Monday, February 25, 2008

Honored Heroes and Small Worlds

Dave’s Great Adventure, Book 3
Chapter 1, Verse 5
February 25, 2008
Honored Heroes and Small Worlds

You know, we had really never thought about going to Kauai. I didn’t even really know where it was. Yeah, it was out in Hawaii somewhere, but with all those islands, who could keep track of them? I didn’t even know how to say it. It wasn’t until we were landing at the airport in Kauai that I found it had three syllables. I thought it was pronounced sort of like “cow-WHY” but as we landed, the flight crew welcomed us to “kuh-WHY-ee.” Just like “Hawaii,” but with a “K” instead of the “H.” And a “U” instead of the “W.” Okay, and only one “I” on the end. Other than that, just like “Hawaii.”

So just what were we doing in Kauai.

I went to college at the University of Texas at El Paso. When I started classes out there in 1966 it was called Texas Western College. That year, the basketball team won the national championship when our coach played five black players against Adolph Rupp’s white guys from Kentucky and beat them. Hollywood likes these kinds of stories and made a highly fictionalized version of the story into the movie “Glory Road” a couple of years ago. Good story, but not a lot of truth in it, just like in most movies that are “based on a true story.” Texas Western College/UTEP is still the only school from Texas ever to win the national championship in basketball.

Out in El Paso I met Kathleen Doyle. She was kinda quiet and shy, like me. We hit it off pretty well after I finally got up my courage to ask her out on a date…to a basketball game. I had thought for months that she was dating a guy named “Johnny” but when I found out that she wasn’t I gathered up all the courage I could find and nervously called her one evening: “Hi, this is Dave. Would you like to go to the basketball game on Saturday? You would? Great! Bye!” Later I was able to talk to her at greater length. And as it developed, things did indeed go pretty well.

Kathy and I were married a few years later and our marriage produced three kids. We also spent a lot of time in El Paso after we graduated from college, as I trained in and worked at the Army hospital there after medical school. Our kids loved El Paso too, and ultimately all three would also go to UTEP for varying lengths of time. So now we had five UTEP alums in the family. And then two of them married UTEP alums too, so we’re kinda inbred.

We’re members of the UTEP alumni association, have been for years. When we moved from Colorado to Texas, we joined the Dallas Chapter. We had to. Our daughter was vice-president and chief “cheerleader” and organizer for the group, keeping lots of the activities going. The other family members were in the group too, and we’d often get together to watch basketball or football games, at local venues when UTEP was playing in town, or at local sports bars when they were on TV. We’d get frequent e-mail messages from the alumni group about things that were going on. One day in late 2006 we got a message from another alum named Jessica out in El Paso.

We didn’t know Jessica, but Jessica was raising money to run in a marathon in Vancouver, I believe, in memory of her mom, who had recently died of leukemia. On her web page she had pictures of her bald mom, sitting with various members of the family, shortly before her death. Her story struck a chord with me for the obvious reasons and I sent her a significant donation. A few weeks later, she e-mailed me to ask about my donation and if I had any connection with this disease, since I’d sent more than the average she’d been getting. So I told her my story about my dad having died of CLL and that I too had it too. I found out that she was a member of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and was running with a part of the LLS called the Team In Training. She asked if I was a member and I wasn’t. She suggested that I might want to become an “Honored Hero” with the group and I said I might, not really knowing what the heck that meant. Next thing I knew, she had contacted someone in Dallas and an application to join the LLS as an “Honored Hero” appeared in my electronic in-box. I filled it out and sent it in.

A week or so later I got a call from a young lady in the LLS who asked me if I wanted to join them as an Honored Hero. We talked it over and it sounded like an easy enough job, involving meeting with people who were working out with the teams and not requiring too much in the way of public speaking, which can still scare me, even at my age and after all I’ve been through.

What this was all about was being an image, a real-live person, for the folks in the Team In Training (TNT) to see and identify with. The TNT folks are a fund-raising and training arm of the LLS. The TNT recruits regular folks like you and me and helps them train for events while they raise money from sponsors, friends and family. The athletes train for running and walking marathons and half-marathons, 100 mile bike rides and triathlons. Many of those in training have a personal connection with the disease, with a parent, sibling, nephew or niece or friend who has been affected by the disease. But many are doing it for the training, the adventure or just to be with friends who are doing the training. In any case, the Honored Hero program takes folks like me who are or have been affected by leukemia or lymphoma and makes them a part of the teams. That way the folks doing the events can see who they’re helping with their fundraising efforts, so it won’t be just an anonymous organization that’s getting the money they work so hard to collect.

