Sunday, July 14, 2013

Heroic

Being a frequent flier of the Veterans’ Hospital, I have come across a great many men who have been to the edge of hell and back. Some bear scars on the outside, but just as many still nurse wounds inflicted on the inside. Some things just can’t be unseen, some things just can’t be undone, and some experiences just too unimaginably traumatic to be dulled by the passing years. Ball caps, decorated with bright embroidery cover the receding hairlines of gray and shade the eyes that once saw the unthinkable. Makes me wonder if Danté was a vet!

The eyes I’m seeing more frequently are getting brighter and the hair is far from gray, but the wounds are just as traumatic. One such young wounded veteran and I became friends after crossing paths at the hospital a number of times and sharing a lot of time together connected to our respective dancing partners – that would be our own IV poles—at the ‘other’ club med. When he told me the story of how he lost his legs in Iraq, the only thing that came to my mind was that I had met “the real deal,” replete with medals and a story of saved lives under fire. Yet in talking with him, he refuses to be labeled a hero. His attitude is simply that he couldn’t live with himself had he not done what he was trained to do. He harbors no bitter feelings and doesn’t feel like the world somehow owes him.

My friend, Isaac. He has a fancier IV pole that I do, but trust me, I'm not at all jealous!  He's getting a cocktail of all kinds of things post-surgery.  I'm getting another dose of toxic chemical goodness (aka chemo). He and his very beautiful wife are keeping me company. His scar looks amazingly like the Continental Divide. Yeah, aside from war stories, that's what we share -- we compare scars! He wins that one...I have no fancy scars to show off except that my arms make me look like a drug addict and my one time PICC line sites. Move on, nothing to see here, folks!  
My look of incredulity wasn’t the first he has dealt with. People see him in his wheel chair or on his prostheses and want to connect with a bona fide hero, but he’s not interested in being the center of that kind of attention. It struck me that he just wants what I want: to be treated as normal and enjoy the same life as everyone else and while we can’t get away from that thing that brought us together in the hospital, neither do we want to be owned or defined by it. I think the best way to put it is that there’s simply a profound sense of patriotism that frowns on the bumper stickers, but sticks to what’s genuine.

I don’t mean to paint the kind of picture where there’s some sort of “Aw, shucks, ma’am. I was just doin’ muh job” kind of exchange, but in a real sense, it’s just what we do and who we are. Professions where those routinely putting their lives on the line like police officers and firefighters are very much the same. They accomplish the heroic on a daily basis, they incur the same kinds of external and internal traumatic injuries, and they most certainly deserve the same respect as our returning armed forces veterans.
Translation:  Courage isn't falling, but getting up each time you fall. 
I put up the French version since it's Bastille Day
But there are other kinds of heroic acts where any one of us ordinary people rise to the occasion and do something that impacts or saves someone else’s life. We read about these people in the paper or on our social media outlet of choice that restore our faith in humanity - that our world isn’t full of inept or downright corrupt politicians, selfish and willfully ignorant followers of demagogues, or powerful people who wield their influence only to increase their wealth. What those heroic acts consist of are pretty subjective of course, but for the person who is on the receiving end, it means everything and sometimes it means a saved life.

It’s that kind of heroism that is quite literally saving my own life.  Earlier this week, I received a call from the Veterans’ Administration Health Care System in Seattle. The nurse on the other end of the line informed me that a bone marrow donor had been identified and that I would begin the next phase of treatment for my leukemia on July 25. The waiting is over…for now. The first two weeks will be for evaluation. At the end of these two weeks, I’ll find out what kind of transplant I’ll be undergoing as that hasn’t been decided yet. That much, at least, is news to me. At that point, the really ugly preparation begins and my immune-reboot process begins in earnest. It’s an exciting prospect of course, but it also rendered me officially freaked out. Things have become very real in short order.

Regardless of the machinations going on inside my own brain, some young man who will be unknown to me for at least a year, has done one of these heroic deeds. His decision to donate his stem cells will give me a second life. That sounds so very simple and perhaps a touch hyperbolic; and while it’s difficult for me to think about it in those terms, it’s unquestionably true.

I think the really difficult part for me to wrap my head around is that I’ve never had any outward symptoms to where I could point my finger.  All the things the hem/onc doctors asked me about were never part of my experience.  I felt like a million bucks one day and was quite literally on my way to the gym – bag packed – and the next thing I knew I was being poked, prodded, and tested ad nauseam in a hospital bed. After months of lab tests which, to me, are nothing more than numbers on a page, I’m going to be taken to the brink of death and an anonymous hero is swooping in at the last possible minute and giving me an infusion of his blood and I will rise from the (near) dead and be restored.  Comic book aficionados or people with a spiritual background probably see a number of parallels there and to be sure, they’re not lost on me. The whole process is nothing short of a pharmacological miracle, really!

So, to my unnamed donor (as of today anyway), my deepest and most sincere thanks for you doing something heroic, even though you may not see it as such.  May you receive in return, many times over, the good will and kindness you have extended to me…and may you never know the need of a stem cell infusion in your own life. And of course, may that life be long, fruitful, and filled with much joy.
To the rest of my support network – both near and far – thank you for hanging with me for what has been a rather long trip.  We have another four months or so to go, some of which may get pretty rough. I’ll need you more than ever during that time. Stay tuned…and of course, you all need to be well and stay strong where I may have some challenges there and know that you are loved very much!

Today’s music: Hero by Chad Kroeger featuring Josey Scott

I am so high, I can hear heaven
I am so high, I can hear heaven
Oh, but heaven, no heaven don't hear me

And they say that a hero can save us
I'm not gonna stand here and wait
And I'll hold on to the wings of the eagles
Watch as we all fly away

Someone told me that love would all save us
But how can that be? Look what love gave us
A world full of killing and blood spilling
That world never came

And they say that a hero can save us
I'm not gonna stand here and wait
And I'll hold on to the wings of the eagles
Watch as we all fly away, oh

Now that the world isn't ending, it's love that I'm sending to you
It isn't the love of a hero and that's why I fear it won't do

And they say that a hero can save us
I'm not gonna stand here and wait
I'll hold on to the wings of the eagles
Watch as we all fly away

And they're watching us, they're watching us
As we all fly away
And they're watching us, they're watching us
As we all fly away
And they're watching us, they're watching us
As we all fly away, whoa