It’s a good thing the retired photographer and videographer didn’t ignore the warning his head was giving him a couple of autumns ago. Except for the pain Dennis Unger experienced two days in a row, he considered his health as normal as it had ever been.
He investigated what was going on, however, and that decision surely saved Unger’s life.
The Columbus native has had a full life, and now it appears that the decks are cleared for adding more chapters to it.
He started his career taking photos for The Evening Republican, as The Republic was called at the time. From there he became a stringer for WFBM-TV, the NBC affiliate in Indianapolis. There were stints at the New Albany Tribune, and back in Columbus working for his family’s business (Rust-Unger Monuments), and then back at WFMB. That led to employment by NBC, which in turn led to corporate work for IBM, McDonald’s and other major organizations.
A racing enthusiast, he also covered the Indianapolis 500 for various organizations over the years.
He ultimately landed in the White House communications office in Washington, where camera people from the various branches of the military reported to him. He spent seven years of President George W. Bush’s administration there, and two years under President Obama. On the day of Obama’s first inauguration, Unger oversaw conversion of White House videography to high-definition.
Quite a record of accomplishment, and Unger was winding it down in northern Ohio, where he now lives, when his body served notice that something entirely different was going to consume his time and attention for a while.
“The scary part is that I didn’t even know I was sick,” Unger said. “In November 2015, I woke up with splitting headaches two days in a row. Tests at the ER didn’t show anything, so I went to my regular doctor. He ran some tests as well and said, ‘I see something I don’t like.’ It was my white blood cell count. I had more lab work done.”
He was returning to Columbus for an aunt’s funeral when he got a call asking if he could come right away to the North Coast Cancer Center, which is a Sandusky-based satellite facility of the Cleveland Clinic. He was told he had a week to 10 days to live.
He spent six weeks at the clinic’s main location in Cleveland, receiving chemotherapy for his leukemia. At the end of that regimen, his treatment team told him he was cured, but that it would come back.
That was indeed the case. He went back into the clinic the following spring, and on May 3, 2016, had a bone marrow transplant.
Unger said that after a transplant, a person has two sets of DNA. He had to repeat all the immunization shots that people take for granted as being behind them after their childhood.
Since he was instructed to stay within 100 miles of the clinic, he and his wife took up residence at the Cleveland Hope Lodge. Hope Lodge is a nationwide network of free lodging facilities for cancer patients and their caregivers.
“It was very nice,” Unger said. “It looked a lot like the Irwin home and garden on Fifth Street in Columbus. It was located in the University Circle area in Cleveland. A shuttle bus would pick me up at the front door for my trips to the clinic. We made some great friends there, sharing stories with others going through the same thing.”
After a slight pause, he added, “Some didn’t make it.”
He described his wife and daughter as “godsends.”
“My wife tracked a lot of stuff that I didn’t understand. I read a 256-page manual twice, and it really didn’t soak in. My daughter’s occupation is transplant coordinator, so she knew a lot about what was going on,” he said.
The Ungers stayed at Hope Lodge until August 2016. Dennis still goes to the Cleveland Clinic once a month for consultation.
“Basically, I’m back to where I need to be,” Unger said. “To be sure, I have a list of ‘don’t-dos’ as long as your arm. I can’t mow grass. I can’t breathe wood smoke. There’s a number of things like that.”
Jerry Horn, Unger’s cousin who lives in Columbus and has known Unger all his life, said, “He has a dry sense of humor, and I think it was a big help when he went through that. He was pretty bad off.”
Horn described Unger as “kind of a vagabond. He’s done some amazing things.”
At this phase of his life, Unger is a bit more settled down, but the outlook he developed throughout his life’s adventures remains intact, even after the most harrowing adventure of them all.