Hockey and heroics

UNB alumni Gene Chiarello overcame inevitable death to continue to play hockey for the Varsity Reds (even though expressly forbidden), get married, earn three degrees and become a lawyer.The University of New Brunswick has seen a lot of students come and go, but none quite like Gene Chiarello.

Chiarello overcame inevitable death to continue to play hockey for the Varsity Reds (even though expressly forbidden), get married, earn three degrees and become a lawyer.

But it wasn't easy.

At the invincible age of 24, Chiarello was told he had a brain tumor, but not to worry because it was benign.

It turned out it was malignant, and Chiarello was told he'd better "worry about the quality of life rather than the quantity."

He was forbidden from going back to school and playing hockey.

"I said ‘I'm not going to go down without doing anything, there's got to be something you can give me here. Have you got drugs? Give me ten times as much as you can and we'll see what happens.'"

An off-the-ice battle

It all started after a party. 

One evening in June 2003, Chiarello and his sister threw a 25th wedding anniversary party for their parents.

He woke up the next morning with blurred vision, attributing it to the wine from the night before. After a few days had passed with no improvement, Chiarello went to the ophthalmologist, who sent him to get an MRI. 

A tumor had been discovered, and Chiarello needed surgery.

"That's a terrifying thing to have to hear. You're young and athletic and strong and you think you're invincible, and that kind of news is handed down."

The tumor was removed and Chiarello's vision cleared, but six weeks later he got a call saying it was malignant, and the surgery didn't stop there. He went to the oncologist and had another MRI, an experience he describes as "surreal."

"You're sitting in the waiting room with patients who are young and old, black, white, brown, Asian, all ages, religions and races, doesn't matter. And they all have bald heads, they're very frail, and they all have cancer. They're all undergoing chemotherapy treatments."

Chiarello says he felt fortunate not to be in that situation - until he was. The tumor had grown back since his initial surgery, and the young man was told he was going to die.

"He suggested I go home to Sault Ste Marie, which is like an eight hour drive. He said ‘I suggest you go home and get palliative care.' I didn't know what that meant. I thought ‘Oh, palliative care, this is excellent. We have this in Sault Ste Marie? What are you going to do for me?' He said ‘They give you drugs so you're not in any pain while you die,' and that was his sales pitch."

Chiarello wasn't having any of that, though. He left the office, but eventually went back in and the doctor explained the situation. That's when Chiarello told him to just treat the illness no matter what it took.

The doctor called him the next day and told his mother that Chiarello would go through treatment.

"She was yelling ‘This is the best day ever! They're going to give you more chemo, then you get another surgery on your brain, then you're going to have radiation for six weeks!

"So the doctor just said he's going to poison me, cut me open, and then burn me. And we're crackin' the champagne bottles here you know? This is twisted, but the alternative was they weren't going to do anything."

Chiarello made it through six months of intense chemotherapy-five days a week for 18 hours per day, for 27 weeks.

Back to his home away from home

Chiarello's last surgery was in July 2004, and despite his doctor's ardent disapproval, he came back to UNB that September-for both classes and hockey.

"I got on the ice right away, which was really special. It was a running joke that I was the guy who hated practice. I loved to play, but I hated practice. I was out before they'd even turned the lights on."

The VReds played an exhibition game against St. Thomas University, and Chiarello, after being told he'd never play again, played two out of three periods and the VReds won the game.

"Six months before that, they made me drop the puck at a game. I pointed at the net. I said ‘I'll be back.' It was like a movie moment. I was like ‘Oh my god, I said that, but who would have thought? Now I've gotta walk the walk.

"I've played higher stakes games, all sorts of high stakes, nationally covered games. But this was really special."

Chiarello kept playing hockey, and he graduated with a degree in history and sociology in May 2005.

Unexpected destinations

When Chiarello, a young NHL hopeful, first arrived at UNB, it was against his will. He had the opportunity to try out for NHL teams, but he didn't wind up getting signed and was let down.

"When you're a young Canadian boy, what's the dream? Not to be anything but in the NHL. I worked towards that goal for what at the time was 20 years. I had high hopes and expectations and kind of had the blinders on. No other options really existed."

At the persistence of coach Gardiner MacDougall, UNB became a plan B for the NHL hopeful.

"When things didn't work out with the NHL I committed myself to getting an education, and UNB was where I'd committed to do that."

Chiarello says there was tension between Coach Mac and himself, seeing as MacDougall was ecstatic to have him, but he was just there as a plan B.

"He was extra enthusiastic about everything relating to UNB hockey, and I was extra unenthusiastic. I went through a period of feeling sorry for myself. Everybody does it once in a while. I did it for a couple of years.

"It wasn't until after having an unexpected diagnosis and subsequent treatment surgeries, nearly loss of life, that I realized what a special place it was-- not just the school but the entire community. It was through that pretty severe experience that people reached out and I accepted their help and their support. That's how relationships start."

A triumphant ending

After Chiarello spent some time training to be a teacher and then deciding it wasn't for him, he applied to law school at UNB Fredericton.

Chiarello graduated in May 2010, and his old friend Coach Mac had the honour of handing him his law degree. He is now articling at a firm in his home-province of Ontario and deciding what he wants to tackle next. 

He says the relationships he and his wife established in Fredericton will continue for a long time despite time and distance.

"All of the support had a profound effect on both my wife and I. We inherited a little east coast mentality," he says. "Our network in Fredericton expanded. We really love the people there like family members. It'll always keep us coming back."

Contributed by Sarah Ratchford. This story was made possible thanks to the financial support of the UNB Associated Alumni