John: Greg, you’ve been nominated as a Model Citizen for the October issue of Model Citizen Magazine because of your service to our country and our community, and because of the way you have battled cancer and survived, twice. For our readers could you first please share a little bit about what you have been through with your health and what your status is now?
Greg: Currently, I’m in remission from cancer. In 2013, I was diagnosed with stage 3 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and immediately had to go into aggressive chemotherapy treatments for six months every 3-weeks having chemo sessions. I’ve made it through that.
John: What is it like to be on chemo, for someone who has never gone through it?
Greg: First I’d like to say I had a really good doctor, Dr. Gostanian of Medical Oncology,I must give her a lot of credit. She did warn me about my first chemo treatment brutal and would only get worse over time. It’s cumulative, a lot of people don’t know that.
John: A lot of people do not know anything about it.
John: Is it a chemical or a pill?
Greg: It’s a chemical.
Greg: That’s why you need to be closely monitored for your heart and lungs issues, there can be scarring of the lungs and other side effects. What it does is it kills cancer, obviously, but it brings you close to death.
John: Is it like I’ve heard where they bring you to the brink of death, so that they kill off all of the cancer cells they can, but it is still killing you slower than cancer?
Greg: You can’t stay on for too long, it actually does a lot of damage to your body, but it’s killing cancer at the same time. So it’s a good thing, but also a bad thing. A lot of people come out of it with a lot of side-effects that they must live with for the rest of their lives. Before I say anything else, I have to say I come from a family of seven. I had a single mother and I give her a lot of credit. She’s a very tough woman. I think that’s where I get my toughness from and my sense of tomorrow will be better, I get that from her.
John: She must be a woman of great faith.
Greg: That’s right. I grew up in the Roman Catholic Church. She’s very religious and instilled that in all her kids, so we take that wherever we go. I did six months of chemo, went into remission and I was doing pretty well until 2017. I went for my routine PET scan and there was a little lymph node in my armpit that popped back up and showed some activity. So, they wanted to go in and take it out which meant I had to go into surgery, which was a bit of a debacle, but they got it out. It was tested and unfortunately came back as Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. But because I had already had aggressive chemo, they had to find another way of treating me. This was at stage one, so it wasn’t as bad, but you cannot treat it the same way because your body just won’t react well. So, the alternative was to do a stem cell transplant which is what replaced the bone marrow.
John: So, they take the stem cells they culture them and put them back in.
Greg: It’s like a laundry system. They take your stem cells, run it through a machine. This is done prior, and then you have to be hospitalized because it’s really bad. During that portion of treatment, they actually blast your body again with different chemicals, but it’s intense.
John: Like radiation.
Greg: It’s not radiation. It’s a chemical. It destroys your immune system. You essentially become a baby again. So, anything like the common flu could be very bad because your body can’t defend itself.
John: Right, anything can get you, yeast, mold, anything.
Greg: Absolutely, so I was in a hospital room for 30 days.
John: Like a bubble?
Greg: Pretty much. Friends were coming to see me, but they would have to suit up. That was the first two weeks and during the last two 2 weeks, they put the stem cells back and hope that it bonds back again. Of course, there are also a lot of other steroids and other medication involved.
John: To rebuild.
Greg: Yes, and you cannot leave the hospital until you can demonstrate that you are on a certain trajectory. So I actually beat that by three days. I’m pretty proud of that.
John: That’s very cool
Greg: Yes, I was ready to go home. That was 2017, and just right before you gave me this call two weeks ago, I had my 6 months, well with COVID it was actually 8 months and I’m clean.
Greg: Hopefully I stay that way.
John: It’s a new chapter of life. That’s amazing. What advice would you give anybody who’s going into a situation where they have to go through chemo, or they have to go through the treatments? What is the best advice you can give them to survive?
Greg: We just mentioned it before, but I think a lot of times I’ve heard this when I first got diagnosed, people tend not to hear anything but cancer when the doctor says that to you. I am a little bit different, maybe it is my military background, but I’m a problem solver, so I think about the next step. But then retrospectively, I looked at the situation and I understand why people shut down because…
John: Because it’s terrifying.
Greg: It is terrifying. I always tell people to take it one day at a time and have hope. Gather your strong friends and family around you that will only lift you up. If you do that, you can get through anything.
John: That’s beautiful. Amen. You mentioned the military when we were shooting yesterday. You had on your blues. Tell our readers and how you serve our country.
