Anniversaries are like birthdays: occasions to celebrate and to think ahead, usually among friends with whom one shares not only the past but also the future. Zbigniew Brzezinski
Today is the one year anniversary of the beginning of a new life for me. On August 18, 2019, a Sunday morning, without any warning, a fireball of cancer came out of the universe and struck me down. There were no serious symptoms or anything that would have given me an inkling of what was to befall me and how my life would be forever changed.
I was having a normal morning. I was a bit fatigued, but that was about all. I took care of my normal, very regular routine “business.” Everything was fine. I then went for a morning walk, another part of my daily routine. I believe I got about a mile and a half in. But, when I returned to my friend's, Carolyn's, house, I felt pretty wiped out. That wasn't normal. But, I still had no idea there was anything seriously wrong.
Well, within an hour or so, I was unconscious, on the floor. The first time I had any recollection of what had happened was when I started to regain consciousness and I was on my bed. I have no idea of any details of my collapse or the actual amount of time. It might have been seconds or minutes. I'd never experienced anything like this before in my 74+ years of life. Carolyn and her grandson were hovering over me trying to help me regain consciousness and comprehend what was happening.
Chris, Carolyn's grandson, a professional EMT who just happened to be visiting his grandmother that weekend, had either seen me collapse or found me in a pile on the floor. He managed to get me back on my bed that I had fallen next to or at the foot of. Carolyn was checking my blood pressure and heart rate – which, according to clinical standards put me in the category of being dead, which is what I probably would have been if Chris hadn't found me and called for Carolyn. Carolyn started putting glucose under my tongue to get my blood sugar up.
Chris called the local EMT's who arrived within minutes along with a medic shortly thereafter. Once they assessed the situation and got me stabilized, they moved me to a gurney, out the door and into the waiting ambulance. A short, but rapid trip (maybe five minutes) with the lights flashing and siren wailing and I was being rolled into the Emergency Room of the local, small, West Virginia University-affiliated hospital. (Continue reading the rest of the article on the blog.)
I spent the next six hours or so in the hospital ER. They did all the regular tests. Blood was drawn. Ultimately, two CT scans were done, though since it wasn't apparent what was causing my situation, they didn't scan the parts of my anatomy that would have let them know where the culprit was. I believe they also did an EKG to see if my heart was functioning properly. This was important, of course, since my BP had fallen below a life-sustaining level for at least a few minutes if not longer.
As the afternoon went on, I became more stable. My blood pressure returned to a life-sustaining level and I became more aware of everything that was going on. I guess I was thinking this was just some kind of fluke and with a bit of rest, I'd be fine. Of course, the fact that I was now vacating black fluid and stools from my bowels was very disturbing to the ER doctor. He immediately realized that I was bleeding internally, although there was no indication of where or why.
As any conscientious emergency room doctor would and should, he wanted to admit me late that Sunday afternoon. And, of course, me being the obstinate “know it all” I am, informed him that I had a conference coming up later that week that I was running and had people traveling from all over the U.S. and Canada to attend, so there was no way I could be tied down to a hospital bed that week. By late in the afternoon, or perhaps it was already early evening I insisted that I was feeling fine and needed to be released. So, AMA (Against Medical Advice) I signed the waiver relieving the doctor and hospital of any liability for what might happen after I left.
The reality, I should have stayed and gone through the bank of tests. However, there was a series of serendipities all coming together on August 18, 2019. Some of them were already apparent, others would soon reveal themselves. So, I left the hospital driven home by my friend Carolyn. I was weak and light-headed, but seemed to feel semi-normal.
So, Happy Anniversary to me! One year later, I'm alive, but at the very least experienced a near-death experience one year ago today.
There were a number of serendipities that came into play during this crucial and crisis period. Let me enumerate them.
- I had been on the road on one of my cross-continental treks covering about 21 or 22 states. A month and a half before I was in California. I returned to the east because, as I mentioned to the ER doctor, I had a conference I was running in Front Royal, Virginia for a small, but unique group of people. If I had not had that conference to run, I could have been just about anywhere in the U.S. and this could have happened while I was camped on a secluded mountain top or a Walmart parking lot.
