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Friday, May 27, 2011

Happy Birthday to Me--And All the Other Survivors

I rarely call much attention to my own birthday, especially since I passed 40 so long ago it’s almost disappeared from my rearview mirror.  If you count the two transplant surgeries, I get to celebrate three birthdays a year.  Unlike the original one, I can remember those two. 

But, this year is different. 

Last year, my birthday landed on Memorial Day.  It’s something that happens every few years.  It’s a bit surreal having a birthday that occasionally lines up with a roaming holiday like Memorial Day, Labor Day, or Thanksgiving.  At the end of May, cold and flu season is long over.  You don’t have to worry about being sick on your special day.  But, last year, there was some kind of bug going around and I coughed and sneezed all weekend.  I wondered if it was some kind of omen about the year to come.

It turns out that it was.

In the late fall, I was diagnosed with cancer.  It was a highly curable form of it, but it was cancer just the same.  That meant chemotherapy and all the nasty side effects that go with it.  By the time I had been at it for nine weeks, I was cured.  The word that keeps coming to my mind is ‘intense.’  It was a relatively brief encounter with The Big C, but it left me reeling for a few months afterward.

Last winter, I spent a lot of time watching TV.  Beside sleeping and checking e-mail once in a while, it was the only thing I felt like doing.  I saw a commercial in which a woman sang “Happy Birthday” and said it was for everyone who had survived cancer to celebrate another birthday.  First of all, it was nice to see a commercial where no one was trying to sell me anything.  It was a relief to see one that wasn’t so weird and vague that I was left wondering just what the message was.  And it was really special to be honored in such a way.

That commercial was months early for me, but I had faith that I would live to mark another year.  I’ve always loved having a birthday this time of year.  It was always during those first, sweet days of summer vacation from school.  It put the period (sometimes the exclamation mark) at the end of the school year.  Move on to the next grade, then turn a year older.

I share a birthday (May 31st) with celebrities Clint Eastwood, Joe Namath, Brooke Shields, and writer Walt Whitman.  Now, there’s a mixed bag!

This year, I share the celebration with everyone who has beat cancer and those living with it that made it through another year.  After cancer, life just doesn’t look the same.  We’re part of the same tribe now.  We have a bond.

You know what they say about getting older—it beats the alternative.

I belong to a few other tribes who know this fact better than most people do.  There are the others who had a kidney/pancreas transplant.  There are those who had another type of transplant.  There are the diabetics—that includes the current and former ones (like me).

This birthday will be especially sweet.  The cancer was timed well in my case.  I get to look and feel like myself again on that day.  I’m a year older, but thanks to the cancer, I’m “new and improved” in many ways.  Once you’ve dealt with cancer, everything else seems pretty easy.

And so, to all of us who have survived something intense, whether it was health-related, a natural disaster, or something caused by the malice or carelessness of another—Happy Birthday.  Not matter what day it is.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Hair and Now

Most of the hair on my head fell out a couple of weeks after starting chemotherapy.  There was a short, thin swath down the middle that stubbornly held on.  Otherwise, it was gone.  And it was during the coldest time of the year, too.  I never fully realized just how much even a short haircut kept my head warm.

My last chemo treatment was January 25th.  About six weeks later, the first sprouts of peach fuzz appeared on the bare part of my once thickly-covered scalp.  Around that time, I shaved again for the first time in three months.  Life was reappearing on my face and head, though tentative and tender.

The weeks passed and I concentrated on regaining lost weight and strength.  My appetite returned, clearing the way for more energy and stamina.  All the while, the hair on my head slowly and quietly increased.  It was barely noticeable for several days.

When it finally grew long enough to really feel it, I discovered my hair was softer than I could remember it ever being before.  Gradually, it grew longer and thicker, but stayed just as soft.

Friends who hadn’t seen me in several weeks remarked on it.  “Your hair is back!”
“It sure is.  And feel that.”  I then removed the ball cap I wear most of the time and bowed my head, offering my newly-carpeted dome for inspection.  Normally, I don’t much like people touching my hair, even though it’s too short to mess up.  Now, it was a trophy of my survival.  It not only hadn’t grown in dark and coarse (as other cancer survivors had warned me it would), it was like velvet.  At first, a little lighter in color than before, but quickly it returned to the shade of light brown it has been for the last ten years or so.

