Thursday, March 25, 2004

Book Two, Postscript One: Alaska, and Wonderful News

Dave’s Great Adventure, Book Two
Postscript One
March 25, 2004
Juneau, And Wonderful News

Our approach to Juneau last week was awesome.

As we took off from Seattle, our pilot reported to us that it was 32 degrees (0 C) and snowing in Juneau. We hadn’t expected to hear that, as the weather reports we’d been seeing showed highs most days in the low 40s or so. So we flew, mostly over clouds, until we neared Juneau. The we dropped below the cloud cover.

As the pilot guided the plane toward Juneau’s one runway airport, we followed the Gastineau Channel into town, flying between the Coastal Range mountains on the right and the mountains of Douglas Island on the left. We were below mountain top levels. It was snowing lightly. The mountain tops were pure white with fresh snow, while below them the sides were darkened with the green-black of the Sitka spruce, which struggled up mountainsides, smaller numbers of them with advancing elevation. The large forests of spruce were raggedly divided into sections by slashes of white, frozen streams which awaited the coming spring to be released to continue their downward journeys. The white slashes led down to the valleys, each of which was which were filled with clouds. It was a beautiful reintroduction to Alaska.

The trip itself, proved to be much tougher on me than I had anticipated. I hadn’t been doing much of anything around the house during the therapy, so didn’t realize how weakened I was. Plus, I was still feeling some residual effects of the Neupogen injections I had been giving myself, which make you feel a bit like you’re coming down with the flu. So, walking through airports, standing in long security lines, sitting in hard airport and airliner seats, and hauling luggage around, even for short distances, exhausted me. Having to go through security again when we changed terminals in Seattle was particularly long and onerous. I was very glad to get to Juneau. Our rental car was delivered to the airport, after a little confusion on the part of the agency, who didn’t expect us until we called, but we got the car and we were off to the Alaska Wolfhouse Bed and Breakfast, to visit with Phil and Clovis Dennis, just a few miles away. It was nice to be “home.” We talked to Phil and Clovis a while, then checked into our room and took a prolonged nap.

Phil and Clovis treated us just royally, even though we were just renting a room from them. We consider them good friends, after having met them last July when we first stayed in their lovely B&B on our trip up the inside passage (which I heartily recommend, but NOT on a cruise liner!). We had many great conversations with them during our first stay, but I realized as we were on our way back that we'd actually only had about six or so actual hours of “face time” with them, but that was enough to get to be great friends. And we’ve been e-mailing back and forth since. And, of course, trading experiences with technology and our frustrations.

And they cared for us as they would have old friends, or perhaps relatives. The first night, when we were so extremely tired, they invited us up to have dinner with them, a tasty Italian dinner with spaghetti and meat balls. A couple of nights later they had us up for a Mexican food dinner. Clovis spent a lot of time in Helotes, Texas teaching, and knows Tex-Mex! And we even went out for dinner with them a couple of times, once on Phil’s birthday, on Saint Patty’s Day. I wore my Irish hat which my sister Diane sent to me, for that occasion. How many of you have gone out to dinner with your B&B hosts?

We didn’t do an awful lot while we were in Juneau, but that was the plan. We were there to heal and rest. We didn’t have any day trips, serious hikes, or excursions planned. Each day we would drive the two miles into Juneau, walk around a bit, check e-mail at the library, and then, routinely, went back to the Wolfhouse in the afternoon to sleep. I usually “hit the wall” about two or three in the afternoon. When not sleeping in the afternoons, I did a lot of cross-stitching. Kathy and I are still working on a baby quilt for our second granddaughter, who will be two soon. We hope to have it finished before she graduates from high school.

If you’ve never been to Juneau, you should plan a visit. It’s a wonderful and very interesting little town. It is, of course, the capital of Alaska, which is our largest state. But Juneau is only about 30,000 inhabitants in size, probably not much bigger than Muscatine, Iowa, the small town where my Mom lives. It is, additionally, completely land locked. There are no roads into or out of Juneau. One arrives in Juneau either by air or by sea. The town itself has an abundance of old, Victorian style homes perched on the mountainsides around the narrow strip of coastal flatlands. It looks a bit like a miniature San Francisco. It is surrounded by forests, sea channels, glaciers and islands. There is arctic wildlife in abundance all around town. In fact, there is a bear den in the hill above the Wolfhouse, and the sow and her cubs walk around the neighborhood with regularity. Bald eagles are seen commonly. In the nearby waterways one can see humpback whales, Orcas, sea lions, and sea otters.

And it’s simply beautiful everywhere you go. One day we took the short drive over to Douglas Island, and headed the ten miles or so to the end of the road. There, at the northern end of the island there is a stand of old growth forests. We first encountered old growth forests near Gustavus, Alaska last July, when we went to Glacier Bay. Before you enter any of the forests, or start out on any trails, there are always signs warning you of the danger of bears. You are warned to make a lot of noise and talk loudly as you walk through the forests. Also, the signs routinely instruct you, that if you come upon a bear, you should “Identify yourself to the bear as human.” I never knew what this meant. Do you say, “Excuse me Yogi, but I’m a human and you shouldn't eat me?” I still don’t know what it means.

But, regardless of our instructions and intentions, once we entered the old growth forests, we were instantly awestruck! We would walk slowly among the hundred-foot tall pines and spruce, with light filtering down from above. It felt like a holy place, almost more so than in church. We were absolutely silent as we walked. The ground was covered with a thick drapery of insulating moss which grew up the tree trunks and covered all but the largest rocks. Mosses hung from the tree branches. Small pools of brownish water collected among the tree roots and rocks. The primeval splendor was so captivating that we felt transported to another place and time. But, then we realized we weren’t talking loudly, so as to scare off bears. We would do so, and the spell would be broken.

