Monday, July 21, 2008


Dave’s Great Adventure, Book Three
Chapter 5, Verse 2
July 21, 2008

When our family was very young, many years ago, we did a lot of camping in a great big blue tent.

I’m not exactly sure how we came to be campers because neither my family nor Kathy’s were campers. I did enjoy some camping during my high school years in Germany, when a couple of friends and I would go out in the forests and just lay our sleeping bags on the ground. It wasn’t really legal to camp in the forests in Germany except in designated camp grounds, but we were out where no one could see us and we did no harm. We carried along Korean War vintage army C-rations, which were great fun for teenage boys to go through, because they all included small packs of cigarettes in them, plus petrified bars of dark chocolate which were close to being inedible. We also heated canned soup on Sterno stoves and ate some of the C-ration delicacies; lima beans and ham, beans and franks, turkey loaf, canned bread and the like. Sometime we got lucky and found canned peaches, a real treat. One night we heard a beast of some sort near our little encampment, coming slowly toward us. The rustling in the brush got closer and closer, scaring the heck out of the three teenage camper boys, until the “beast” entered our campsite and turned out to be a “ferocious” hedgehog, all of about ten inches in length. Hey, it SOUNDED a lot bigger than that. Hedgehogs, or “Igels,” as they’re called in German, are supposed to be good luck. I guess our luck that it wasn’t a wild boar!

Kathy and I were married in 1969 and just under a year later I was in Vietnam, leaving her with a newborn to care for. We didn’t plan things that way, but it was for the best as having a child to care for kept her mind off what I might be doing during my year away. I did a little “camping” during my time in Vietnam and was reintroduced to army C-rations, which hadn’t changed an awful lot. However, by now the army had also introduced LRRP (Long Range Recon Patrol) rations, which were freeze dried and lighter to carry around. They were naturally called “lurps” and were highly prized as they at least seemed to taste better than the more familiar C-rations.

When I returned to the states I was assigned, by choice, to the military hospital in El Paso, Texas, then called William Beaumont Army Hospital. As a “reward” for my service in the war I was made the aide-de-camp to the commanding general, supposedly a plum job but one I really hated. I really had very little to do except go around to various functions with the general and his staff and open doors, read certificates at promotion and award ceremonies, show VIPs around, and sit at my desk. Later I got promoted out of that job and got to work around the medical clinics and the emergency room, which crystallized my interest in medicine as a career.

But, on the weekends, if the general wasn’t busy with some function, Kathy and I would get into our light blue 1965 Plymouth Valiant and head north to the mountains and into the Gila National Forest, in southern New Mexico. This was the area Billy the Kid lived in during some of his younger years, and the Indian chief Geronimo and his braves lived in the area as well. The mountains were thick with tall pines and I loved driving the winding roads through the forests. There were also ancient Indian cliff dwellings with which I was fascinated and many, many beautiful places along the Gila River, which was more of a stream really, which beckoned with numerous camp sites. I thought we ought to camp there sometime.

Coincidentally one of the more senior officers at Beaumont was selling all his camping stuff, since he was graduating to a camping trailer. I was just a lieutenant, making maybe $1000 month or something so he gave us a great deal on all of his stuff. We bought all his stuff for $50 and that started our camping career. That’s where we got that big blue tent, which was maybe eight by eighteen feet, with three rooms. It was huge! We started camping in those beautiful spots along the Gila River when our eldest son was just over two years old, back when he was afraid of the stream for fear that there were sharks in it. How did he get that idea? We started camping along the banks of the stream, which was sandy with rounded river rocks. Across the water were large pines, cottonwoods and behind the trees magnificent yellow limestone cliffs rose up a couple of hundred feet. Later we camped all over southern New Mexico, west Texas and up into the Midwest in that huge tent. We had some great times, but Kathy also has very unpleasant memories of trying to cook on our small camp stove while we were camped in the Badlands of South Dakota in that tent and the wind was blowing probably fifty miles an hour.

But our favorite place to camp, above all others, was an isolated primitive area in the Gila (“HEE-la”) National Forest, about two hundred miles north of El Paso. It was great to camp there because our special place wasn’t really even a camp ground. Therefore it didn’t attract a lot of people. It was fifteen miles of bad road off any pavement and was hidden down in a small valley which had a small, intermittently running stream. We sometimes went the whole weekend without seeing another person or car when we were there. It was so absolutely quiet and peaceful that you could hear the hummingbirds zipping around and the calls of the other birds in the area. Since it wasn’t developed and there usually weren’t other folks around, the kids couldn’t hurt anything. They could throw rocks, build dams in the creek, and use the hatchet on tree stumps and to chop up firewood. They could eat with their hands, they could play in the stream, they could get messy, pee in the woods and generally do lots of the things that kids are told they can’t do around the house or in the neighborhood.