For the past several years, I’ve kept my hair short—in a “buzz cut” or crew cut.  I bought some electric clippers with different sized guards and started cutting my own hair.  At that short length, even a visually impaired guy can get it right.  Part of my choice of hairstyle is that I have a problem a lot of men (and some women) would love to have.  I have too much hair on my head.  If I don’t keep it short, it’s hard to keep my scalp clean or rinse out all the shampoo.  I’ve got a whole bunch of hair.  My recent temporary hair loss was a rare opportunity for me to see how the “other half” lives.  I came away from the experience with a better understanding of what it’s like for guys who lose their hair from natural causes.

I’ve put off cutting my hair again as long as possible out of concern that the fresh, post-cancer hair which bravely repopulated my head was a one-time shot.  If I cut it, would those baby-soft locks be history?  After trying to ignore the hair tickling the tops of my ears as long as I could, I broke down and cut it today.

What’s left isn’t any softer than what I had last year.  I looked at the soft tufts of hair in the sink and felt sentimental.  Realizing I’ll only have that velvety post-chemo hair once (I hope), I scooped up some of it and put it in a small plastic container.  Maybe it sounds weird to anyone who hasn’t had cancer—and maybe it sounds weird to some who have.  Or maybe it’s a “blind thing.”  But, I want a tactile reminder of those early days in the recovery, when my body gradually returned to normal.  That tender hair was as tender as my body and my overall health were.  When I put my hand on it and felt how soft it was, it seemed to be saying, “Hey, I’m back!  And I’m even better than before.”

That’s exactly how I feel about every aspect of my life since the cancer: even better than before.  And just in case I forget, I have a little reminder I can run my fingers through.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Ebb and Flow of a College Town

Today marks a noticeable change in seasons in the life of a college town: graduation day.  Thousands of (mostly) young, fresh-faced adults will fill the basketball arena and do their best to pay attention to the commencement speaker and ignore their hangover, the muttering people around them, and their nagging hopes/fears for the future.

I guess they’ll be texting and twittering, something we couldn’t conceive of when I was in college

It was 25 years ago this week that I was in the same place.  Yes, I’m really that old.  A quarter of a century ago, (ouch!) I sat there, just wishing all the talking would stop, they’d hand me my diploma, and I could find my family, who would then take me to eat at a nice restaurant.

That restaurant isn’t there anymore.  Fayetteville has changed as much as I have.  The enrollment at the U of A is up about 50% from what it was then.  More importantly, Arkansas—especially this corner of it—has much more to offer a recent college grad.  In the 80s it was an often-repeated joke that Arkansas’ biggest export was college graduates.  That sheepskin doubled as a passport—or exile—depending on how someone felt about the Land Beyond the Border.

The class of 2011 is entering a national economy much worse than when I did, but a much healthier one locally.  Many of them will have the option of sticking around and working in a field using their degree.  For decades, their predecessors have stayed (or returned) here to work as the state’s most overqualified waiters, cashiers, and delivery drivers. 

This place can be addictive.  I wonder how many of today’s graduates will take flight to distant opportunities, only to return years from now—like homing pigeons.  I’ve seen it happen dozens of times and did it myself.  If that Bohemian college town bug bites you, there’s no getting rid of it.  But why would you want to? 

Sure, the money may be better in some big city.  But, even in the big city, it isn’t as easy to remake oneself as it is in Fayetteville.  This is where people come here to get an education—to improve themselves and expand their horizons.  There is a certain energy and vitality in a town dedicated to helping people do that.  The air is alive with all that youthful optimism and curiosity.  Over the years, the students and college town have shaped each other, to their mutual benefit.

Having grown up here and lived here on and off after college, I’ve seen the cycle repeat itself many times.  Each fall, the tide brings in thousands of na├»ve, cocky, ambitious freshmen experiencing the first sweet taste of freedom.  Each spring the tide carries away thousands of weary, hopeful, ambitious seniors with brains jammed full of book smarts and fond memories.  They don’t believe us when we tell them these are the best days of their lives.  I know I didn’t buy it.

When I was in my teens, I thought 22 would be the perfect age to stop at, if that was possible.  I would be old enough to drink, but finished with college.  Young enough to still be attractive, but old and experienced enough to be responsible and level-headed.  I was more or less right.  Even now, 22 is the only year I’d do over again even if it meant not knowing any more than I did then.

