As a journalist, you tell other people’s stories, keeping yours private.
Then, life happens, and you find your story relevant in the public discourse — as example, or as lesson, or maybe just from the need to connect with those who honor you by reading or watching.
“I’m the old-fashioned journalist, where you just keep the eye out, talk about other people’s stories,” said NBC5’s Rob Stafford, who’s co-anchored the 10, 6 and 5 p.m. newscasts since 2009, joining NBC5 as weekend anchor/reporter in 2007.
“But as an anchor, you become a part of people’s lives. And if I was going to disappear for what I thought would be four months, I had to tell viewers what I was going to do,” said the award-winning journalist, who previously had stints at Dateline NBC and CBS-2.
Diagnosed in January with the rare blood disease amyloidosis, the 58-year-old broadcaster will return Monday to the chair from which he has been missing the past six months, as he engaged in a very public fight for his life against a disease afflicting fewer than 2,000 Americans each year.
His journey didn’t have to be public. Yet Stafford chose to have it so, taking viewers along on a poignant battle tracked on Facebook — marked by ups and downs, mortality hanging in the balance, thousands of supporters joining the journey along the way.
“The good news is I probably am in remission. But I can’t confirm it until I have a bone-marrow biopsy in September,” he said, chatting Friday after a one-hour gym workout.
“I’m not a big Facebook guy. But my wife encouraged me to do it, and the more I did it, the more I felt good about doing it,” said the father of three: Trent, 28; Amy, 26; and Addy, 21.
“It’s sort of like you’re running a marathon, and you can run with nobody on the sidelines rooting for you, or as it turns out, with thousands cheering you on,” Stafford said.
“People have said, ‘You’re so courageous.’ Frankly, it’s not so courageous to take a picture of yourself and put it on Facebook,” he adds, laughing. “But it made people feel better to see me with a smile on my face. You’re stuck in a hospital anyway, with a lot of time on your hands, and the more I did it, the more I heard from people who had similar stories. And it made me feel good.”
Stafford had signed off on the 10 p.m. newscast March 1, announcing to viewers that he was heading to Minnesota’s Mayo Clinic to undergo a bone marrow transplant and chemotherapy to fight the disease.
Much of what had occurred to bring him to that point, some will ascribe as a “miracle.” But women in particular may not be surprised that Stafford says his steadfast wife of 31 years — who noticed changes in him and refused to accept her husband’s insistence they were nothing — saved his life.
“I noticed his skin color changing. He just wasn’t up to doing as much outdoors anymore. He didn’t have a lot of energy. And when he got a cold, it immediately turned into a major respiratory condition,” his wife, Lisa Stafford, said.
“A lot of times men are in denial and just think, ‘Oh, she’s overreacting,'” she said. “I’d been urging him to get a thorough physical for a very long time, but there’s a fine line between being a nagging wife or advocate for your husband. We realize we’re just lucky that he’s alive.”
As many as 4,700 followed Stafford on Facebook — from the March 1 “Wish me luck” post through bad news on June 29 (when the transplant at Mayo was deemed unsuccessful), then to his transfer to Rush Medical Center in July for chemo treatment that now has shown success.
“My numbers are where we wanted them to be. It just took longer to get here,” Stafford said, acknowledging Monday will be as emotional a day at work as the day he walked off into the unknown. He gets choked up, recalling how friend and TV wife Allison Rosati took the news.
“My goal will be: Don’t cry, and don’t look at Allison — she’s the worst — try to keep it together, and let people know how grateful I am,” he said.
“I used to think I’m in charge, and can handle anything. I still think I can handle anything but know I can’t guarantee any outcome. You’ve just gotta let go and have faith that a power greater than yourself is in charge. If anybody wants to take anything away from this, it’s, ‘Early detection can save your life. And listen to your wife.'”