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Special: "Dads for My Daughters"

Aired June 19, 2010 - 07:30   ET



DR. SANJAY GUPTA, HOST (voice-over): A devoted father hears a shocking diagnosis.


GUPTA: Facing his own mortality ...

B. FEILER: I could just feel my body sort of slipping away.

GUPTA: ... he makes an extraordinary request.

B. FEILER: Will you help be their dad?

GUPTA: In this special half hour, an intimate diary of one man's harrowing journey.

B. FEILER: One for good.

GUPTA: It's going to inspire you to rethink how you live your life and you how would take care of the ones you might leave behind.


B. FEILER: Tuesday, July 15th, 2008. Dear friends and family, the mist lifts slowly off my in-law's backyard on Cape Cod this morning, revealing a day that is well under way and a layer of dew on the granite boulders. I apologize for reaching out in this way. But the crush of events in recent days has forced us into a number of uncomfortable situations. I have learned that I have a seven-inch osteogenic sarcoma in my left femur. Put more directly, I have bone cancer.


GUPTA: It all began in May of 2008, a run-of-the-mill spring day, a routine physical.

B. FEILER: I was a healthy person.

GUPTA: Or so it seemed for Bruce Feiler -- happily married.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Hi, Daddy. What do you have there?

GUPTA: Father to twin girls, best-selling author. Feiler's book and documentary "Walking the Bible" was celebrated.

B. FEILER: My journey through the Bible began in Mesopotamia.

GUPTA: It also gave him the nickname "The Walking Guy."

B. FEILER: Long before Rome, all roads led to Egypt.

GUPTA: He made a living by exploring the world ...


GUPTA: ... and walking in other people's shoes. And now, he was about to be stopped in his tracks by a routine blood test.

B. FEILER: She says, your alkaline phosphatase number is high. And she explains that alkaline phosphatase is this test that vaguely suggests there's something wrong with your liver or your bones. Another test, my liver is cleared. She says on what seems like a whim, why don't you get a full-body bone scan?

GUPTA: That test revealed a growth on his left femur, the thigh bone. But it was also the bone he broke while riding his treasured bike when he was just 5 years old. His doctors were not concerned.

B. FEILER: She's like, oh, you know, looks like nothing. Don't worry. It's not like you have cancer or something, she says to me.

GUPTA (on camera): Boy.

B. FEILER: So I'm like, I repeated that a lot. "Don't worry," I say to my wife, "Don't worry," I say to my parents, "Don't worry," I say to myself. I don't have cancer.

GUPTA (voice-over): But sometimes, people have a hunch. His wife Linda told me she had been worried for months.

LINDA FEILER, WIFE: You know, as a wife, a spouse, you know, as a parent, when something is just off, and he just didn't look himself.

GUPTA: Days later, Bruce had a follow-up X-ray and MRI of his left leg. The results would confirm Linda's worst suspicions. On the streets of New York, Bruce got a call from the doctor.

B. FEILER: And then she says to me on the phone, your tumor is not consistent with a benign tumor, and called Linda.

GUPTA (on camera): You called her. She answers the phone. You say what?

B. FEILER: It's cancer.

L. FEILER: It's not news that anyone ever wants to hear, and I, you know, just -- I immediately went to the girls.

GUPTA: What did she say? B. FEILER: I need you here for our girls. I can't -- I can't raise them alone. I need you for the girls. From the very beginning, it became the cancer versus the girls.



GUPTA (voice-over): The twins. They were born on April 15th, 2005. Tax Day.


GUPTA: The doctor joked, early Feiler and late Feiler. Their parents named them Eden and Tybee.

Eden for the Bible's perfect garden which Bruce was looking for when Linda learned she was pregnant.

B. FEILER: I love you.

GUPTA: And Tybee for the coastal island where Bruce and Linda were married. The girls were named to be adventurers like their father, and his plan was to be there every step of the way.

GUPTA (on camera): You girls like walking to school like this ...

B. FEILER: Yes, exactly.

GUPTA: ... with daddy? You do this every morning?


L. FEILER: Every day, I'm actually astounded by their relationship.

GUPTA (voice-over): But again, it was that day in 2008 that jeopardized everything about the future he'd imagined -- bone cancer, a rare form of cancer, more specifically, osteosarcoma. It usually strikes people much younger than Bruce.

B. FEILER: There's never a moment that is not shadowed in some way by that phone call -- that cancer illness, the idea of dying is never that far away.

GUPTA: Just days after the diagnosis, Cape Cod. Bruce was consumed by a sense of loss, the man who'd made a living by walking knew he might never walk again -- might not live to see the twins grow up. His thoughts focused on them.

B. FEILER: I'm a person who has tried in my life to dream undreamable dreams. Who teaches you how to dream? Who's the person going to say, tell them if they want to run a marathon, open a restaurant, write a book, cook the (INAUDIBLE) -- who's going to say to them, "You can do it"? GUPTA: After a restless night in the early morning darkness, the house quiet, the answer came to him.

