When Pat Maholland learned he had incurable cancer, so many thoughts flashed through his mind at once. But one thing that never occurred to him is that he would receive hope, help and encouragement from an unexpected benefactor: presidential candidate Joe Biden.
“Everything [was] a tumultuous change,” Maholland says. “In that moment [I knew] my job was gone; my house was gone.”
He realized he had to break the news to his family and close friends, and that he and his fiancé would have to move to receive the best treatment.
“All that stuff came in the snap of a moment.”
But it was an unexpected call from former vice president Joe Biden — the one man who’s got so much on his plate right now he can barely be expected to keep tabs on passing acquaintances from nearly a decade ago — that has strengthened Maholland’s reserve and provided him with the resources he needs in his coming battle.
A Cloudy Prognosis
Maholland has pleural mesothelioma, a tumor growing on the tissue lining his right lung.
“Imagine having a soft mushy stress ball that you wrapped a bunch of rubber bands around — that kind of tightness,” he says. He offers that he’s breathing primarily with his left lung, but the cancer has metastasized.
At the time he was diagnosed in February 2019, Maholland was a literature teacher at Hopewell High School in Huntersville. He was an instructor for the Cambridge program, which encompassed accelerated English classes specifically tied to Britain’s prestigious University of Cambridge, and he loved engaging and challenging his students with books like Beloved by Toni Morrison, Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Wolfe and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
He also met his wife, Ashli Crepsac Maholland, at Hopewell, where she taught biology. By the time the couple were engaged, both of them were heads of their respective departments – Pat in English and Ashli in science.
“We had our own little thing going on there,” Maholland says. “So, it was good.”
The good times became bleak after Maholland took a precautionary asthma test due to a lingering cough that would come and go. The doctor decided to take x-rays.
“The right lung was just one whole cloud,” Maholland remembers.
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An ultrasound and a biopsy confirmed that Maholland had a terminal illness. The only way you can get mesothelioma is through exposure to asbestos, Maholland learned. The problem is, once a patient is exposed and the tumors take root, decades can pass before the cancer is discovered. By the time Maholland was diagnosed, the tumors had overtaken most of his right lung. The best a patient can hope for is to stop the tumors from growing.
There’s a strong possibility that Maholland was exposed to asbestos when he was an infant and his father was working at a factory where the heat-resistant fibrous and silicate mineral was prevalent.
“It could very well have been on his shirt and he just held me, or it was in the wash,” Maholland proffers. It wasn’t nearly enough to infect an adult, but an infant would have been susceptible.
“In an odd way, it’s something that I’ve had my whole life.”
The Power of Music
So how did a dedicated English teacher connect with Joe Biden? And how did the former vice president extend a helping hand to a man he barely knew?
For Philadelphia native Maholland, it feels like it happened in a previous life.
“The two things I wanted to do [was] to become a millionaire rock star and teach,” Maholland says with a warm chuckle.
Initially, the music career took off. Maholland became an upright bassist in a folk band called Delaware Rag, based in the city of brotherly love. The band started sharing stages with the New Familiars, Charlotte’s acoustic folk and rock combo founded and fronted by Justin Fedor. The Philly-based bassist hit it off with Fedor and bandmate Josh Daniel. In 2008, the North Carolinians offered Maholland a spot in their band.
He moved from Philly to Charlotte to join The New Familiars, embracing the life of a touring musician, though he knew he would eventually leave the music scene to pursue his teaching goal.
Looking back, playing music professionally was an invaluable life experience to bring to a classroom, he says.
“I was so excited to be able to share that knowledge that I would get from being on the road and living this life that you read about all the time.”
The band reached a milestone when they played a series of shows at the Fillmore during the 2012 Democratic National Convention. A month later, the DNC announced that President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden team would be returning to Charlotte, and the campaign was looking for a band to play at an event in The Fillmore.
The New Familiars landed the spot.
“We gave them the classic hits and fired up and energized the crowd,” Maholland remembers. “Then Biden came out and he killed it.”
Maholland admits that after the show, he muscled his way to the front of the line to meet Biden. Maholland had recently lost a cousin, Marine Lance Corporal Adam Conboy, in Fallujah, Iraq, and he wanted to be sure he told Biden that he appreciated his stance on protecting veterans.
“That really meant a lot to me,” Maholland says.
A campaign photographer snapped a picture of Biden and the band. In the photo, Maholland is standing smiling next to the vice president, who has his hand on Maholland’s shoulder.
The City of Brotherly Love
Life moved on for Maholland, but that photo would later come to mean a lot to him.
Maholland closed one chapter in his life when he left The New Familiars and transitioned to the classroom. In his fourth year of teaching at Hopewell, soon after getting engaged to be married to Ashli, Maholland received the bombshell diagnosis that would alter the course of his life.
