BATON ROUGE, La. -- We originally went out to do a story on brain cancer awareness month and the need for more research. Instead, we found a love story that changed an entire school and is being heard in Baton Rouge and even Washington D.C.
After a college romance at UNO, three children and more than three decades of marriage, one night while watching TV, everything changed.
"All of a sudden Gary said, 'I can't read. Something's wrong. I can't read.' Within a few minutes, he couldn't say what he wanted to say anymore. By the time we got to the hospital less than an hour later, he couldn't respond to his name," said Harahan resident Mona Leingang.
Gary Leingang was not having a stroke. Only in his mid 50s, his wife Mona, had to give him the sad news.
"There's nothing quite like going into the room to have to tell your husband," said Leingang. "When I went in, Gary said, 'Well, what do I have?' Because he was awake right after surgery. I said, 'It's cancer.' And he said, 'Am I going to die?' And I said, 'Yes.'"
It was the worst diagnosis of brain cancer. Gary, a school teacher who also taught special education and sick children at home with cancer, lived 20 months.
"He had more kids who he had tutored and taught who came to his wake. It was unbelievable. All these kids who walked up to me and said, 'You know, I wouldn't have graduated high school if it hadn't been for Mr. Gary teaching me my math,'" Leingang said.
Before he died, Gary got to hear letters read from family and friends about fun memories and what he meant to them. Mona had them put into a book for herself and their grown children.
Gary also did something he wanted to do when the doctor told him to make the best of his last months.
"So Gary said, 'So, can I go to Disney World and ride the roller coasters?' So we scheduled a trip and the whole family went," said Mona.
At the same time, Mona was quietly in her own battle with breast cancer. Gary told her she never got to feel her pain from that because she was too busy caring for his emotional needs.
She is well today, teaching students with dyslexia at St. George's Episcopal School and fulfilling Gary's request.
"About four months before he died, he said, 'Make something good come out of this so I don't just have cancer and die.'"
May 9, Gary's birthday will be proclaimed Gray Day in the Louisiana Legislature. The students have made thousands of the gray brain cancer awareness ribbons. They are making posters too. The students sent the Louisiana Congressional members and President Obama ribbons too.
Leingang hopes all 50 states one day will have Gray Day. Her students are already trying to make a difference. A third grader remembers his uncle.
"He died of brain cancer, but he died alone, so I was really upset about that. And we're making a fundraiser on Lemonade Day," said 9-year-old Jack Gaar.
Leingang hopes that awareness will lead to fundraisers for research, and research will lead to a cure for one of the most incurable forms of cancer. Gary is still teaching through words he left with his wife.
"Tell everybody that when they get busy with the stuff that people get busy with, like their jobs and dishes, and all those things that you're busy with, don't forget to tell the people you love, that you love them because you don't know how much time you have," Leingang said quoting her late husband.
One of Gary's doctors, Dr. Frank Culicchia, chairman of Neurosurgery at LSUHSC, said Gary reminded him how to really live each day to its fullest.
And when Coach Sean Payton found out that Gary said in September that the Saints would win the last Super Bowl that he's get to watch, he sent Gary a helmet signed by players.
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In addition, the Leingang Family, along with Mary Dalili, whose mother also died from brain cancer, will host a kickball tournament to raise money for the American Brain Tumor Association each year. This year’s tournament is in October.
· Brain Cancer is one of the most incurable forms of cancer.
· One in approximately 170 men and women born today will be diagnosed with brain cancer during their lifetime.
· Brain Tumors are the third leading cause of cancer in children, but the number one solid tumor cancer cause of death.
For those wishing to support neuro-oncology research, donations may be made to the LSU Health Sciences Foundation’s Kelsey Bradley Favrot Chair in neuro-oncology to increase brain cancer research resources in Louisiana. You can visit The LSU Health Founation's website.