The extraordinary idea -- when we come back.





B. FEILER: OK? What song are we singing?

Dear friend, as you know, I recently learned that I have a seven- inch cancerous tumor in my left leg. That afternoon, Tybee and Eden had just turned three came running to greet me, laughing, giggling and falling to the ground. I crumbled. I kept imaging all the walks I might not take with them.

And show me your twirls.

The ballet recitals I might not see. Would they wonder who I was, I thought? Would they yearn for my voice? I believe Eden and Tybee will have plenty of opportunities in their lives. They'll have each other. But they may not have me. They may not have their dad.

Will you help be their dad?

GUPTA (voice-over): Sick, scared and worried, Bruce wrote that letter to six lifelong friends, men who knew his voice, who could be fathers for his daughters. He decided to call them the "Council of Dads."


GUPTA: By late July, weeks after his cancer diagnosis, Bruce took the letter 200 miles north to Putney, Vermont, the home of childhood friend Jeff Shumlin.

JEFF SHUMLIN, BRUCE'S FRIEND: He said to me before coming up, "I want to find sometime to spend alone with you."

GUPTA: Nothing could have prepared him for what Bruce was about to ask.

SHUMLIN: Of course, without skipping a heart beat, I said, "Bruce, absolutely, yes. You can count on me for anything." But it really was an overwhelming moment emotionally because I was connecting with all that Bruce was going through and at the same time feeling a bit of a burden for where this might go.

B. FEILER: This turned out to be, Sanjay, a key to the idea of the council which is to burden. He's a dad. All except for one of these men is a dad. They have busy lives. They've got their own families, they got their own kids.

So, I wasn't in effect giving them my kids. I was saying, will you just be there and will you take this one side of me and will you convey them that idea?

GUPTA: Jeff would capture Bruce's adventurous side, part Vermont farmer, part world traveler. Jeff's as comfortable driving a tractor and sheering sheep as he is exploring the catacombs of Paris. His philosophy: get off the beaten track. And that's a style that immediately connected for an 18-year-old Bruce.

SHUMLIN: I can remember us hiking through the Swiss Alps singing gospel songs at the top of our lungs.

Being a traveler involves diving truly into the culture that you're visiting. It means interacting with a country's people. It means trying its foods. It means listening to its music.

GUPTA: And that's the spirit Bruce wanted Jeff to teach Eden and Tybee.

B. FEILER: I will get them out of their comfort zone and help them to see the world.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK. Ready? Here we go.

GUPTA: It would take five more men to complete the council.

Childhood buddy Ben Edwards: to show the girls where their dad came. College roommate Max Stier: to help them live life with passion. Poet Josh Ramo: to make them take time to reflect on life. Business partner David Black: to teach them to never give up. And close confidant Ben Sherwood: to challenge them to always ask questions.

And then Linda: who would be in charge of them all.

The council now formed snapped into action.

L. FEILER: Being surrounded by these male voices, watching the girls relate to them was really fascinating and enriching.

GUPTA (on camera): This sounds all so great and, you know, I think we all crave something like this in our lives, but a lot of it is predicated on Bruce not being around anymore.

L. FEILER: It's where it originated but it is not where it went.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You are safe now. Don't worry.

GUPTA (voice-over): In the months to come, each man assumed his role and began making special connections to Eden and Tybee.

B. FEILER: We sat down and we were talking about the -- about who these men are and they were going through it. They were like, yes, there's tadpole Ben and we went tadpole fishing with him, and there, tractor jack. He took us skiing. OK? And there's chocolate chip David because he likes to make chocolate cookies with us.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That smells great.

B. FEILER: Already in their minds, each of them has a personality that they already associate with them.

GUPTA: The council was at work,and Bruce would need it. The year ahead would bring him to the brink of death.

B. FEILER: I could just feel my body sort of slipping away.

GUPTA: Battling the seemingly unsurvivable -- when we come back.




B. FEILER: Monday, December 1st, 2008. Dear friends and family, it was my birthday. I was in the hospital.

As feared, the last few months had been challenging. I passed into the belly of the chemo colossus and experienced many of its most ferocious side effects.

At one point I wrote Linda, it's so much worse than anyone will ever know.

GUPTA (voice-over): Hidden behind the smiles, a man struggling to survive.

B. FEILER: I had no hair. I had no eyebrows. It fried my insides. I never even told anybody about how bad I felt on the inside.

GUPTA: It was a brutal regimen designed to fight Bruce's rare and aggressive cancer. Osteosarcoma strikes just 900 Americans a year. More than 2/3 of those patients are diagnosed before they're 40. Bruce was 45.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's very uncommon to have this diagnosis.