The couple researched hospitals and doctors that specialized in treating mesothelioma. It turned out there is a top-notch facility at the University of Pennsylvania in Maholland’s hometown of Philadelphia. An added bonus was that the couple could count on support from Maholland’s family who still lived there.
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In a Facebook post from October 12, Maholland described Pat and Ashli’s dilemma as they prepared for the greatest challenge they ever faced.
“My soon to be wife and I had to pack, and we began saying goodbye,” Maholland writes “Goodbye to friends and family, our lives as we knew them, our professions, and – the most difficult thing I have ever had to do – goodbye to my students.”
The day before Pat and Ashli left Charlotte, they invited all their friends to a “positivity potluck” at The Evening Muse. They played music, danced and talked. The next day Maholland and his fiancé decamped for Philadelphia.
Relocated in Philadelphia by March 2019, Maholland started undergoing intensive treatments. Pat and Ashli returned to Charlotte in August of that year to get married, then went back to Philadelphia to resume Maholland’s regimen of chemotherapy and scans.
It was then that Joe Biden came back into the picture – pun intended.
Maholland is still amazed by the sequence of events that led to his reconnection with Biden.
“We had our encounter in Charlotte, [but] that was one of a billion that he had as vice president,” Maholland says. But the course of Maholland and his family’s life changed when his stepfather took a wild shot at getting the photo Biden took with the New Familiars signed.
Jim Gillespie, Maholland’s stepfather, is a lawyer and lifelong Republican who switched political allegiance in 2016 to start working for the Hillary Clinton campaign. This year, Gillespie’s volunteer work with the Biden campaign took him to South Carolina for the Democratic primary. He asked one of his fellow campaign workers to pass the photo along to get it signed by Biden.
Soon after, Maholland received the photo. Days later a letter from Biden arrived. The letter encouraged Maholland to focus on staying positive, while pointing out that there are medical breakthroughs all the time. The message meant a lot to Maholland because he received it on a particularly rough day.
But there was more. The letter was supposed to arrive with the photo, so Biden called to apologize for the delay.
“Saturday morning of Memorial Day weekend, my phone rang several different times from an unknown phone number,” Maholland wrote in the Facebook post. “The fourth time the phone rang, I picked it up. It was former Vice President Joe Biden wanting to speak with me.”
Maholland recalls somehow fumbling through a conversation in which Biden was comforting and down to earth. Biden would subsequently call Maholland’s mother, Terri Gillespie. During the call, Biden shared the pain of watching his own child suffer, drawing on his history of overcoming and accepting family tragedy.
In December 1972, then-Delaware Senator Biden’s first wife Neilia and their 1-year-old daughter Naomi were killed in an automobile accident, leaving the grieving husband and father to raise two sons, Beau and Hunter.
Tragedy struck again when Beau died of brain cancer in 2015. Biden also supported Hunter, who struggled with alcoholism and drug addiction before going into recovery.
Biden offered Terri warmth and commiseration, Maholland says, along with advice for those who remain on this side of mortality.
Building an Army for the Fight Ahead
Joe Biden also promised Maholland medical help, and surprisingly enough, he delivered, putting Maholland in contact with seven different doctors, each one a Nobel laureate. In addition to the crack medical team at the UPenn, Maholland can now rely on some of the best doctors in the world, he says.
Biden also put Maholland in touch with Dr. Danielle Carnival. Carnival previously ran the National Cancer Moonshot initiative, which strived to achieve a decades’ worth of progress in the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cancer in five years. The initiative had been spearheaded by Biden, who helped launch the program in the wake of son Beau’s death, but it was discontinued indefinitely last July to avoid future ethical complications tied to its involvement with a presidential candidate.
Dr. Carnival’s input is crucial, Maholland stresses, because his current treatment plan is no longer working. Carnival is currently working on plans with the National Institute of Health (NIH) to launch a second wave of trials for Maholland to replace the outmoded treatment plan.
Maholland says he’s eternally grateful that Biden reached out in the middle of a holiday weekend, a pandemic and a presidential election to help him.
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He says he’s currently in better health than he was last year, and he’s working physically, mentally and emotionally to get back in the classroom. He says he owes much of his success to a man currently running to save America’s future as a nation and a functioning democracy. Maholland believes he has witnessed the measure of that man.
“His humanity [stands out],” Maholland says, “especially now, when millions of Americans are suffering. I’m suffering.”
Maholland will never forget what Joe Biden did for him, and says the experience has convinced him that the former vice president will act for the greater good of all Americans if elected.
“I have faith in decency. I feel that Joe will carry himself with decency, humanity and empathy. That’s what we need to get out of this pandemic,” Maholland maintains.
On Oct. 22, Maholland and wife Ashli voted, filling out their paper vote-by-mail ballots and dropping them off at an early voting location.
“You can bet your bottom dollar it was the best piece of mail I ever put in a box,” Maholland says.
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