Five Questions With: Joseph A. Nagle

In 1992, Delta Dental of Rhode Island CEO Joseph A. Nagle and his wife, Jan, received devastating news: their son Colin was diagnosed with a rare life-threatening cancer in his maxilla called osteo sarcoma at age 4. 

Colin endured a year of chemotherapy and many hours of surgery that were complicated by the fact that he had been born with heart defects. Colin’s illness took an emotional toll on the family, including his sister Kerrin.  

Shortly after his surgery, Colin received a wish from Make-A-Wish Massachusetts and Rhode Island, which grants life-changing wishes for children with critical illnesses. Colin’s wish – to go to Walt Disney World Resort – provided, as Joseph Nagle put it, ​”a much-needed break from the daily hardship.”

Now, the family is dedicated to the charity and encourages others to contribute their time and donations to the cause.

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PBN: What is osteo sarcoma in the maxilla? What was the prognosis for Colin when you learned he had the disease?

NAGLE: Twenty-six years ago, my wife and I received devastating news: Our son Colin was diagnosed with a rare life-threatening cancer in his maxilla – his upper jaw – called osteo sarcoma at age 4. At the time, there were less than 20 cases ever reported in someone so young, so there wasn’t a lot of evidence that supported a good prognosis.

Osteo sarcoma is a cancer of the long bones found mostly in adolescents. Colin endured a year of chemotherapy to shrink the malignancy, followed by a 26-hour surgery that was complicated by the fact that Colin had been born with life-threatening heart defects that required open-heart surgery at only 3 months old. Doctors had to use part of his skull and stomach muscle to rebuild his jaw and roof of his mouth.

PBN: Can you describe the effect the diagnosis and treatment had on the family?

NAGLE: Colin’s new illness took an emotional toll on the entire family, including Colin’s sister Kerrin, who was only 7 at the time, as we all tried to stay strong and hold together as a family for Colin. We spent a lot of time apart and trying to balance family time on the weekends.

Treatment is a long process, including more chemotherapy post-surgery.  From an emotional standpoint, the fear and worry stay with you for a long time even after a good outcome. For many more years, you attend quarterly visits and bone scans, always on pins and needles worrying about a possible relapse. It’s not comfortable for a long time, but we got through it and tried to stay focused on the positive.

PBN: How did you learn of/receive the wish from Make-A-Wish?

NAGLE: Shortly after his surgery, Colin received a wish from Make-A-Wish Massachusetts and Rhode Island, an organization that grants life-changing wishes for children with critical illnesses in Rhode Island.

We were referred to Make-A-Wish in Rhode Island by the hospital. As the wish-planning process began, his wish volunteers visited us at our house and did a wonderful job. Colin was very excited about choosing Walt Disney World Resort for his wish. He loves the characters and was at a great age for it.  Everything was so magical for him.

PBN: Please tell us a little about the trip and how the respite helped Colin and the family.

NAGLE: The wish was a fantastic experience and a much-needed reprieve for us as a family. It not only gave us a reason to get out of the hospital and refocus on something positive, the wish became part of Colin’s treatment. He really came alive through the experience. He loved everything about Disney World, and Give Kids the World Village, where we stayed during the trip, accommodated our every need.

For us, the wish experience didn’t end in that week. We have carried the memories with us and always will. It was an incredible experience in a time we needed it most.

PBN: Please describe some of the volunteer work you and your family do for the organization now.

NAGLE: Colin, now 30, credits his wish experience with giving him renewed energy to bravely face his illness. After the wish, Colin’s mother, Jan, volunteered for Make-A-Wish for the next 15 years and the local nonprofit quickly became our favorite charity. In fact, our family has been supporting Make-A-Wish Massachusetts and Rhode Island in a variety of ways for the past 26 years.

Colin also made giving back to Make-A-Wish his passion. He became a wish ambassador for the organization and participated in many events and fundraisers. To satisfy a community service requirement as a student at the Wheeler School, Colin planned and performed a concert to benefit Make-A-Wish and raised more than $20,000 to support wish-granting. Two years later, Colin performed an encore benefit concert, raising a similar amount for Make-A-Wish. I also organized three charity golf tournaments to raise funds for the charity. It is our way of giving back to an organization that has meant so much to our family.

Most recently, Jan and I will be Wish Parent guest speakers at Make-A-Wish Massachusetts and Rhode Island’s annual Evening of Wishes at the Omni Providence Hotel in Providence on Nov. 17 [at] 6 p.m. Delta Dental of Rhode Island is the event’s “Presenting Sponsor” and Colin will even be playing the piano at the event’s cocktail reception and sharing about the lasting power of his wish experience.

For more information on Make-A-Wish Massachusetts and Rhode Island and the Evening of Wishes event, visit: massri.wish.org/EveningofWishes.

Rob Borkowski is a PBN staff writer. Email him at Borkowski@PBN.com.