Kelly called me a few days later. She’s one of our Honored Hero coordinators and has a personal connection, as her son, Ethan, had leukemia when he was three years old. He’s now almost six years into his remission and considered a cure. When he was ill his dad ran a marathon with TNT and as he finished the race, he gathered up Ethan and carried him across the finish line, in a wonderful metaphor. The image gives me chills it’s so beautiful. Kelly now runs marathons with TNT and has done so for years. Kelly invited me to “Kickoff,” which was coming up in a few weeks, when they would start a new season with a new crew of folks training for their events. Kickoff was going to be held at one of the larger hotels in Dallas, and Kathy and I made plans to go.

I expected that I’d meet up with twenty or thirty folks who were gathered to talk about the upcoming season. Instead I was amazed to find many hundreds of people, perhaps a couple thousand or more, and what was a huge pep rally, with lots of cheering, noise and noisemakers, music pouring out of the speakers around the room and videos going on huge screens. Introductions eventually followed, and we heard inspirational talks, including one by another Honored Hero who had beaten her disease, a lymphoma of some kind, and was herself now going into training for an event. This went on for about an hour and then we broke up into smaller groups. Kathy and I joined our team, called the DFW (Dallas-Ft. Worth) Metro Team, and this was the group I had been expecting to see, a group of about sixty or so folks. I was introduced as one of the Honored Heroes, was given a T-shirt with the TNT logo on the front and “Honored Hero” on the back, and thus began my new job.

Now, I have felt from the beginning, a little uncomfortable about being called “Honored Hero.” One of my first tasks after joining TNT was to write up a little bio for the team. In it I told them about myself and about my struggles with leukemia but suggested that “Honored Hero” was way too much title for me, that I’d done nothing particularly heroic nor honorable to deserve that name. I did the things I needed to do in fighting my disease not because I was a hero of any kind, but rather because I really had no choice in the matter. On the other hand I kind of felt that the folks on the team, the ones that were working out and raising money on behalf of folks like me should be my honored heroes. I asked them just to call me their mascot. So I became probably one of the most elderly team mascots in sports history.

The team meets a couple of times a week to get training tips, to receive a little information about leukemia and lymphomas, and to train in their event. The typical meeting times are 7AM on Saturdays and 7PM on Wednesdays. I thought that if these guys and gals were doing this for me, the very least I could do was to get up early on Saturdays and go out on Wednesday evenings to be with them from time to time. Even if I couldn’t run the miles with them, I could be out there and walk while they ran, and get to know them. It’s my new job as mascot; I bring Kathy with me and we go out to be with the team once or twice a week, and we’ve been able to meet a bunch of great people by doing so.

Neil is our running coach. He’s a lawyer who teaches at SMU and has been with the LLS for years. He’s trained at least a couple dozen teams for TNT completely on his own time. He does it for no pay, and is dedicated to the team. And remember Martin? He’s Neil’s brother and is on our team as a mentor, one of several folks on the team who shepherd new trainees along as they prepare for their events.

Last summer Martin, Kelly and several other of our teammates went to Anchorage to run in the Midnight Sun Marathon (I think it was called) at the time of the solstice. They had a great time but Martin came back from Alaska with a bunch of mosquito bites on his ankles. Martin kept scratching them and they were getting worse and worse so he saw a doc while he was in San Antonio (Martin travels a lot) to see what needed to be done. The doc saw that Martin had an infection and prescribed some topical antibiotic and steroid ointments. But the next week at training, he was talking about the scabs on his ankles that wouldn’t get better, and they were spreading. Hmm…sounds like impetigo to me, I said. I offered to prescribe some systemic antibiotics for him to treat the problem and so off we went to the nearby Walgreens to get him a prescription for cephalexin, my favorite antibiotic for lots of things.

Problem was, it didn’t help. After taking the oral antibiotics for a few days without any improvement he went to see a real doc, a dermatologist, who apparently could tell from across the room that Martin’s problem was not impetigo or any kind of infection but poison ivy! Poison ivy?! And he prescribed the appropriate meds. I told Martin that was why God invented dermatologists—to take care of things simple gynecologists couldn’t figure out. But ever since then I’ve been known to the team as Martin’s gynecologist!

The TNT has a number of differing fund raising activities. It sponsors dinners, garage sales, sells TNT items, and then has a couple of major activities each year. One of them last year was a wine tasting at a local winery in Grapevine, Texas. I know that name sounds very pastoral to the non-locals, but please don’t get images of valleys with neat rows of grape vines up and down the slopes for the town of Grapevine. It’s a neat town, but is completely surrounded by interstate highways, and if fact the grapevines of the winery we went to grow right along a freeway. But the winery graciously sponsored our party and about four hundred folks paid $25 each to attend, helping our cause. At the wine tasting we also held a silent auction, selling several hundred items which had been donated to the LLS or solicited by our members. There were meals, plane and boat rides, small electronics, beauty items and a lot more. Among the items was a certificate donated by American Airlines for a three night stay in a luxury resort on Kauai, worth $1500, travel not included.

