Army vet, paralyzed and with cancer, overcomes depression with help from loved ones
By BROCK VERGAKIS | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: May 16, 2019
NORFOLK, Va. (Tribune News Service) — Curtis Worsley has an infectious smile and a can-do attitude.
He's a multi-talented performer who used to sing on the Spirit of Norfolk dinner cruise ship. He has a dream of running his own bakery, photography business and wedding boutique. And he'll be singing the national anthem Friday at his own graduation ceremony for the Culinary Institute of Virginia, where he'll receive a degree in bakery and pastry arts.
His fiancé and mother will look on with pride as he walks across the stage.
But there was nothing easy about getting to this point. Not the walking. Especially not the smiling.
It wasn't that long ago Worsley wanted to die.
The Indian River High School graduate was on a training mission in Iraq in 2007 when three vehicles in his logistics convoy were hit by an improvised explosive device. It was part of an ambush by enemy forces.
By the time Worsley woke up, he was at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland.
The team there told him that the gunner in his supply truck died in the attack and another person had to have his face reconstructed. Soon, Worsley realized he was paralyzed from the waist down.
It would take six months before doctors felt they could safely operate on him.
Once they cut into him, things got worse. They discovered bone cancer. That meant it would be another six months before they could try a different type of surgery.
As he laid in bed month after month, he didn't think he'd ever walk again. He imagined he'd be someone else's problem for the rest of his life.
Depression set in, and he stopped eating for weeks at a time. He told doctors he didn't want visitors anymore.
"I pretty much said my life was done," Worsley said. “I thought about committing suicide. I thought about taking too many pills. I thought about a lot of things that were really negative."
But no matter how dark of a place Worsley went to, his mother refused to let him go. She managed to get back on the visitors list over his objections. She was going to support him whether he liked it or not, he said.
"They had changed my room and everything," he said. “I don't know how she found me. But yeah, she made her way back there and kind of slapped me into acting right. … I had to deal with her every day, making sure I ate, and yeah, she wasn't fun.”
About a year after entering the hospital, doctors were finally able to perform surgery on his spine. They fused part of it together and installed a rod.
Week after week went by, and he still felt nothing. But on one of his mother's visits about three months later, he finally had a breakthrough. He could feel himself urinating.
"When I finally felt that I had to pee, I started crying," Worsley said.
He had to learn how to walk again, and after about a year of rehabilitation, he finally did it, all while undergoing draining cancer treatment.
Worsley served out the remainder of his Army career on reserve duty in Maryland before he was medically retired in 2011. That's the same year doctors told him his cancer had returned. He moved back to Virginia the following year and began putting his life back together.
After a marriage that ended in divorce, he decided to pursue his passion for singing. For two years, he was a host aboard the Spirit of Norfolk.
"It wasn't really about the income at that time. For me, it was just about, I guess, doing something with my life that I still enjoyed," he said.
Eventually, Worsley got a job in finance for an auto loan place.
And he found love again, even as he continued to fight cancer.
While working in finance paid the bills, it wasn't something he really loved. His fiancé persuaded him to pursue another one of his passions: baking cakes.
So Worsley enrolled in the Culinary Institute of Virginia.
His cancer sometimes forced him to miss classes. But his instructors worked with him to make sure he was able to get his assignments done on a schedule that accommodated his illness.
Things seemed to be turning around for him, and last month, it looked like he was free from the disease. But the cancer had returned.
He says he's not too worried about it. He knows the treatments will probably make him sick, but he's been down that road before. He knows he'll come out the other side with his loved ones cheering him on.
"I'm able to smile now," he said. "Sometimes I still catch myself not being that way, and I gotta realize, 'Look, you got another chance to live. … You've done all this, you should be able to smile.' … And I keep moving and try to strive to do the best I can."
After all, he's still got big plans. He already has a name in mind for his future suite of businesses. He says the name comes from his approach to baking, but it really says so much more.
Everything starts with "courageous."
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