire way to subside the cancer's aggression: a bone marrow transplant. His current bone marrow was considered tainted, and would perhaps always have the ability to produce Leukemia cells.
The solution was in sight, but obstacles still remained. Getting bone marrow wasn't as simple as hooking up to a radiation machine. Luckily for Tippit, his younger brother Nick was a match. The actual bone marrow transplant wasn't the hard part; it was the recovery that doctors told Tippit would be torture. And it was.
For five straight weeks after the transplant, Tippit was barely able to lift a finger his from his hospital bed. Hives and other allergic reactions to the new bone marrow were the norm. He didn't eat for days at a time. His immune system was torn to shreds, so much so, that a routine lung infection nearly killed him. Even when he was finally released from the hospital, Tippit was forced to stay indoors. Yet again, he longed to just be normal.
'STAYING IN TOUCH WITH EVERYONE THERE'
Just like the first time, Sam Tippit prevailed. His hair, now a shaggy brown, started to grow back. Forced to throw aside the baseball job in Montana, Tippit found a role with the Browns; literally a week after doctors cleared him for normal activity.
When it came to round two of battling Leukemia, Tippit and his family were committed to finding the best hospital in the country. They met with doctors from Duke University and the Dana Farber Cancer-Institution in Boston.
"I would've moved anywhere in the world if it meant living," said Tippit.
By chance, Tippit's cure for cancer happened to be in his backyard, at University Hospital (UH) in downtown Cleveland. Because Leukemia is a more common cancer seen in children, Tippit thought UH, and their Rainbow Babies unit was the best choice. And it was. The doctors made the correct decisions; the nurses cultivated lasting friendships with him. One in particular, named Sarah, texted him twenty minutes before our interview.
"The people who care for kids, really, really care," Tippit said. "I can't thank the people at Rainbow Babies enough. They are phenomenal."
Somehow, after all the hell he's been through, Tippit nobly calls cancer a "blessing in disguise." He now sees the positive in every situation, he says, a life lesson many grown adults never figure out. He takes advantage of every opportunity, especially the role he's carved with the Browns. And surviving two health scares has made Tippit stronger, knowing he can take on the world.
It was a dreaded question that had to be asked: is he worried about the Leukemia coming back for a third time?
"What I've tried to do is challenge myself not to worry," said Tippit. "There's no time to worry. "Worrying only makes you unhappy. It only makes you scared. I'm too busy living my life to the fullest."