At 61, Peter Rey of Saanich is proudly graduating high school with his adult Dogwood Diploma, crossing the stage this week at S.J. Willis Education Centre. Travis Paterson/News Staff

At 61, dying man gets his wish, graduates high school

Terminally ill Saanich resident earns adult Dogwood diploma

Don’t overestimate the power of an education.

Sixty-one-year-old Peter Rey, who’s already defied the odds by surviving a grade 4 brain tumour, is set to cross the stage this week for his high school diploma.

It comes 45 years later than most, and it brings him to tears. Rey is set to cross the stage as one of 29 graduates at S.J. Willis Education Centre on Wednesday.

“[Graduating] was one of my life’s regrets, I didn’t share it, kept it a secret,” Rey said. “When I dropped out it was another world. At the time we were going to change the world, or it would change for us.”

Rey, who is as healthy as you can be with a 4.5 centimetre mass in your brain, is speaking out about brain tumours (he’s told his story at braintumour.ca) and the lack of a definitive cause.

The Saanich resident learned on June 23 last year that he had a serious brain tumour. Three weeks after that he was declared terminally ill with glioblastoma. Doctors told him the mortality rate for such a condition is 50 per cent in the first 18 months, up to 75 per cent by the second year and 97 per cent within three years.

So it’s with a heart full of acceptance that Rey drew up a bucket list that started with getting his high school certificate, and now he’s got it.

“It was without any inhibitions that I wrote a letter to the school districts here and in Vancouver, and the [SD61] board of education said, ‘we’ll take care of this, we can do this for you,’” Rey said. “I said here’s my story, here’s why I never finished, what I’ve done with my life, and it all fell in to place.”

Rey sat down with S.J. Willis Education Centre principal Jesse Bradbury and counsellor Kathryn Harcourt. They credited Rey with Grade 11 English, and four more courses based on his 40-year-work history as a dedicated employee with an HVAC wholesale company and, which Rey did until he got sick.

Prior to this time last year, life was healthy for Rey. The beginning of the end started on June 23, 2016. He was on his way to a bed and breakfast in Nanaimo with his wife and though he had ignored a couple small symptoms, he was otherwise healthy and unaware of the impending time bomb that was a massive brain tumour pushing against the top of his skull.

The only thing odd that happened ahead of June 23 was the dream-like continuation of a real conversation after it happened.

“After a conversation I would continue to hear the person’s voice in my head, fictionally, and it when on for a week. I thought my subconscious had come to the fore, but I kept it to myself.”

Once they reached the bed and breakfast, they tried to start the television and VCR, which was traditionally Peter’s area. This time, however, Rey was unable to orchestrate the VCR and television.

“She finally said ‘we’re not having a good time, let’s go home.’” Rey recalled. “And I said ‘okay,’ which shocked her, and she said she’ll drive, and that was a surprise, because I always drove.”

During that drive, Rey kept mum on what he felt inside. Every five minutes he endured a splitting headache at the top centre of his head. The headaches grew progressively worse while his wife drove him straight to Victoria General Hospital. By the time they arrived Rey lost all consciousness. He let out a yell outside of emergency and immediately crashed onto the grassy out patch near the entrance, and broke into a grand mal seizure.

“I woke up at 3 or 4 in the morning trying to tear the tubes out but my wife calmed me down,” Rey said.

After two CT scans and an MRI, the brain surgeon found a mass right up against the skull and did a biopsy, removing two thirds of it.

The oral chemotherapy Rey takes is about $1,000 per week (covered by MSP) and Rey has undergone 30 radiation treatments and 65 oral chemo treatments. He’s currently on a break, and will have an MRI this week.

When Rey dropped out of Vancouver’s Eric Hamber secondary in 1970, there were nearby party houses and a lot of places to hang out, and he was missing a lot of classes. But Rey was clever, he’d show up n test days and cram for 10 to 15 minutes, and he’d get by.

“I was told by teachers if I applied myself I would have done very well,” Rey said. “I had a C average, but one day the vice principal called me in and said the [school district] was cracking down on attendance.”

If you missed five classes from a subject you were reprimanded, 10 you were suspended and 15 you’re expelled, he was told.

“Well I’d missed 25 out of every subject, so they encouraged me to leave.”

It’s been nearly 30 years since Rey first thought about studying to night school to acquire his high school equivalency. And now he’s got it.

“When I think about [getting the diploma], it puts me in tears. It’s something I’ve kept quiet all my life. You need it for most jobs, all jobs, and it really touches my heart now that I’ve got it. It’s something I’ve wanted to do and now I’m proud and blessed to have it.”

Next on Rey’s bucket list is a June 23 paddle in the Victoria Canoe and Kayak Club’s voyageur boat up the Gorge Waterway with others suffering brain tumours. He also plans to go skydiving later this summer.

“I won’t be scared [to skydive], just nervous because I’ll be excited.”

Despite the obvious change to his quality of life – Rey can’t see as well, hear as well, or sleep well as well as he used to, among other symptoms – the day-to-day changes are little, he says. And Rey, a devout Christian, is not scared.

“I plan to live the three-plus years I was given, and beyond that, or whenever the Lord wants to take me,” Rey said.

reporter@saanichnews.com

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