Thursday, October 7, 2004

German Roads, Remission and Leaky Heart Valves!

Dave’s Great Adventure, Book 2
Postscript 5
October 7, 2004
Around every curve….

Well, we made it to Germany and back. And we did well, never got sick, and though we, and especially I, were/was tired a lot, we had, as expected, a wonderful time. It had been almost three years since our last trip to Germany. I had almost forgotten how much I love that country. In some ways, it is, to me, like a huge theme park, like being in a mega-Disney World. I love just about everything about it. I love the little towns, I love the food, I love the sounds of tires and wheels on cobblestones, I love the old half-timbered (commonly called Tudor style in America) buildings which date back many hundreds of years, I love the smells of the little towns in the mornings, where one can smell hardwood burning in the cook stoves, I love the little non-chain stores, I love the language, I love the roads….

I really love the roads, but I’ll bet you already have the wrong idea. Truly, I love the autobahns, as you’re probably thinking. They are incredibly well engineered, are wide, and are multi-laned, and there are long stretches which have no speed limits whatever. I drove fast on occasions during this trip, but I probably did no more than 110mph (about 180kph). Some of you who haven’t been to Germany may think that is fast, but when I lived in Germany and drove Porsches and BMWs, I routinely drove 125-140mph on a daily basis. Hey, roads are made to get you places quickly. Cars are designed to do the same.

But I like all the roads. The autobahns are the “A” roads, but they have great “B” roads, which are the federal roads, like Highway 66, and they have “C” roads, which are the state roads. At this level, the roads are getting narrower and more curving and twisty. But then there’s the local county roads. I’ve come to love them almost as much, or maybe a little more than the autobahns. I have been known to go out of my way to take an indirect route from one town to the next, just to be able to drive these little county roads.

The roads I’m talking about are but one broad lane wide, with absolutely no shoulders, and not even a center line. They are never straight. The edges of the road are carefully painted with white stripes to let you know, with certainty, where the edge is. When you meet oncoming traffic, you’d best be on the white line or your mirrors may kiss each other. Trucks don’t drive these roads, so narrow are they. These roads are routinely very winding and follow the topography, not cutting straight through hills and slopes as more modern roads do. They follow paths laid out centuries ago by animals, knights and stage coaches. They tend to be lined by heavy growth of bushes and trees, and the trees frequently meet overhead so that you have the impression of driving through a brushy green tunnel. There are leaves on the road that fly up behind you. On the uphill sides of these meandering roads the bank of the hills are usually reinforced with old red sandstone blocks, which are green with the moss that grows down their sides. The foliage opens up as you approach each ancient village, as the towns on these roads tend to be old indeed. And as you leave one town, you can usually see the red tiled roofs of the next village just a few kilometers further down the road. Entering again the green tunnel, you never can see too far ahead. The twists of the road are such that as you round one curve in the road, you are approaching another curve with more surprises in store. Wonderful.

So we got to Germany safely, but very tired. That was to be expected, even flying in those wonderful business class seats. Everyone suffers from jet lag when you fly to Europe. We checked into a 500 year-old hotel in Miltenberg, a place we’ve stayed many times, and spent a few days there to rest up and get used to the time change. I’ll probably describe the trip itself in some sort of DGA Travelogue for anyone interested, so I’ll not go into too much detail here.

On the third day of our trip we checked out and headed to Heidelberg. It also is a favorite town, and is a place I lived with my family in the 1950s when I was a naughty little boy. But now, our friends the Bakers live there. We’ve known each other for a couple of decades, since our days in El Paso in the ‘80s. Brian is a doc at the American hospital there, and our plan was for him to order a blood test for me, to make sure that my white count wasn’t falling any further. I had promised my doc here in town that I would do that before he let me go on the trip. (What we would have done if I was actually getting critically ill during the trip is a matter of conjecture)

But, we were able to get me entered into the local computer system which enabled Brian to order the complete blood count. It was still “critically low” but no worse that when we left Denver. Since I was still feeling well, we continued the trip and I didn’t feel the need to bother my doc back here in Denver with the news.

Staying with the Bakers is always a wonderful experience that I wish all of you could experience. Hey, maybe I could invite ALL of you over to their house for dinner some night! They are wonderful hosts and feed you very, very well. I’ll tell you more about that in the travelogue to follow sometime soon. We were able to catch up on current events and spend a little time in downtown Heidelberg doing some Christmas shopping.

Our next stop was Dettenheim, where the granddaughter of the poor woman who had to take care of me when I was the previously mentioned naughty little boy in the 1950s, now lives. Marta Galla was my nanny. She was a jewel of a person and just a lot of fun to be around. Her daughters also helped care for my siblings and me. Marta unfortunately died of a sarcoma a few years ago, but we have been able to keep in touch with her family. Her granddaughter, Claudia (who had a baby just about eleven months ago) arranged to have the whole Galla clan over for dinner so we could see everyone again. She and husband Michael are very nice folks, and have seen more of America’s national parks than we have. Her family brought along a couple of wonderful homemade German pastries, just like Marta always had for me when I visited her; a cheesecake and a plum kuchen, with every slice of plum laid out perfectly on the pastry base.

It was just wonderful to see everyone again, but I was somewhat embarrassed at how much German I had forgotten. I haven’t spoken much German in years, and no longer can think in German. Therefore, my German was halting at best. But, they spoke some English, and we got along well.

We continued on from Dettenheim to visit an aircraft museum, a medieval copper mine, a Celtic ring fort, the oldest town in Germany, Trier, which was founded by the Romans, and then we continued up the Moselle Valley. The trip was wonderful every day, and despite the many years we lived in Germany, and despite the many times we have been back to visit, we always find new things to see and enjoy.