GUPTA: Dr. John Healey is from Memorial Sloan Kettering n New York. He would be the general leading the fight against Bruce's cancer.

DR. JOHN HEALEY, MEMORIAL SLOAN KETTERING: I hate the cancer. And I know it's not going to show my patient any mercy and I'm not going to show it any mercy.

GUPTA (on camera): When you looked at his films and after you examined him, did you already pretty much know what you were going to do when you left the room?

HEALEY: I know that he needed chemotherapy and followed by surgery and what we call a wide excision which means removing the tumor and taking a rim of normal tissue all the way around it. I was confident I could save his leg.

GUPTA (voice-over): Healey knew that saving the leg was critical to Bruce's identity. He was, after all, the walking guy. But he also knew it wouldn't be easy.

For months, these warriors pursued the battle on two fronts. While a titanium prosthesis to replace the diseased thigh bone was painstakingly developed, Bruce suffered through rounds of chemo to shrink the tumor. For 4 1/2 months, pneumonia, ear infections, pneumonia, ear infection, dozens of pounds lost, three hospitalizations.

B. FEILER: I could just feel my body sort of slipping away.

GUPTA: Even as Bruce was fighting for his life, the "council of dads" rallied around the family. Some with daily phone calls. Others, weekly visits.

Jeff Shumlin had a different tactic: one postcard a day, every single day, for a year.

(on camera): That's a lot of postcards. I mean, to see them all like this, what's that like?

SHUMLIN: I have to say, it's impressive to walk in here and see these postcards on the desk. I wanted Bruce to know that I was with him.

GUPTA (voice-over): Bruce needed those postcards. The hardest part was about to come.

B. FEILER: There are few days in your life that you know are going to be momentous -- tomorrow is one of them for me.

GUPTA: On that day, Dr. Healey, a world renowned orthopedic surgeon, would perform an operation he'd only done twice before. Bruce's leg and his life hang in the balance.

L. FEILER: I sat there waiting for 15 hours as the surgery went on.

GUPTA: Healey was able to remove all the deceased tissue and attach the high tech prosthesis. Bruce spent 12 days in a hospital bed healing and hoping.

B. FEILER: The pivotal moment in the entire 12 months of this last year as I call it, occurred the day before I came home.

GUPTA: That moment, when we come back.




B. FEILER: Tuesday, April 14th, 2009. Dear friends and family, the pear tree across the street has just erupted into full blossom. Our own private promise that spring is here to enliven us again.


B. FEILER: After 9 1/2 months ...


B. FEILER: ... twenty-nine nights in the hospital, 100 visits to the doctor, my chemotherapy has come to an end.

Thank you very much. I'm done.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Kiss her, Bruce. Kiss her.

GUPTA (voice-over): Done. It once seemed unthinkable but now seemed possible.

B. FEILER: The pivotal moment in the entire 12 months occurred the day before I came home.

GUPTA: It was 11 days after Bruce's marathon surgery. His doctor delivered the news.

B. FEILER: You've got clean margin. Meaning what he had taken out, there was no cancer in the bones that left behind, and more important, you had 100 percent aggressive strength. The chemo had slaughtered the tumor.

GUPTA: It was the first step.

B. FEILER: Ye, yes. Much easier.

GUPTA: Bruce could now focus on healing, learning to walk again, and writing -- this time, a book about the council, the lurking in the shadows, the all too real fear that his cancer could come back.

B. FEILER: It's actually lung cancer that's the biggest threat to my life because in a fairly high percentage of cases, bone metastasizes -- bone cancer metastasizes to the lungs. So, essentially, every three months they're going to check my lungs.

GUPTA: March 2010, Bruce traveled to New York City for the first CAT scan of his lungs, just blocks from where he called Linda to tell her he had cancer. On this day, the news was very different.

B. FEILER: Hi, wifey. How are you? There's nothing there.

L. FEILER: It was a good day. It was a good call.

GUPTA: Still, it is hard not to worry.

L. FEILER: At any moment, you can get a scan and a call that's not so good that sends you right back, and it's been one year. It hasn't been five years. And at that five year call, you're cancer- free, then I think we can all start planning their wedding.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Bruce, that's perfect.

GUPTA: The council is also standing by.

SHUMLIN: Every day, every moment, should it come back, we'll be there for him. The postcards will come back.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So tell Jeff of all the people who came to visit in the past.

GUPTA: But for now, they live in the moment.

April 15, 2010. Eden and Tybee's fifth birthday, the council has convened in Brooklyn to celebrate life in the very special community Bruce has built for his girls.


B. FEILER: Dear Tybee and Eden, you never know when our last word may come. So I beg of you, you're watching love every day with family, with friends, with your council of dads. And whatever adventures you'd take, I'll be whispering in your ear, gently nudging you on your arm.

Take trips, girls. Take chances. Take off. But every now and then, take a walk.