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His jeans are Wranglers, his boots are worn and his shirt is top-stitched, country western plaid with pearly snaps. While it may not sound like typical angel attire, the only thing that appears to be missing from Darren Warren’s wardrobe are his wings—but they are there; you just can’t see them.
A survivor of non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL), Darren Warren regards the diagnosis he received when he was 16 as a gift. It hardly seems heaven-sent, but Darren has transformed that life-threatening experience into the pursuit of a dream.
The amazingly talented, up-and-coming country western singer, songwriter and musician has cut two CDs and opened for Travis Tritt; but one of Darren’s greatest passions is giving back to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, the institution he credits for saving his life.
This unpretentious, self-proclaimed country boy with a voice as big as his heart takes major detours to perform benefit concerts, gets up with the chickens to promote the hospital on morning radio shows and goes the extra mile to bring his manager and crew to St. Jude so they can see it for themselves. He gives of himself with a tireless, refreshing, it’s-not-all-about-me attitude. Maybe it’s his zest for life, his humility or the way he is firmly grounded in his faith, but Darren is so busy seeing beauty in the world that he wouldn’t dream of looking for it in himself. “If it wasn’t meant for me to stay on this earth, well … I’m not very good looking, but I would make a pretty angel,” he says with a hearty laugh, never realizing that he already is.
A typical teenage boy, Darren enjoyed all the things his rural Kentucky hometown had to offer: playing ball with his friends, riding four-wheelers, working at his dad’s construction company and singing in the church where his father preached. One autumn afternoon in 1998, Darren was imagining how it would feel to hold the keys to the brand-new, Chevrolet pick-up he had been eyeing when he reached up and felt something else—a pronounced lump under his chin.
Doctors thought it was a cyst until they surgically removed it. “It was inflamed and irritated, and they realized that something wasn’t right,” Darren recalls. Tissue samples were immediately sent off for testing.
Darren went ahead and bought that truck, and like a rusty nail in a new tire, the cancer diagnosis caught up with him a few days later.
“That’s a shocking place to be when you’re 16 years old,” Darren says. “It’s shocking at any age, but at 16, you think you’re invincible.”
Even bullet-proof boys have to allow themselves a moment to “do what anybody would do,” as Darren says. So he retreated to his room, stretched across his bed and cried.
When just enough time had passed, his mom quietly entered the room and sat down beside him.
“She said, ‘Look at me,’” Darren recalls, with an intensity that strikes a chord. “So I looked at her and she said, ‘We are going to beat this. We are going to do it. And we’ve got a friend who is going to help us.’ And she pointed up to heaven.”
Then he stood up, walked outside and climbed back in his new truck—determined never to play that sad, broken record again.
But first, Darren had to wrestle the demon of denial.
“I didn’t feel a bit sick,” Darren says, remembering the day he arrived at the hospital. “I looked straight up at that statue of St. Jude, and I knew it was for my own good to be there; at the same time, it felt like hell on earth because I kept thinking, ‘This can’t be right. Just a few days ago, I was hanging out with my friends, and everything was fine.’”
“Darren was still in shock, and he really wanted to think through things, to pray through things and to make a decision about his treatment that he felt good about—both intellectually and in his heart,” explains John Sandlund, MD, of St. Jude Oncology. “He approached the situation in an extremely mature way and always kept a positive attitude.”
When Darren came to terms with the diagnosis of NHL, a cancer of the lymphoid tissues and the third most common malignancy in children, he was treated with a regimen similar to the institutional protocol for acute lymphoblastic leukemia, which calls for more than two years of chemotherapy. He responded well to the therapy, went into remission at the expected time and has been cancer free for eight years, according to Sandlund, who Darren describes as “the best guy that God has pretty much put together.”
Darren also formed a close connection with Gwendolyn Anthony, RN, of the hospital’s Ambulatory Care Unit.
“When I first met Darren, I realized what a special patient he was,” Anthony says. “He was, and is, a great encourager to other patients and their families as well as to the staff. Darren shared with everyone that his strength to endure this trial came from his love and faith. He was thinking of how he could help others. I consider myself blessed to have been a part of Darren’s care.”
In addition to the support of St. Jude staff, family and his friend upstairs, Darren found solace in music.
“You can take the bad things in your life, and you can make them a stumbling block or a stepping stone,” says Darren, who began creating song lyrics at age 5. “There were times when I sat down and told my guitar how I felt, and I realized I had created a song—and there are times I realized I had just created something that needed to be left in that little room.”
Darren never lacked for inspiration at St. Jude. In fact, he wrote every song on his Tears are a Language CD during treatment. “Go Get My Angel,” one song that deals with love and loss, has already touched thousands of people.
“I was doing a morning radio show, and after the song aired, every line lit up. People were calling in—people who had been touched by the song and people who had ties to St. Jude,” Darren says. “When we stepped outside, my manager said, ‘What do you think about that?’ and I just broke down crying.”
“It’s been a dream of his ever since his treatment to give back to St. Jude in some way,” says Darren’s mom, Sharon Warren.
That dream has kept Darren’s feet firmly planted on those stepping stones, even as his music career begins to soar. “If your goal is to be a star and have money and fame, you are looking at it for the wrong reasons,” Darren explains. “But if you become someone who is well known, the hope is that you can use that to try and make a difference. I wouldn’t take anything—not a thing in the world—for going through what I went through. It makes you appreciate life, and it makes you treat others better. That’s what we’re here for, to reach a hand out to somebody else.”
The youngest of three boys, Darren attributes his strong faith to his parents. He says that virtually every aspect of his music career is built around what he and his crew can do for St. Jude.
What drives his commitment?
“I tell people it’s like God put a bunch of angels that he hand-picked to work at St. Jude,” Darren says. “From the doctors to the nurses to the people who mop the halls, everybody was so sweet and caring. You don’t find that anywhere else.”
No, you don’t —unless you’re Darren Warren looking in a mirror at one of the prettiest angels there ever was.
To hear Darren Warren’s music, visit www.darrenwarren.com.
Reprinted from Promise magazine, autumn 2007.
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