We got back to town on a Monday afternoon, September 27th. Our plane was diverted around some nasty looking thunderstorms that we could see off to the west as we were coming back into Denver. But we landed safely and retrieved our luggage. As we approached Highlands Ranch it started to rain. Then, when we got into Highlands Ranch, I said to Kathy, “Hey, look at the snow on the ground!” There was white stuff all over the grass and the roads as we drove closer and closer to home. But she replied, “That can’t be snow, it’s 52 degrees (about 12C).” And indeed, the car thermometer said it was too warm to be snow. Only then did we notice that the trees were shredded and there were leaves all over the streets. HAIL!! We had just missed a big hail storm. Home was just a few blocks away. There were literally drifts of hail around the house and lots of pieces of broken shingles. Great! But the house was otherwise intact with no broken windows.

We couldn’t sleep much that night since now we were jet lagging again But we had to get some sleep, because the next morning I had another blood test and bone marrow biopsy scheduled. I also had an echocardiogram set up as a follow-up to the workup my internist was doing to look for a cause for my unrelenting fatigue. Getting up for the tests wasn’t a problem, because when you’ve just returned from Europe, your body not too gently awakens you at about 2AM. And you cannot will yourself back to sleep.

We got up in plenty of time and got through the tests without incident. The bone marrow biopsy hurt again, as usual, but they really aren’t intolerable. I don’t fear them anymore. Kathy and I even had Mexican food at El Tejado between the two tests. I was anxious to see what my blood tests and biopsy results showed so the next day I went to work and got into the computer to see what I could find out. The only result that was back was my blood test, which was completely normal. My white count, which had been “critically low” for weeks, was now completely normal!

“Now ain’t that the sh*ts!” as my step-dad might say. With this result, we didn’t even need to have done the bone marrow biopsy at all! After having been “critically low for weeks, suddenly my white cell count was back to normal. Who can explain these things?

A couple of days later I checked the computer again to see if the biopsy was back. It was, and it too, was completely normal. I’m back to where I was in December 2002 with normal bone marrow that has no detectable traces of leukemia, even with very sensitive tests! I’m not as ecstatic about these results as I was last time, however. Then I thought it was some kind of miracle, that maybe I had been, against all odds, cured. Now I know better, and I know that it is likely to come back again, but we just don’t know when. I have to be very grateful, however, that the treatments work so well, and that my particular strain of the disease seems to be very sensitive to the drugs we’re using. The fact that so many of my friends are praying for me has to be having a great effect on all this as well.

But just like those wonderful German county roads, around every curve is another curve and more unexpected surprises. After looking at the bone marrow results, I looked to see if my echocardiogram had been read. It had. The results said, in brief: “…moderate to severe mitral regurgitation with an atrial septal aneurysm with a patent foramen ovale or atrial septal defect, and mild tricuspid regurgitation…needs further evaluation depending upon whether or not he’s a surgical candidate.” And there was more, about mild myxomatous degeneration, leaky aortic valve, and stuff like that. For you non-medical types who might be reading this, it says my heart valves are leaking badly and I might need heart surgery.

Man, I didn’t see that coming. I’ve been feeling tired for months now, but blamed it on the leukemia, the chemotherapy, the depression, or a combination of these things. I’ve had a little mitral valve prolapse (the strongest of the heart valves, on the left side of then heart where the pumping of blood to the body takes place) for years, even with a little regurgitation (blood leaking past the valve when the heart pumps) for a while, but it never has been a problem. But I guess I should have expected it. My mom had the same problem and ended up having her valve replaced when she was about 77 years old. Unfortunately, they waited until she was in heart failure before they did the surgery and she had a very difficult time; she almost didn’t survive the surgery. If I need to have the surgery, I suppose I’d rather get it done sooner rather than later. I need to plan any surgery, and recovery too, around my other main attraction, the leukemia, as I have to be in a prolonged remission to be able to have the surgery. Also, if I’m going to retire in the next year or so, I’d like to get the surgery done before I leave this place rather than going someplace new and looking for a doc to open my heart!

This is ironic. My dad had multiple diseases; diabetes, gout, hypertension and leukemia. I got his leukemia. My mom has always been pretty healthy other than needing her mitral valve replaced a few years ago. And she gave me her bad mitral valve. Actually, when I was talking to her about this she said she didn’t give me the bad mitral valve, rather I “took it.”

Last month I celebrated my birthday, while we were in the Moselle Valley, near Cochem. Kathy gave me some great cards and our German friends in Dettenheim had given me several gifts as well (it’s an interesting and curious thing to note that the word “gift” in German means “poison”). We stopped at a small shop and had tasty kuchen for a midafternoon snack and wished me a happy birthday as we finished touring a local museum. This was my third birthday to celebrate after having gotten my diagnosis of leukemia, and I’m currently doing well (if one doesn’t consider the need for heart surgery). I have to think that I might exceed that “six year average longevity” that I was quoted three years ago, three long years that seems decades ago now. My bone marrow is currently completely normal, so I’m back to square one, as it were.

So that’s all our news. I’ve written plenty for this edition. I’ll write again, perhaps in the format of the previously mentioned travelogue for those of you who might be interested. I’ll also go over some of the many comments I received about my “poodle cut” hair and reactions to my visit with the massage therapist!

Until then,


“Those who pray for an uneventful journey have missed the purpose of the trip.” --Unknown

"Life should NOT be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in an attractive and well - preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, champagne in one hand - strawberries in the other, body thoroughly used up, totally worn out and screaming, "WOO HOO - What a Ride!" --Unknown