We didn't need to worry about bears this time, however, so as we set off on the short path towards the shoreline, we were able to be lost in our silent thoughts as we walked quietly along the log and packed earth path. I took pictures, of course, but never do my pictures do justice to the beauty and magnificence of these forests.

A short walk brings you to the shore. On the way down the path we encountered a group of teens coming back up. Some were in short sleeved shirts. One girl said to us, “It gets cold down there” even though we were dressed more warmly than they were. Perhaps they could tell we were out-of-towners, tourists. It had been calm, and not unpleasant at the road, just a quarter mile from the shore.

But then we stepped out of the forest and beheld the sea. The seasons changed from spring-like to stormy. It was a beautiful day.

Now, it wasn’t a beautiful day as in, you step out into the backyard and feel 75 degree temperatures with a gentle breeze and see partly cloudy skies and say to yourself “What a beautiful day.” This was a different kind of beauty. Phil Dennis describes places like this as being “severely beautiful.“

It was overcast with low hanging gray clouds. The wind was blowing down the shoreline about thirty miles an hour, and it was about 35 degrees. The grey-green breakers, two to three feet tall, were crashing on the boulders-rocks-gravel-sand beach. With each crash of waves, sea foam was whipped down the beach. I stood on the boulders on the shore. The wind tried to push me off. To my left, as I looked down the shoreline, the forest swayed with the winds. Kathy stayed within the trees for shelter from the wind. To the right, whitecaps extended into the distance. A lone bald eagle swooped, hovered and soared above the waves about a hundred feet off shore, vainly looking for a fish. About thirty yards behind me, a bluff extended about fifty feet straight down into the water. A solitary spruce about fifteen feet tall struggled to grow out of the side of the bluff at a 45 degree angle, destined to fail and die, as there is not enough soil to support its growth much longer. The teens were right. I had on a long sleeved shirt, sweatshirt, warm jacket and my Antarctic parka all on, and I was cold. My eyes were watering and my nose was running. But it was captivating. I stayed there for about twenty minutes, just taking in the wild beauty of the place, listening to and feeling the wind, seeing and hearing the waves and looking at the eagles and gulls high overhead. Then we walked slowly back to the car.

We flew back to Denver the next day, Sunday. I had an appointment with my Doc, Jeff Matous on Tuesday. Jeff was of course very pleased with the collection numbers, but what I wanted to hear was the results of the flow cytometry, the test which would tell us if we had collected normal or abnormal cells. Jeff had nothing but great news. The flow testing showed that 99.95% of the cells were normal. Only 0.05% leukemic cells, which was great news indeed. It was better than we had expected or hoped for. That means that if/when I need a transplant with these cells, I’ll theoretically get a greater percentage of cells that are normal than those I had when we first started my treatments a couple of years ago. And there remains the possibility that in the interim the technology will advance to the point where we can treat the collected cells to eliminate those remaining leukemic cells.

I got some other news that I also thought was very good, but not about me. When I finished my stem cell collection, I still had about $3,000 worth of Neupogen left over in my refrigerator, and about $120 worth of Anzemet. I didn't need these medications, but no pharmacy will take back meds once they’ve been out of their control, no matter how much they’re worth. But I was loathe to throw so much money’s worth of medication in the trash. So I inquired at the Rocky Mountain Cancer Center to see if they might have any use for the meds, and would it be legal for them to take them. Indeed, they could. They have a program for indigent persons who have trouble paying for their insurance and/or medications. They took the meds for this program, where someone will be able to benefit from them. I’m very glad I found a good home for these medications.

One last thing before I close this postscript. I have long wanted to see some northern lights, the auroras. Last summer when we were in Alaska it was only dark for a few hours a day, and the dark hours were so late that Kathy and I were never awake when it was dark. So, on this trip to the north, we went out a couple of times to sit in the car on the coast of Douglas Island and look for auroras, which form on most nights. I’m happy to say that we did indeed see the greenish glow of the northern lights creeping along the sky on our last night in Alaska, hanging over the Mendenhall glacier. Not too spectacular by some standards, but now I’ve seen the real thing.

I’ve surely written more than enough, so I’ll close this postscript and get it on its way. I still plan to go back to work next week, starting on April Fools Day. The joke will be on my patients who will find that their doctor suddenly (to them) looks like Yul Brynner. If anything of great interest happens, I’ll release another edition of this never-ending series.

Until then....


“Why me, oh Lord, why me?” he asked.
“Why NOT you, Bub” came the answer.
(philosophy from Phil Dennis)


We said we'd walk together baby come what may
That come the twilight should we lose our way
If as we're walkin’ a hand should slip free
I'll wait for you
And should I fall behind
Wait for me

We swore we'd travel darlin' side by side
We'd help each other stay in stride
But each lover's steps fall so differently
But I'll wait for you
And if I should fall behind
Wait for me

Now everyone dreams of a love lasting and true
But you and I know what this world can do
So let's make our steps clear that the other may see
And I'll wait for you
If I should fall behind
Wait for me

Now there's a beautiful river in the valley ahead
There 'neath the oak's bough soon we will be wed
Should we lose each other in the shadow of the evening trees
I'll wait for you
And should I fall behind
Wait for me

Darlin' I'll wait for you
Should I fall behind
Wait for me
----Bruce Springsteen

(We first heard this song on a videotape while staying at the Wolfhouse. If you’ve never heard it, as we hadn’t, try to borrow a CD or cassette and listen to it. I don’t particularly like Springsteen, but this song is just lovely.)