Greg: On the military side my name is Major Gregory Gittens United States Army Reserve. I served four years of active duty with the 10th Mountain Division. I entered the military in 1994 as a private. I’m in my 26th year of military service. I initially joined for money for college.
John: A lot of people who come from lower-income families, when I was growing up we were struggling. The military was an option for a lot of my friends who couldn’t afford college.
Greg: I have military in my family, but I’m the only person who converted over and became an officer. I originally went in intending to pay for college and by my third or fourth day, I realized this was something I loved. I realized it was an opportunity to prove myself, to challenge myself. I was challenging myself daily and I was succeeding, of course with some failures here and there.
John: Everyone goes up the ladder and then falls back down a little bit.
Greg: Exactly. I want to mention that I had really good leadership. I served overseas a couple of times in Germany, I served in Bosnia during the war there
John: That must have been something.
Greg: I always tell people that’s the point in my life that I think my mentality from a boy to a man changed. It’s the first time I saw how cruel humans can be.
John: The worst of humanity
Greg: The worst of humanity, yes.
John: That was a cruel situation.
Greg: When I was in Bosnia, we went to Sarajevo and when I saw the destruction…
John: Of everything.
Greg: Everything! This was a community of people that lived together at one point. Somehow, some way or the other, it just happened that they turned on each other.
John: They were brainwashed.
Greg: You would have one house blown out and the house right next to it was pristine. It’s only because they were of different religious factions.
John: It’s horrible.
Greg: I had the opportunity to visit an orphanage and saw some kids with legs missing and arms missing.
John: Really, the worst of humanity.
Greg: Princess Diana was there August of ‘97 when I was there, and I missed her by like a day. She visited the same orphanage with the UN that we did.
John: Let’s fast forward a little bit.
Greg: Alright, so fast forward now, I came off active duty 1998 and went back to college at Adelphi University.
John: Great, for what major?
Greg: I did Business Administration and then went back for my MBA. Then after I did a deployment in Iraq my goal was to get…
John: Wait a minute…a deployment in Iraq?
Greg: Yes, I did a deployment in Iraq.
John: During all the craziness?
Greg: No, this is before this is before cancer.
John: No, I mean during the war?
Greg: Yes, I spent June 2008 to July 2009 in Iraq. in a place called Camp Addar
Greg: You have to take the good with the bad.
John: Did you have any PTSD or stress syndrome when you came back or were you ok?
Greg: Well that’s another thing, after coming home I then became a Company Commander and I think that deployment helped me in taking care of soldiers for one of the units at Fort Totten. Then about two years after that, I transferred to 353d Civil Affairs Command at Staten Island. I later became the Company Commander. I found that command is really what I Iove, not because you’re in charge, but because you get the opportunity to take care of other people. I’ve always been fortunate that I’ve always had good friends and good leadership.
John: So I’m going to interject here because you asked me previously who nominated you, and I said I would tell you later. Well, I nominated you.
Greg: You did, okay.
John: I asked around wondering, who you are. He’s so great in front of the camera and he gets thousands of likes from the pictures I take, and I wondered what he actually does. Then I saw the mention of military somewhere and then I said, that’s what he does. I never tell people when I’m out shooting but now it’s the cats out of the bag. I was taking notes on who’s doing what and who’s really doing the right thing. Who is really a Model Citizen and not just who wants to be in a magazine?
Greg: Well that’s why you caught me off-guard when you first got in touch. I think I mentioned this to you before that I’m an introvert. I’m out-going because I’m a social person because I understand that you need to be social, but at the end of the day I recharge at home, so I don’t want to talk about my work.
John: That’s why I asked people what you did because you were so quiet. You seem to be always part of the party, but you never get anything out of him.
Greg: Exactly, I don’t really like talking about myself that’s one of the reasons why nobody ever really knew.
John: Who you are and what you did and what you have been through.
Greg: I have some close friends of course, who know me.
John: We have some of the same friends.
Greg: Yes, but I’m talking about the people I’ve known for 20 years.
John: People you grew up with.
Greg: Exactly, that have known me, and may be in the group too, but know they know what I do and who I really am.
John: Which is a beautiful person. You’re truly a Model Citizen.
Greg: I am also a bit of an entrepreneur.
John: That’s right! Tell me a little bit about that your business.
Greg: Besides being in the Army Reserve, I’m also a DOD employee. I have a staff of 19 with offices in Staten Island and three in New Jersey and we service over 1,900 soldiers on the Human Resource side for all their personnel and finance needs. I have a really great staff. One of my fortes is that I am really good at HR. I think it’s a little bit of a lost art.
