by Norm Tremblay, MD
There it was staring me in the face . . . retirement. I wanted to stay useful to mankind and not just wander off into a blank horizon. I happened to befriend a fishing buddy Mike Emerson in the Fort Worth fly fishing club, and he encouraged me to look into an organization called Reel Recovery.
What I discovered was a story that began with four avid fly fishermen on an outing in Colorado in 2003. One of them was dealing with a brain tumor. At the end of the day, he remarked that he enjoyed the day thoroughly and didn’t think of his cancer for the first time in six months! From this sprouted an organization that has spread to 21 states and New Zealand.
I have successfully survived five different types of cancer and therefore had motivation to get involved. There were retreats that involved participants, fishing buddies, and staff personnel. I remarked to Mike that I was an “expert” fly fisherman and could start as a buddy, at which point he promptly put me in my place and made me start as a participant at a retreat in Oklahoma coordinated by Marty Weaver (a veteran of three military branches and a really neat guy).
There we were . . .15 guys tough on the outside and terrified on the inside . . . all strangers. Half of us were “forced” to attend by spouses or other family members. Marty Deschner, a clinical psychologist from Dallas, began a series of six “Courageous Conversations.” We were instructed to speak from the heart and given the option to answer a series of initially benign questions such as our first car and fishing experience. The questions became more serious, involving our individual dealings with cancer.
What followed was an amazing experience where these men, many for the first time, opened up and often broke down. We bonded with and supported each other and received support from our individual fishing buddies and staff members. Two of the highlights of the retreat were the vest ceremony (vests signed by past retreat participants from all over the country, some still fighting the battle and others gone away but still alive in the signatures) and the closing ceremony where final thoughts were shared among participants, buddies, and staff, and tearful farewells were absorbed into our memories.
Since then, I have further engrossed myself as a buddy, medical director, assistant to my dear wife Cathy who is photographer at several retreats, and retreat coordinator. I was a buddy to a fine gentleman who was at the final stages of his battle. He was too weak to fish, so we spent two days enjoying the outdoors and discussing the afterlife and other metaphysical topics. It was his first time out of the house in six months, and his wife was eternally grateful for the three-day break from having to administer his medications every three hours.
Mike and I were manning a Reel Recovery booth last year at Troutfest near New Braunsfels when a mother and her 23-year-old son inquired about the organization. The young man had recently been diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. I could see in his eyes that he was just beginning to deal with this and encouraged him to attend a retreat. He signed up for the Navasota retreat, and his 22-year-old brother who had a good basic knowledge of fly fishing signed up as his fishing buddy. They both displayed tremendous courage and enjoyment throughout the retreat, caught the biggest bass, and showed us heartwarming gratitude that persisted through his family after his passing away three months later. The toughest ones are the most rewarding.
Reel Recovery exists in 21 states and New Zealand, and there are plans to expand to Canada and Australia. There are only three paid positions in the United States, and more than 600 volunteers (88 percent of donations go directly to these guys!). In Texas, we run six retreats each year in the spring and fall. Two are at Arrowhead Camp near Glen Rose, two at Camp Capers near San Antonio (one is for veterans with cancer), and two at Camp Allen near Houston. All expenses except transportation to and from the retreat are covered, and we try to carpool somehow when transportation is an issue.
We raise funds through donations as a 501(c) (3), and we have an annual live and silent auction scheduled this year on Wednesday, May 13th, 2020, at the Firestone and Robertson Distilling Corporation (“Whiskey Ranch”). You can get involved in many ways: refer your oncology patients to our website (see below) to sign up for a retreat and help them sign the medical release form shortly before the retreat; be a participant if you qualify (it’s an unforgettable experience); donate through our website( see below) or come to our annual auction (the auction items are cool!); volunteer as a staff member or buddy; buy some gear at our website (see below); you can even tie flies for warm water fishing since we are in constant need of flies. Above all, spread the word about us. We have no advertising budget so we depend on word of mouth.
Our website is reelrecovery.org. For questions you can call me at
(817) 271-5482 or email me at
firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also contact Mike Emerson, our State Coordinator at 817-8947832 or at his email email@example.com.
Thanks for staying awake through this and catch a world record dose of good health!
“There we were… 15 guys tough on the outside and terrified on the inside.”