- I was at Carolyn's house in West Virginia, my eastern base camp, so to speak. This location is not too far from Winchester, Virginia (and Front Royal) where I had lived for 25 years until about 11 years prior to August 18, 2019. I still maintained my medical community there.
- Carolyn's grandson just happened to be visiting on the weekend of August 18, 2019. Normally, Chris would stay over one night. So, he would not have been there Sunday morning. Who knows what force caused him to stay over one additional night. Had Chris not been there, it could have been a couple hours or so before Carolyn would have found me crumpled on the floor. By that time, I probably would have long since expired.
- I had a professional EMT, Carolyn's grandson, and an RN with 50 years of experience in the medical profession there when all this happened. They knew exactly what to do.
- Even though Carolyn lives in a small, pretty depressed, rural town in West Virginia, they have a new (only a few years old), pretty much state of the art, small hospital that happens to be owned and operated by the West Virginia University Healthcare System and affiliated with the WVU Medical School. They also have an excellent volunteer ambulance and EMT group in town. They are fast, efficient and competent. Although I didn't really know what was going on, I was impressed.
- My primary doctor's practice in Winchester jumped on my case as soon as they got the word. I was in for a follow-up with them three days later. They ordered me to go to the Winchester Medical Center for very fast blood work. I had rested on Monday and Tuesday (August 19 and 20) then drove myself to Winchester for my appointment. Got the blood drawn and then proceeded about 15 miles to the hotel in Front Royal where the conference I was running was to be held. I was checked into my hotel suite that afternoon when my cell phone rang and it was my doctor's office demanding me to get to the ER at the Winchester Medical Center immediately.
- Once at the WMC ER, they took me in immediately and admitted me to the ER observation unit where I stayed for 48 hours while running the conference through my team, by phone and texts. The serendipity here was the efficiency of the WMC ER staff, my conference team and the marvels of wireless technology.
- Thursday, August 22, I was taken for an endoscopy and a CT that showed, in no uncertain terms, what had befallen me. Additionally, by this time they had ascertained I had lost about half my volume of blood, and my hemoglobin that had been perfect the week before, was also approaching nearly 50% of what it should have been. Indeed! I was walking a thin line and was now finding out how thin.
- Friday morning, August 23, a surgical oncologist, Dr. Patrick Wagner, came to my room, introduced himself and then laid the facts of life (and death) on me and the diagnosis of gastric (stomach) and esophageal cancer. They hadn't determined if there was any metastasis. But, like pancreatic cancer, this kind of cancer normally didn't present itself until it was at Stage IV or, pretty much incurable. Dr. Wagner said he'd set me up with a medical oncologist and a radiation oncologist. I told him I didn't want just any oncologists – I wanted specific doctors. He didn't know whether they were available and taking new patients, but he'd do his best. He was owed some favors.
- They had me stabilized and discharged me late on Friday afternoon. I was physically able, although, not fully cognitive, to return to the hotel and manage the rest of the conference in person.
- I stayed over at the hotel until Monday and before I left the hotel I had appointments with the medical and radiation oncologists I had requested. Both had long waiting lists and I was moved up to the head of their respective lists and met with both of them, back to back three days later. They coordinated with each other as to a course of treatment while I was in their offices. Everything was set in motion.
- Within two weeks tests were done, it was determined that, again, by some act of serendipity, divine intervention or whatever, my cancer was at Stage III and there was no indication that it had even invaded my lymph glands, an IV port had been inserted into my chest and chemo and radiation treatments began.
- I had a wonderful friend I've known for many years in Winchester. She is also a retired nurse. She has two spare bedrooms and a private bathroom in her house and offered for me to stay there during the week, just 15 minutes from the cancer treatment center. This made undergoing the treatment protocol so much easier.
So, there you have it. Thirteen serendipities that made this treatment process so much easier. Of course, after completing the chemo and radiation I was still facing a 0% chance of long term survival without undergoing surgery to remove a major portion of my stomach and esophagus where the cancer was located.