John: Yes and no. During COVID, it’s a little bit crazy.
Greg: Kids today, they don’t really know how to interview for a job.
John: There’s a lot of artificial intelligence. If you don’t meet the criteria, you’re out. You get rejected by the computer.
Greg: Yes, there’s too much screening going on. So that is what I do on the work side, but I am also a landlord.
Greg: At first I owned a laundromat in West Islip. That was always a dream of mine. I did it for about six or seven years.
John: Laundromats are very profitable business.
Greg: Yes, they’re very profitable.
John: My former brother-in-law was a Senior VP with Coinmack. Do you remember them?
Gerg: Those guys ran the show
John: He collected all the money.
John: So what’s next for you? What’s the dream?
Greg: I’m going to be 50 next year and I’m going to give the military another four years of service. My goal is to retire 54, and that will line up with my civilian job as well. I’m also a type A personality where I don’t think retirement is really for me. So I probably will go into business for myself, or do something for others, some kind of community service.
John: Yes, I know. I have volunteered for over a hundred charities. I’ve done it since I was nineteen. Long story short, I’m with Tina Louise, Ginger from Gilligan’s Island in California, and my event got canceled. We were having tea and she gets a call from Mohammad and he wants to know if I’ll shoot an event tomorrow. She said it was for children, so of course, I said yes. It turned out to be Muhammad Ali and Brooke Shields and Patti Duke and Casey Kasem and Kris Kristofferson, every A-list celebrity was there. I was the only photographer and it was a private event. So I shot the whole thing. It was a Make-A-Wish Foundation event. So I always carried on the tradition of believing that doing well for others will always come back to you.
Greg: It does. It comes back tenfold.
John: I’ve never stopped. You know I’m lucky to be alive myself, and I truly think the reason I’m here is that God knows that I am doing for others. I have been doing Hospitality Ball for 10 years, I’ve been on that committee and shooting it every year. Pink Tie, Equity First Foundation, Leukemia Lymphoma Society, every single time I get asked, as I know they’re legit, I’m in.
Greg: You know, we all go through that. We go back and forth. I think if there’s any takeaway here…
John: I think there’s a lot to take away.
Greg: It’s never over. I have a quick story, in 2013 I just finished my chemo in July and I look like shit. I look like deaths doornail, but the year prior I was very sick. It took them about four months to figure out that I actually had Hodgkin’s Lymphoma because I had something Pleurisy.
John: I don’t even know what that is.
Greg: Pleurisy is when inflammation in your body gets so high that it attacks the spongy tissue in your lungs. Then your lungs don’t expand anymore. So you start to get stifled from the inside. They would pump me with ibuprofen and a whole bunch of other medications which would bring down the inflammation. The bottom line is I am a runner, I was always a good runner.
John: My father was the president of the Long Island Road Runners Club in Eisenhower Park. We ran the Long Island marathon together. I was running too until I got sick.
Greg: I did a half marathon in Iraq in the desert.
John: Nice, very cool.
Greg: It was 135 degrees.
John: You are crazy like my father; God bless his soul.
Greg: I actually used to run the Army 10 Miler in DC and in 2012 I was scheduled to be there but the pleurisy was so bad I had to give my seat to someone else. I was so mad at myself that after chemo I went back to the doctor and told her that I would love to train and run this race in October 2013. She said it was impossible, because of my heart and my body was atrophied. She said I couldn’t do it. I went back to her four times, she finally said she would give me a checkup and I would have to sign a disclosure, but if I wanted to run it I could, because she realized it was a mental thing. I went after chemo in late July, I trained for about two months, and ran the Army 10 miler. It was not my best time.
John: Who cares?
Greg: I had a little old lady who ran by me but I finished, but I was in so much pain in my legs, from the chemo.
John: You know the Valley Stream 50 miler? My father ran that on chemo in Sub-Zero degree weather. I couldn’t believe it. He never told anybody he was sick until he knew it was time to say goodbye, and then everybody else found out.
Greg: He kept it to himself.
John: People like you and my father, I could never do that. I have walked from California to Florida, but I walk slowly like a snail, ten feet at a time. I do not think I would have it in me to battle cancer.
Greg: I’m a little bit nervous because people don’t really know much about my life.
John: You have an amazing story truly worth telling and I’m honored for the opportunity to tell it. I would love to hear more about you in the future and congratulations on a very well deserved nomination!
Greg: Thank you for the nomination, I am again truly honored.
Categories: John Dowling Interviews