One day, Bridget Hugo will hear some so-called friends are talking behind her back. One day, her younger sister, Brooke, will experience her first crush, and then, another day, her first heartbreak.
They are both in elementary school now, but time flies. It won’t be long before Bridget earns her driver’s permit, or Brooke faces pressure to do something she knows she shouldn’t. One won’t get accepted into her reach school. The other’s first boss will be a jerk. They will pick one career path over another and later wonder might have been. They will face conflict and impossible decisions and too many demands on their time.
And one day, Mike and Vanessa Hugo hope their daughters will be swept off their feet, fall deeply in love and choose to marry kind people. At their wedding receptions, someone will press play and Mike will appear on a screen. He’ll be sitting next to Tim McGraw.
“I love you,” they will hear Mike say. “I want to make sure you know I’ll always love you.”
Mike prays he will be there to dance with Bridget and Brooke as, onscreen, his younger self and the country star sing Tim’s hit song, “My Little Girl.” But he might not have that kind of time.
Glioblastoma (GBM) has focused the ambitions of a very ambitious man. Mike wants to leave his family financially secure. He wants to impart the values and character traits that have enabled him to pack a whole lot of life into his thirty-something years. And more than anything, he wants his daughters to fathom how much he loves them.
The Hugos live in South Florida, but Mike grew up on a farm in rural Michigan. At 7 years old, he entered his first pig into the county fair. It was disqualified — some say unjustly — for being overweight.
Young Mike shrugged it off and decided to learn everything he could about pig breeding, diet and exercise. He took his subsequent swine on daily 2-mile walks. He won grand champion in the competition the following year — and then the next nine.
An all-state football player, Mike spent a season playing for a semi-pro Australian gridiron team. He came back and earned his engineering degree by the time he was 20. At his first job, he obtained several patents for product design improvements.
He also gained a bit of weight. When a colleague pointed this out one day, Mike bet him he could complete the Chicago marathon that very weekend. He bought a bib on Craigslist and made his first jog in over a year 26.2 miles. Sure, he broke his foot midway, but that didn’t deter him. In the years since, he’s run dozens more marathons (including the Miami Marathon on his second date with Vanessa) and completed 11 Iron Man triathlons.
About two years into his engineering career, Mike decided to pivot to sales. You don’t have any sales experience, his employer noted. So, while still working as an engineer, he built a successful beef jerky distribution business with some college kids. Fast-forward to now, and he’s spent more than a decade with a large medical device company, most recently as a sales district manager for the technologies and tools neurosurgeons use to remove malignant brain tumors, among other things. He’s consistently earned accolades by performing among the company’s top fifth percentile in sales.
In his free time, as if the Iron Mans weren’t enough, Mike also earned his pilot license, went skydiving and became an avid scuba diver.
Mike insists that most people could do most of the things he’s accomplished. Take those first crucial steps of signing up and showing up, he says, and don’t let perfectionism get in the way.
“There’s not much on my dream board that I haven’t done,” he said. “That’s not to say that I was the best at everything. But I did them. I acted. That’s the way I’ve lived my life, and it has suited me well.”
Mike was preparing for his twelfth Iron Man before cancer brought his training to a halt. A day after swimming more than 2 miles in the ocean, he was driving home from a work event when he had a seizure and crashed his car. He woke up in the hospital with a serious back injury, but that was the least of his concerns. Mike has seen his fair share of MRIs, and one glance at his scans was enough to scare him. He had a tumor the size of a tangerine and was diagnosed with GBM.
Surgeons removed as much of Mike’s brain tumor as they could without impairing his cognition. Within three weeks, however, his tumor had grown back to about a third of its size. Vanessa, a clinical researcher in cranial and spinal technologies, dove deep into the literature to explore his treatment options. Mike reached out to his connections in the neurosurgical and neuro-oncological community for their advice. Together, they devised an aggressive strategy, and he began various outpatient treatments, including Novocure’s therapy.
Mike is encouraged by how he’s feeling and remains active. He rides an electric bike, runs on the treadmill and sometimes joins Vanessa for 3-mile jogs around their neighborhood.
But he’s also clear-eyed about his chances of surviving to see Bridget and Brooke, who are in early elementary school, become adults. He’s contemplated how he can remain a major presence in their lives as they grow up, regardless of how long he lives. He’s a fan of Stoic philosophy and wants the girls to embrace virtues like perseverance, mindfulness and equanimity.
Step one: recording short videos offering guidance on facing specific trials and rites of passage.
“It’s very hard to imagine every scenario where my kids might turn to me for advice in the next 30 years, but that’s what I’m trying to do,” he said. “How can I be there for them when stuff like that happens?”
Mike has also written letters for special occasions in their lives. For example, he tucked some cash into 21st birthday cards and wrote messages encouraging Bridget and Brooke to drink responsibly and reminding them how much he loves them.
Wellington, the town where the Hugo family resides, hosts a father-daughter dance, and it got Mike thinking about the girls’ weddings. He imagined dancing with them to “My Little Girl.” Maybe he could record himself serenading them. And what if Tim McGraw could join him for a duet?
As usual, Mike acted. In a video recorded by a friend at home, Mike recounted his diagnosis, described his dream and asked if anyone knew how he might get in touch with the country star.
Friends and family shared the video on social media. A local realtor’s Facebook post went viral. It wasn’t long before Tim saw it.
Tim is the father of three daughters, and he knows what it’s like to lose a parent to GBM. His dad, legendary baseball player Tug McGraw, died of the disease in 2004.
Tim’s agents reached out to the Hugos and arranged for them to fly to Nashville and meet him at the famous Grand Ole Opry.
“This is like a highlight for me in my career,” Tim told the Hugos upon meeting.
With the cameras rolling and Tim sitting beside him, Mike delivered short messages to each of his daughters for their wedding days before segueing into the song.
Mike put on a tux, and Bridget and Brooke donned white dresses for a dance on the Grand Ole Opry stage. Footage of the singing and dancing was compiled into wedding videos.
Tim also joined Mike in singing, “I Called Mama” for Mike’s mother, Lori, who joined them in Nashville.
Lori, who owns a travel agency, has always said that the customers who purchase travel insurance are the ones who never need it. The Hugos hope a similar principle will apply to them.
“I like to think that this experience… it’s our travel insurance,” Vanessa wrote on Facebook. “Our prayer is that Michael will be here to sing his heart out when Bridget and Brooke grow up and get married.”
Since the viral social post and ensuing news coverage, Mike says he’s been recognized everywhere from the local grocery store to a cruise ship. He’s grateful he is healthy enough to help raise awareness of GBM, the innovative therapies being developed to fight it, and the need for more research.
Mike is also savoring this time with his family. He and the girls recently snorkeled with dolphins in the Florida Keys, and they’re excited for an upcoming trip to Alaska. In recent months, he’s watched Brooke fall in love with reading and Bridget pick up the piano, with horse camp on the horizon. Mike hopes they notice how he and Vanessa treat one another so that they have a good sense of what healthy marriages look like.
He appreciates each additional day he gets to hug his daughters and take them to school.
“This is an opportunity for me to cover all my bases and share some life lessons,” he said. “This is a chance to make memories with my girls. This is a blessing.”
The health status of patients featured reflects their condition at the time the story was written and photographs were taken and may have changed over time.