For the next three months, Fayetteville will breathe a sigh of relief and move at a slower pace.  It will quietly rest and replenish the energy it needs to survive the other nine months of the year.  It will belong to us “civilians” again—the future, former, and non-students. 

At this time of year, I want to play the part of wise old sage.  It’s tempting to remind these hatchlings that life doesn’t always go exactly as planned, that “a totally awesome job/car/house” won’t fall in your lap the day after graduation.  There was a song that was played for a very brief time in the late 90s.  It was kind of hokey, but I’ve included a link because it’s full of advice to graduates.  It’s the kind of advice most of us ignore when we’re still young enough for it to do the most good.  

Sunday, May 8, 2011

I'm (Still) Here Because of Mom

It was probably just a miscalculation.  It makes more sense than the other explanation for the tardiness of my grand entry--my debut, so to speak.  Whatever the reason—mathematical or biological—I was born six weeks after the due date.

I’ve never liked being rushed.

In those days, they didn’t induce labor.  Dad took Mom for a ride on a bumpy road hoping I would take the hint, but it didn’t work.  You can’t rush quality, as I’ve pointed out to my mother on several of my birthdays.  I even held out until a few minutes after midnight, just so it would be a day later.  But I was born on her grandmother’s birthday.  That counts for something, right?

She’s been putting up with odd and willful behavior ever since.

Actually, I was an extremely well-behaved kid until my teens.  I was easily entertained, made good grades, and my teachers never had to yell at me (much).

Then, right after hitting puberty, I was diagnosed with diabetes.  Suddenly, my parents didn’t quite know what they had on their hands.  Still basically a good kid at school, my mother discovered that I had inherited her strong will, which sometimes clashed with hers.

What can I say?  I am my mother’s son.

From her I also got a positive attitude and just enough Cherokee blood for dark blue eyes and skin that tans easily in the sun.  I’ve been told the three make a nice combination.

On the surface, she’s like millions of Southern women from her generation.  She writes Thank You notes by hand and organizes the main food entrees whenever someone at her church dies.

But, she was tough enough to sing to me and my brother when I was four years old while a killer tornado ripped through the town where we lived.  She’d placed us under my parents’ bed, but only her head and shoulders would fit underneath.  There she was, singing to us so we wouldn’t be afraid, while most of her body was left vulnerable to whatever might land on her.  Fortunately, our home was spared.  But, it was my first real hint of the tough survivor beneath the sweet exterior.

Ever the maverick, the nomad, wanderlust took me to Tampa, Kansas City and Dallas.  I was out of college and anxious to experience the world—at least some of the urban U.S.  She stayed in Arkansas and worried about me.  Her little boy was on his own in the big city, an environment she never much cared for.  I had only lived in Austin a few months when the diabetic complications began.  Then I was back with her and my father in their home, terrified of the big, dark question mark that loomed in front of me.

She had to draw up my insulin shots when internal eye hemorrhages made it impossible for me.  She put the drops and ointment in my eye in the first few weeks after I had surgery to remove the blood inside my eye, staring unflinchingly at what must have been a gruesome sight.  She shared my despair and joy as my vision fluctuated.  And that positive attitude never wavered.

A few years later, my kidneys failed, and she was right there beside me; at the training class for new peritoneal dialysis patients; driving the two hours to Tulsa, where I lived, to help me until I regained some strength; and always offering words of encouragement over the phone.

A year later, my parents’ endurance would be put to a big test when I had the kidney/pancreas transplant.  There were a few complications and I ended up spending more than three weeks in the hospital.  They had to watch me struggle and suffer.  At one point I almost died.

But, with their help, I pulled through.  Mom does so much for me and would do much more if my independent nature allowed it.  She sets out to take care of everyone she knows and cares about.  Yes, I got that kind of mother—one who can cook and bakes sweets no one can resist.

She won’t touch a computer, but remembers birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, and every other occasion in the lives of people around her.

Over the years, she’s nursed me back to health more times than I can count.  This past year, she did it again.  This time, it was cancer.  There were times I was nauseous and too frail to make it to the bathroom.  I had to use a plastic container, which she emptied without complaint dozens of times.  When the mouth sores made it impossible for me to eat solid food, she spent hours searching the grocery store for something soft enough.  She had to watch her boy take on the appearance of a frail old man.  The worst part for her, like any mother, was watching helplessly while I suffered.