A Life Reborn
So, one year later. Here I am. My life has changed in so many ways over this past year. I experienced medical treatments I would have never imagined I'd have to endure. I had my internal anatomy modified (I call it being gutted) by a master surgeon. I will never be the same. So far, I never experience hunger or fullness. So, I have to schedule myself to eat (although I can eat virtually anything I want) and I have to measure my portions or I overfill and that can be less than pretty. As I tell people, I'm not ready for prime time in restaurants, yet (and may never be, only time will tell).
I spent two months going through chemo and radiation treatments. Then after about a two month recovery period, I was surgically modified and spent two weeks in the hospital and five weeks in a rehabilitation center. I was fed by a pump with a tube in my side for about six of those seven weeks. I was released from the rehabilitation facility and had only been back to Carolyn's house in West Virginia for about two weeks when the COVID 19 lockdown/self-quarantine was mandated. And, of course, by then I was 75 and at-risk by my demographic, but even more at risk since I was still in deep recovery.
Of course, now, we are going through the contentious election cycle and, as I call it, a period of lawless anarchy across our country. I have my own views on these issues, but I'm not going to address them at this time. This is my time of celebration.
I've lost about 40 pounds of unneeded weight. So, I'm back, to an appropriate weight for someone my size after about 30 years. However, through all the treatments (chemo, radiation and major surgery) and seven weeks in the hospital and rehabilitation I've been through, not to forget dealing with a lot of anesthesia during the past 12 months, I'm still dealing with fatigue, low energy and physical weakness. But, I'm going to the gym (that finally reopened after the COVID 19 shutdown) 3 days a week and working out on the walking track and several (usually, at least 7) of the strength/resistance machines doing 50 repetitions on each machine. It's a slow process. I'm not even close to where I was last year before the fireball struck me down. I'm not sure I will ever return to that point physically (and possibly even mentally), but every day I'm a little better. So, I'll get to where my new normal is one of these days.
I've undergone two COVID 19 tests over the past couple of months and so far, I've been safe. I avoid locations with congregations of people as much as possible.
There are a few other takeaways from this experience. I'm sure you've heard other people who've been through medical crises and “near-death” experiences talk about undergoing major changes in their outlook on life. Well, I've been through this, too. I have several anniversaries I hold onto. One was my “Emancipation Day” on November 1, 2008 when I left my ranch for the last time and began what ultimately became my nomadic lifestyle. Then there is November 1, 2015, my official “Retirement Day." That is the day I chose to declare myself no longer actively pursuing new business in my audio/video recording and production business and my book publishing business.
I have other days I add to this list of anniversaries. But, August 18, 2019 will probably be on the top of this list. Through my writing and reading I've realized that I must stop allowing all these outside events, crises, contentious issues and so on, to stress me out and rob me of my personal freedom and my happiness. I cannot save the world. It's a big enough job saving myself. I'm already in jeopardy of losing some close friendships (if I haven't lost one or more already) because we have differing viewpoints and opinions. Do I care about all the issues? Sure! But, can I change the course of human events? It's not just unlikely, but it's extremely unlikely. So, the most productive thing I can do is take care of myself and the small group of like-minded people who choose to live similar lifestyles. . . and even we don't agree on everything.
My future is going to be writing based. I'm not going to be writing to become a bestselling author and make lots of money. Some extra money is necessary and will be nice. However, my writing will mainly be focused on inspiring and encouraging readers to seek their own personal freedom and happiness as they individually define that for themselves. And, of course, these are moving targets. They can change as we grow older and (hopefully) wiser. I also have a couple or three other projects I want to explore and develop. More about those at a later time.
For now, to finish this article, that is much longer than I had intended, I would like to ask you to help me with a book idea I'm working on. Can you answer these two questions for me – if I use the material, I'll use your first name and initial for your last name . . . unless you say it's okay to use your last name. . . and your city and state. Here are the two questions:
- How do you define personal freedom as it applies to your life?
- How do you define happiness and joy as it applies to your life?
That's all for now. I have several more articles I'm working on. Keep your eyes peeled and you'll see them soon. Live free and be happy. EH