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Dreams Really Can Come True

April 26, 2016 Print

Share your greatest dream. Even if you are sure it won’t come true.

Most of us would give pause to such a request, but for Thomas J. Swan III, it was especially daunting. The request was posed by his treatment team at McLean’s Fernside program, which provides intensive residential treatment for adults with complex substance use and co-occurring psychiatric conditions.

Swan’s dream was to have a family of his own. But given that he was single, gay, and living with HIV, he could not imagine it coming true.

That exercise and the work Swan did at Fernside proved to be a turning point. It was the first time he was able to be honest about his sexuality and addiction, and begin the process of accepting himself.

From the outside, one would not have guessed Swan’s struggles. A graduate of Harvard College and Georgetown Law School, Swan was by all measures successful. Over more than a decade, he practiced law and worked in investment banking, ultimately becoming a principal with a West Coast firm. While his external achievements masked the internal shame and stigma he felt over being gay, eventually the substances he used to deal with his pain led him into full-blown addiction. He came to Fernside seeking help for alcoholism, addiction, and anxiety-induced panic attacks.

“The addiction destroyed everything of value in my life,” he said. “But it was my way of dealing with being gay in a world where I was expected not to be. I thought it made me worthless and unlovable. I was sure it disqualified me from being a parent. And if it did not, then the collateral damage of my addiction certainly did. That is how I came to be hopeless. And that is what changed at McLean.”

Thomas J. Swan III
Thomas J. Swan III with his children Rosie (left) and Sam

There was only one other person to whom Swan had told this dream: his father, Thomas J. Swan Jr., a McLean trustee from 2005 until his death in 2011. Unbeknownst to Swan, his father researched the medical facts and learned that recent breakthroughs in science had made it possible and safe for a person who was HIV-positive to become a biological parent without risk of transmitting the virus to the child or surrogate.

“My dad took it on himself to learn about this and was supported in his efforts by the people he knew and worked with at McLean,” Swan said. “In his final month, my dad, who was my best friend throughout my life and who had the greatest influence on me, encouraged me to pursue two things: a leadership role in our family business and my dream of having my own children.”

That’s when Swan knew that, with his father’s support and McLean’s help, maybe his dream could come true. “I set conditions for myself: sustained recovery from addiction, taking good care of myself physically and mentally, and getting back to work,” he said. “When I had accomplished those goals and truly put my life back in good order, I could take the next step.”

So Swan began focusing on the family business and today, together with his cousin, he is following in his father’s footsteps running a group of businesses with manufacturing facilities in Asia, North America, and Europe that sell products in almost every part of the world.

He also resolved to strengthen his physical well-being. He ran the New York City Marathon in 2014 and twice completed a 545-mile bike ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

Then he embarked on creating a family, and in January 2015, Swan’s healthy, biological son and daughter—Sam and Rosie—were born.

“The only reason this was possible was because that exercise at Fernside made me believe that my dream could come true after all,” he said. “That, and the unconditional love and support from my mum and dad. And as dedicated and passionate as I am about work, it does not compare to the joy of being Sam and Rosie’s dad.”

Swan also has followed in his father’s footsteps in his philanthropic support and service to McLean. He gives generously to McLean each year through the Mary Belknap Society and made a substantial gift to McLean’s $100 million comprehensive campaign. He also serves on McLean’s National Council, a group of donors who act as ambassadors for the hospital. “I give back to McLean because I am grateful,” he said. “After all, it was McLean that enabled my greatest dream to come true.”