Local News

Judge returns to bench after cancer fight

Posted July 11, 2016 1:16 p.m. EDT
Updated July 11, 2016 1:23 p.m. EDT

— People in a courtroom traditionally stand as a sign of respect when a judge enters to take his or her seat on the bench. On Monday, that ritual turned into a standing ovation for Superior Court Judge Carl Fox, who was back on the job after battling cancer.

Fox, 62, was diagnosed in April 2015 with myelodysplastic syndrome, a condition where stem cells in the bone marrow don't mature or become healthy blood cells. He lost weight and energy and had to set his judicial duties aside as he sought treatment.

"At this time last year, I couldn’t tell you if this day would ever happen," he told a courtroom filled with cheering attorneys, other judges and law enforcement officers. "They had given me three months to live, and I had started getting my affairs in order. And I tell you, I could never have dreamed it would work out so well."

Fox and his girlfriend, Julia Kemp Smith, started the "Save the Fox" campaign to increase participation in blood marrow donation registries. Thousands of people responded, including an inmate Fox put behind bars when he was a prosecutor.

Fox never found a perfect match for a donation, so he received a blood marrow transplant using umbilical cord stem cells, which saved his life.

"You just don’t realize until you’ve been that close to death that being alive and the things you take for granted are really important," he said. "I feel incredibly blessed and lucky and am thankful for all the prayers. Everyone prayed for me."

Charles Alston, the inmate who offered to donate blood marrow, even sent Fox a letter wishing him well on his return.

Many of the people in the courtroom said Fox's journey should serve as a reminder to people to never give up.

"It’s never killed his spirit," Orange County Sheriff Charles Blackwood said. "Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up. There are so many people around you you don’t even know about fighting for you."

"It’s been a great community effort," Orange County District Attorney Jim Woodall said. "It’s really been a miracle, quite frankly, and I think there’s no one in the world whose deserved a miracle more than Carl Fox."

Fox was so excited about returning to the bench that he put his robe in his car Sunday night. Yet, he said, he feared being a bit rusty after so much time away.

"It is truly great to be here," he said. "It’s a pleasure to be back."

Although the blood marrow registry drive didn't find a match for Fox, it did result in matches for several other people needing transplants. Fox said his fight to raise awareness isn't over, and he and his supporters have organized another donor drive from noon to 4 p.m. July 30 at University Place Mall in Chapel Hill.

"My message is, whatever way you can donate, donate," Fox said.