Just before setting off on a surfing trip to Costa Rica in 2018, ER doctor Julie Cullen noticed her husband Chris Wagner was bruising and tiring easily.
Cullen took him to the ER for blood work. Wagner, then 36, was diagnosed with leukemia. Cullen was 32. They had been married for about a year-and-a-half.
Wagner’s disease transitioned rapidly into acute myeloid leukemia, an aggressive cancer of the blood and bone marrow. As a physician, Cullen knew the cancer had a very high five-year mortality rate, but the couple was ready for the fight.
An active athlete, Wagner was a surfer and surfing instructor, a fisherman and charter boat mate. He was a Beebe ER nurse, and worked as a bartender and server at Fish On, Blue Moon, Purple Parrot, The Pond and Heirloom.
“He could do it all,” Cullen said. “He was funny, easy-going and vibrant. He was full of life no matter how he felt.”
In fact, against his doctor’s wishes, Wagner completed the Dewey Beach triathlon and set several state records in a weightlifting competition while receiving treatment for cancer.
Wagner underwent radiation therapy, an umbilical cord stem cell transplant, and an unsuccessful bone marrow transplant while receiving maintenance chemotherapy; he was hospitalized for 169 days of the last four years.
Just before his last hospital admission in February, Cullen said she knew they were running out of options. Wagner was nearing the end of this life, so she asked him what his wishes were.
“He told me he didn’t want a funeral,” she said. “He didn’t want people wearing black and being sad. He wanted bright colors and music, food and drinks. He wanted a celebration to raise money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.
“All who knew him should not be surprised by his last selfless wish. In his darkest hour, he was still concerned about other people and cancer patients.”
Wagner died April 13. In June, Cullen and Wagner would have marked 10 years together.
In honor of his last wish, Cullen has teamed up with friends and family to honor Wagner’s life with a party designed to raise funds for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.
The celebration is open to all and set for 4 to 10 p.m., Wednesday, July 27, at Big Chill Beach Club at the Indian River Inlet. A portion of food and drink proceeds will be donated to the cause, and a silent auction will offer chances to win local gift certificates, gift baskets, one of Wagner's own surfboards, fishing gear, handcrafted artwork, and two chartered fishing trips.
A trip to take place in 2022 is offered by Captain's Lady Charters. Bill Slayer Sportfishing is offering a 2023 fishing trip that will include a 12-hour offshore charter valued at $4,000 to fish for tuna, mahi, marlin, tilefish and wahoo on a 47-foot custom Cabo Sportfish, which won Best of 2021 fishing charter in Delaware Coastal Style magazine and was the 2021 winner for most tuna caught by a 39- to 48-foot boat at the Ocean City Marlin Club. The Bill Slayer is located at Indian River Marina.
“Chris actually helped mate on the Bill Slayer several times,” Cullen said.
All donations are welcome, and donation tiers include $250 for a tax deduction ID number, $500 for on-site recognition at the event, and $1,000 for on-site recognition and local print advertisement. Sponsors are also needed; contact Cullen at firstname.lastname@example.org for details.
“This tragic thing has brought out so much good from the community,” Cullen said. “He would have wanted that. I am honored he chose me. He motivated me to live life, laugh the laugh and be full. There are no guarantees in life, so don’t waste it.”
Big Chill Beach Club is located at 27099 Coastal Highway, Bethany Beach. To donate to Wagner’s fundraising page on the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Light the Night page, go to bit.ly/3u4ZaGX.