May 25, 2012

A Carving for Cancer

During the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico I was moved to do something about the lives I saw ruined. I thought about what I could do and came to the decision that I would carve a walking stick to help these people out. I looked into the various relief agencies and organizations that were being plastered across the airwaves and wasn’t very impressed. So I carved a walking stick, then began looking for someone to help. I found a couple that owned a small shrimp wholesale business in Louisiana. They sell shrimp to restaurants directly from the boats that come in just down the dock from their establishment. I saw them one evening on the news talking about how their business had dropped off completely, the video showed the small cinder block store room, usually filled with shrimp, completely empty at what should be the height of the season. The elderly couple made a statement that struck me, “What is the toughest are the little things that we need help with right now.” I put the walking stick up for auction, sold it, and sent them the money along with a letter explaining what I was doing. I received an email from them thanking me for what I did and letting me know that the money I sent them provided them with a week’s worth of groceries.

I decided then that this was the type of charity that I wanted to pursue. Let the people of greater means deal with financing research and development, I will help the people directly affected by whatever tragedy they are dealing with, even if it’s in a small way, I know that every penny of what I give goes into the pockets of the people I want to help.

I felt moved earlier this evening to do this again…

I prepped a piece of hickory for a walking stick and began to stare at it, waiting for whatever design that was hiding inside of it to jump out at me, I was stuck. Looking for inspiration I sent a status to facebook asking the people on my friends list for any suggestions for a theme. One in particular jumped out at me with the force of a hurricane, not because of the actual suggestion, but because of who it was that posted it. In January of this year her mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, just about the same time my brother was handed the same diagnosis.

Sadly, her mother recently passed away. I was keeping track of her progress via posts on facebook and even texting her now and again to check on her and her mother. The news of her mother’s death was met with a moment of me crying out a loud, “Nooo!” I sat alone in front of my computer and wept silently for her pain and the pain her mother had to endure through the last weeks of her life, indeed the last few months.

Everyone has been touched in some way by this disease. Whether through knowing someone who has dealt with it or being one of it’s victims, we have all seen the ruin it leaves in its wake. My brother has just finished his chemotherapy and is getting ready to start radiation treatments. He is getting his medical care at the Winship Cancer Institute at Emory University in Atlanta. I’ve been taking him up there and sitting with him for the chemo, MRI’s, scans, doctor visits, port installation, marker placement, blood work…. After a while it all kind of morphs into a blur of antiseptic smells, bright lights, hand cleaning stations, bad coffee, waiting rooms, dry five dollar sandwiches, parking decks, traffic, and a lingering sadness that drains everything out of you.

Sitting in the infusion center for hours at a time as he got his chemo I heard many conversations as I stared at the timer on the equipment pumping his medication into him counting down the minutes until he could be free of that place. Parking, price of gas, time in traffic, and overpriced food from the café were generally the topics at hand. Time, of course, was the topic most often spoken of. The infusion center is packed every day with people from all walks of life. The very young and the very old sit patiently while waiting for the staff to prep the medication they need that will hopefully bring them relief from the pain and exhaustion they are living with.

I remember the first time I went in there. I thought to myself, “I’ve read about it, seen things online and on television, but this is it… this is where the rubber meets the road.” I was sitting in a gymnasium sized room filled with people in the fight of their lives. The quiet dignity they hold is simply astounding. The waiting is enough to drive you insane. Go here, go there, see this person and that… It’s all done in a professional manner, but the desensitizing of people that face it each day takes hold. It is that one small moment of  compassion that lasts a lifetime. That is what these people are craving. Last Friday we met a gentleman that works there by the name of Tim. He was assigned to my brother when he went in for his appointment to have his medication removed from his port. Tim came up and asked us if there was anything we needed, he apologized for the wait and asked my brother how he was feeling… all before he mentioned a single word about disconnecting the bag and pump so he could go home. His words and actions had an immediate affect on both of us, the anxiety was visibly cut in my brothers voice and eyes as he told him that he was the first person to apologize for the wait since he had started going there. We were some of the last people in the center and wound up talking to him for about ten minutes as we left. We both complimented his professionalism and courtesy, telling him that we would let the powers that be know about it. That was the longest day we spent there yet, ten hours total for three visits, on the next visit his doctor asked how everything was going.  The words my brother spoke to him will never leave me, “If the people working in there would just stop as they are walking by, look you in the eye, and ask you if you’re alright or if there is anything you need, that would go a long way toward lowering the stress level. We aren’t cattle, we are people.”

These people are sick all the time. Nausea never leaves them, and their medicine doesn’t help that much. I’ve listened to them toss out chemical combinations to assuage the sickness back and forth with the ease and expertise of NASA engineers discussing proper mathematical formulas to successfully land spacecraft on narrow strips of concrete. The support they show each other is the finest depiction of human strength I have ever seen. They get tired just by walking to the mailbox, when they can get out and about. The question that haunts them is, “What if this is it? What if this is the best I am going to feel for the rest of my life?” You can see it in their eyes while you’re in there.

I sum up the experience with two words, triumph and tragedy. Triumphs in successfully making it to the next step is what they are looking for. The chemo to be over, the radiation to be over, the operation to be over, all in hopes of hearing those words, “The cancer is in remission.” the cost of the treatment is staggering, both financially and emotionally. Tragedy comes with the lingering specter of finality that is always standing by to reach out and snatch one of them away at any moment. They can be told that they are too weak to continue treatment or that its spread or progressed too far at any time. This happens far too often with devastating results.

What I am going to do is this, I’m putting this walking stick for up auction. I will let it run through the weekend, until the evening of Sunday May 27th. I will start the bidding at $100 and will personally hand the money off to someone sitting in that center to help with transportation costs, parking, food for themselves while they are there, or really whatever they want to spend it on. They need that moment of true compassion more than most people.

If you are interested in placing a bid, send it to me via email at or call me at 678-423-6541.

It’s a hickory walking stick measuring forty nine inches in length. The design of three butterflies burned into it was inspired by the ceiling tiles in the doctors office that my brother goes to at Winship. Each examination room’s ceiling in his office has three tiles in it painted with a butterfly. I have never asked what they represent, but have come to find comfort in my own interpretation of the images. The first represents the life the patient had before being diagnosed, they second stands for the trials they are going through while undergoing treatment, and the third butterfly is in honor of the life they will lead once they hear those words, “You are cancer free…”

If you know someone who is currently suffering from this disease, pass a link along to this post and let people know about it.