One thing Kathy and I really like to do is travel. It’s our greatest extravagance, so that particular item got our attention. We’d never been to Kauai. So I bid and bid again and eventually won the coupon, paying about $560 or something for it. What a deal! But then we got home with the coupon and I started looking up fares, and I found that it was going to cost us in the neighborhood of $2,000 to get there and back! Not such a deal, maybe. But you know, as I’ve been asked several times by my family, “What are you saving your money for?” Indeed. We scheduled the trip to Kauai for early February as you well know by now. And there we had the spectacularly good time that I’ve described to you already, but we also had one of those “small world” experiences too.

I’ve told you all about the Marriott Resort and beach club and the fact that nothing was included in the $500 a day rates, not even breakfast. So on our first full day on the island we went across the street to look for breakfast, trying to find a little local place we’d seen an ad for. Since the cruise ships that come to Kauai dock not too awfully far from the area of the Marriott Resort, there are a lot of places in the vicinity which cater to tourists, with travel agents, tour guides, souvenir shops, helicopter rides and lots of little, or not so little, restaurants. The place Kathy wanted to go to was in a small two-story cluster of buildings with a small courtyard in the center which housed a number of these tourist oriented activities. Kathy walked in, looking intently at all the signage along the walls and above the doors, searching for the place she’d read about. A man and a woman were sitting on a bench near the entry way and Kathy passed by them as she walked in. I looked at them…and looked at them. They were engrossed in a pamphlet as they sat outside a helicopter tour agency. Finally the woman looked up, saw me and said, “Dave Eckberg?”

Man, we hadn’t laid eyes on each other in many years, and had no idea whatever that they’d be there, but there were Sheri and Bill. Sheri was a long time friend and a nurse I had worked with in the OB clinic in Denver for several years. We had gone to the wedding of one of their daughters and just missed the wedding of the other, when I couldn’t attend because of my first course of chemotherapy in the summer of 2002. Sheri had moved up in the organization and left our clinic to go into the medical computer business of the company several years ago. She and Bill were in Kauai on vacation (February is a GREAT time to get out of Denver for warmer climes) and we were there because we’d bought the coupon at the silent auction. What an amazing coincidence! They had to hurry along to catch their ride to the helicopters but we made plans to meet up again later. “Later” was that evening when we joined them at an unbelievable restaurant at the water’s edge not too far from the Marriott, a place called the Beach House which has a completely unobstructed view of the Pacific Ocean to the west. From its location the patrons in the restaurant and lots of other folks too, can watch the sunset. Apparently there were lots of sun worshippers among the crowd, as a number of the people huddling along the very narrow beach were doing Tai Chi or yoga or something as they watched the sun god Ra drop behind the edge of the Pacific Ocean. Meanwhile Kathy and I and Bill and Sheri were able to take in nicely prepared local cuisine as we watched the onset of the evening. We were able to have a wonderful time together talking about all the usual things old friends want to catch up on; family, friends, work, and how they were doing with their jobs and how we were doing with retirement. Bill and I also tried in vain to see the almost mythical “green flash” at sunset but were thwarted by some distant clouds on the horizon.

So, you see, that's what we were doing in Kauai. If I hadn’t gone to UTEP I wouldn’t have married Kathy and wouldn’t have had those three kids who also went to UTEP. Then I wouldn’t have joined the UTEP Alumni group in Dallas and wouldn’t have gotten the message from Jessica, so I wouldn’t have joined the LLS and the TNT. And I wouldn’t have attended the silent auction at the wine tasting and wouldn’t have bought the coupon for the vacation in Kauai, and wouldn’t have met up with Sheri and Bill there. Is this a logical connection? Man, the drugs are already taking over the synapses that hold my brain together.

There was a box waiting for me when we got home from Kauai, a box from my friends at the TNT. They know how chilly those infusion rooms always seem to be, and how cool the fluids are that patients have put in their veins, and how cold all that makes us during our treatments. Thinking ahead, they made up a “blankie” for me with “Mascot Dave” embroidered on one corner and “Go Team” on the other. It’s a nice plush blanket and I used it to keep warm every day of my infusions and I’ll be using it for the rest of my treatments too. These guys are great and I’m fortunate to have them, and so many other good friends, on my side. Thanks bunches guys, and we’ll see you again soon.

I just got back from the doc’s office this afternoon. My white count is still dropping and it’s getting into worrisomely low territory already. I’ll tell you the details in the next installment so don’t let your subscription lapse!

Mascot Dave