You eased my suffering more than you’ll ever know, Mom.  It’s no exaggeration when I say I couldn’t have survived this without you.  You gave me life, and you keep helping me hold on to it.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Kidney Transplant, Desperate Housewives Style

I have to laugh out loud sometimes at how Hollywood stumbles across facts like a drunk bull in an antique shop.

The latest example is the character of Susan Delfino (played by Teri Hatcher) on Desperate Housewives (Sunday nights on ABC).  The adorably ditzy Susan experienced kidney failure, earning pity for the likeable character.  And she made it look like a day at the beach.  Sure, she passed out a few times and wound up in the hospital, but there was no nausea, anemia, perpetually itchy skin, or that grey, sickly-looking complexion.  All of these are symptoms caused by imbalances of various toxins, chemicals, and nutrients that occur when the kidneys decide to take a time out.

There was one detail the writers of Desperate Housewives actually exaggerated.  They had poor Susan doing dialysis treatments lasting six hours each, not the usual four.  Hollywood giveth and Hollywood taketh away.  Somehow, she did dialysis 50% longer than most kidney patients, but had 75% more time and energy when not hooked up to the machine and looked 122% better while she was at it.

Within only a few weeks a donor appeared out of the woodwork.  Actually, he appeared from Susan’s past and--like so many of the people her character attracts—is not quite right in the head (though his kidneys are superb).  It turns out he went to high school with her and had been obsessed about her and is only too happy to share a kidney with her to get on her good side—or in his case—noticed at all.  As luck (and Hollywood) would have it, he’s the right blood type.  And he’s a perfect tissue match, which isn’t a guarantee even with the correct blood type.

Having received a kidney from a living non-related donor, I can report that it takes several weeks to approve someone as a donor.  There are dozens of medical tests checking the health of several other parts of the donor’s body, not to mention several vials of blood taken to test for a wide variety of diseases.  The results don’t come back overnight.

Then there’s the psychological testing, which obviously isn’t something the transplant team at Fairview Hospital bother with.  In the real world, they make sure the donor isn’t being paid for the kidney or being coerced into donating it.  They check to make sure the donor isn’t giving up a kidney for any number of mentally unhealthy reasons, such as romantic obsession born out of a teenage crush.

In the end it was Susan, not a doctor, who determined her potential donor wasn’t healthy enough between his ears to spare any other parts.  Discouraged, but never looking any worse from the experience, her wait for a kidney continued.

Enter mentally unstable donor #2: the new bride of equally cuckoo neighbor Paul Young.  She married him while he was serving time in prison for murder, assuming he’d never actually be free.  She somehow missed all the news reports about prison overcrowding.  Little wonder why she’s so messed up.  It turns out the simple-minded Beth was manipulated by her evil mother (also a prison convict) to marry Paul so she could do some sort of harm to him.  Yes, there’s plenty of crazy to go around, but not enough kidneys.

Long story short, Beth commits suicide there at the hospital, with documentation that one of her kidneys will go to Susan Delfino.  How about that?  Crazy Donor #2 Beth is a perfect tissue match and the right blood type too.  Gotta love those odds, especially if you’ve ever been on a transplant waiting list.

Of course, Susan comes through the surgery with flying colors and bounces out of the hospital in record time, looking like she might have had a stressful day at work.  Apparently, the crackerjack transplant team at Fairview Hospital didn’t advise her to stay inside, away from crowds for several weeks after the surgery.  Her immune system would have been reduced to almost zero so it wouldn’t attack Crazy Beth’s kidney.

In the real, non-Hollywood world, the high dose of Prednisone (a steroid anti-rejection drug) a transplant patient takes for several months would have given the lovely Susan acne, a round face, a bloated body, a ravenous appetite, and a very short temper.  Teri would have no doubt spent hours in the makeup chair and I hear those things get uncomfortable after a while.  Awwwww.

It will be interesting to see what other “untransplantlike” things Susan will do in future episodes.  Don’t get me wrong.  I like the show.  It’s one of only a few with interesting plot twists, clever lines, and a nice mix or drama and humor.  There’s quite a bit of talent on there, too.  What’s not to love about Teri Hatcher?  And it’s good that the subject of organ donation is brought to viewers’ attention.   

I just had to add my own little reality check, for the 300 million of us living outside the make-believe world of Hollywood, where many of life’s problems are solved in half an hour (twenty minutes excluding commercial time) and sick people look better than most of us on our best day.