The central part of our camping area was always the campfire. It was invariably a primitive fire within a stone fire ring, and we used it for heat, cooking and entertainment. We’d cook hot dogs on a stick or burgers on a small grill which was perched upon the rocks. We could heat up chili or stews in pans set among the coals. After we ate, the kids just loved to play around the fire, adding firewood to make it burn larger and more brightly, melting plastic spoons into long white strands or watching molten blobs of the fiery plastic bomb the firewood, melting pennies on the rocks, and burning the trash we’d generated. It was tremendous fun. As the night got longer the fire would burn down but we’d stir it up to make it blaze again, enjoying the light and heat until it once again started to burn down. We’d stir the coals repeatedly until it got close to time to go to sleep, but by then the bonfire would have been reduced to just a few glowing cinders.

In a way, my marrow has now been reduced to a few cinders as well. We’ve been “burning” my marrow with the chemotherapeutic drugs for over five months now, but whenever my white counts dropped too low, we could “stir up the fire,” if you’ll allow me to use that metaphor, with Neupogen. Generally with a course of that white cell stimulating drug my white counts would go from perhaps 1,200 up to 25,000 or so in just a few days, and they would be mostly bacteria fighting neutrophils.

When I last told you about how things were going I mentioned that my white counts had dropped to about 700, about as low as they’ve ever been. That is a critically low number. In fact, it has been entertaining, in a dark sort of way, seeing the labs folks draw my blood, run it through the Coulter Counter, or whatever device they use these days to generate blood counts, and then quickly hand deliver the results to my nurse with the word “Panic” written at the top. Critically low or high lab test results are called “panic values” as they represent potentially life threatening problems. And you see, whenever the laboratory comes up with any such result, the folks there have the responsibility to get it to the patient’s doctor or nurse immediately. Not until they do are they relieved of the responsibility, and legal liability too, for handling the results. So, they hand-carry my lab test results right to my nurse with something like “Panic, Delivered to Nurse Johnson at 9:23am” written at the top of the sheet. That gets the monkey off their backs.

So, a couple of weeks ago my white counts were (again) at those “panic” levels. But I had planned to go to Colorado for a friend’s wedding the following week. Being closed up in an aluminum tube with 85 other people during a flight to Colorado with a white count of only 700 was a recipe for infections and wasn’t a good idea at all. I was actually surprised when the clinic folks didn’t immediately put me back on the Neupogen, as low as my numbers were, so I called the next day to ask if I could get my counts rechecked in a few more days, rather than waiting the normal full week, to see if the counts were recovering or not. That’s all it took for them to reconsider and put me immediately on the medication. So I went in to the clinic, got my prescription for $9000 worth of Neupogen (manufactured by Amgen) filled, paid my co-pay of $9.00 (amazing!) and went home to begin my daily injections.

And it worked, but not nearly as well as it had been. After the usual five days of injections, my white count was up, but only to about 5,000, not the usual 25,000. The “cinders” just couldn’t generate many white cells this time. But that was high enough, and actually in the normal range, so my doc let me fly to Colorado with “precautions.” I did carry a mask in my pocket and actually would have put it on if I’d seen any germs coming my way. Really! Since my counts generally drop fairly rapidly after I finish the injections, I tried to stay away from too many folks at the wedding, but it was really hard to do with so many old friends around. We also didn’t get out to see our Denver area friends while we were in town as we’d planned because the trip fatigued me more than I expected it to. I did okay, and didn’t get sick but probably wouldn’t have even thought about making that trip if it had been in the wintertime cold and flu season.

But back to the cinders; I’ve now taken a couple more courses of Neupogen since I got back from Colorado and my white counts are looking okay. But my platelets are still low. My marrow can’t make them right now. They’ve been low, in the 60,000 to 70,000 range ever since my last round of drugs. That’s too low for even the M. D. Anderson folks. I was to have started my sixth and last (!) round of chemotherapy last week, but on Monday, and again Wednesday and then last Friday, my platelets were too low. I’m going in again tomorrow to get a blood count and if my platelets have managed to creep up to at least 75,000, we’ll start the drugs flowing. I can’t wait! I say that both with sincerity and, at the same time, with sarcasm, as I don’t look forward to it, but I want to get it done.

The day after I sent out my last little letter an article came out in our newspaper, and likely yours too, questioning the cost-benefit value of Avastin. As I said, it has become very, very popular but is very, very expensive. It is now being used on many folks who really have no hope of survival but it extends their life by a short time, sometimes a few months. How much is a few more months of life worth? Can we put a value on it? Tony Snow was almost certainly taking Avastin for his bowel cancer. He’s one of the first I heard mention using drugs to turn a malignant condition into a chronic disease, yet he died recently, as you know. It’s not a magic drug which can cure everything. In fact, as I mentioned, it really doesn’t cure anything. Genentech sold $3.5 billion worth of Avastin last year. There are probably very few of us, certainly no one I know, who could afford to pay for the stuff on our own, so the taxpayers end up with the tab. How much can we afford?

I’ve got to cut this off. I’ve been trying to get this written for a week or so now, so I’m going to put a stop to it at this point and get it sent out soon. I’ll keep you updated as to how things go. More later….


“Live everyday as if it’s your last and one day you’ll be right.”—Harry “Breaker” Morant, Australian Bushveldt Carbineers