How I found out
On Friday, July 24, 2009 I was going through my regular morning workout routine at the Downtown Orlando YMCA. Usually I go pretty hard for 30 minutes on the stationary bike while watching MSNBC news. But on this day, right around 11 a.m., I reached 25 minutes and felt totally fatigued and realized I wouldn’t be able to finish. That’s never happened before. Instead, I got off the machine, found a regular chair and sat down to catch my breath. As I mopped the back of my neck with a towel, I felt myself slumping over.
The next thing I remember is waking up and being surrounded by several EMTs wearing Rural Metro Ambulance uniforms. So I must have been passed out for at least 15 to 20 minutes. I was already on a stretcher, and I tried to sit up and unbuckle myself. “Nothing’s wrong, you guys,” I told them. “I just need to rest.” They forced me to lay back down, saying “Sir, you’ve had a seizure and need to go to the hospital.” Just then, YMCA trainer Nancy Kunkel elbowed her way through the crowd and told me the same thing. I recognized Nancy, trusted her and hearing this from her made me realize I really did need to go. So I was wheeled out and loaded into the ambulance, and next thing I knew I was looking out between my feet through the back window, watching the buildings along Orange Avenue scroll by as we headed through downtown Orlando.
The EMTs were great. They kept me reassured, and within minutes we were pulling into the emergency room at Orlando Regional Medical Center. Once inside, I was moved around on a gurney from hallway to hallway and parked along various walls until a semi-private, curtained alcove became available. Then all the poking and prodding and testing began. First was a chest X-ray. All clear. Next was a CT Scan of my head, without a contrasting agent. My head felt fine and I felt fine, so as I was being wheeled back to my little semi-private alcove just after 1 p.m. I wasn’t thinking at all about the test results. I was just thinking what a nuisance this whole thing was. “Crap. How am I going to get back to the YMCA to pick up my motorcycle and get all my clothes out of my locker? I guess I’ll just call a cab. So besides filing an insurance claim for the ambulance ride, I’m going to have to dig another $15 out of my wallet just to get back to where this mess started.”
While I was still navigating my personal landscape of the extremely trivial, here’s what the docs who were analyzing the CT Scan were writing about what they’d found inside my head: “There is hypodensity in the right temporal lobe with focal mass effect. Underlying mass malignancy suspected for which MRI brain without and with contrast is recommended…”
Crap, indeed. This grim message was delivered to me by a young resident physician who looked like she could have just walked in off the set of Grey’s Anatomy. The news definitely hit me hard, and based on my visible reaction the doctor reached for my right hand and squeezed it hard. She told me I’d need to be in the hospital for a few more days. Suddenly I wasn’t thinking about calling a cab anymore, but I was still thinking about my two dogs needing to be let out at home before they exploded, my motorcycle sitting out in an empty YMCA parking lot all night before it was stolen and all my other stuff stuck in a locker back there. I told her I would need to make a phone call. She found me a cell phone. There was no question what number I’d be dialing: It was that of my buddy Roger Roy, an ex-firefighter (good one) and ex-newspaper reporter (great one) who can take a motorcycle apart in the dark and put it back together (not to mention ride it), has a key to my house and knows my dogs. His girlfriend Mary Frances Emmons is also a member at the Y, and was able to figure out how to find my locker and retrieve all my stuff. After hearing the news from me, Roger jumped all over the case immediately. He moved with the speed, efficiency and purpose of that Mr. Wolf character, played by Harvey Keitel, who was brought in to clean up bloody and complicated messes in the movie Pulp Fiction. Within what seemed like barely an hour, Roger appeared in my ER alcove with all my stuff in a backpack to tell me he’d let out the dogs at my house and parked the Triumph back at his house (probably skipping over the part about how he’d swapped out the spark-plug wires and ignition coils and rebuilt the engine while he was at it).
So phase one of my crisis had passed. I reached into the backpack for my cellphone and started calling my brothers and sisters who are scattered from coast to coast. The rest of that afternoon is now just a blur in my memory. At 8:30 that evening, they wheeled me back into an examination room to do two, more-detailed MRI scans of my head — the first was just straight-up-no-chaser, followed by a second with an intravenously administrated contrasting agent to help things inside show up better. The scans confirmed the presence of a tumor about an inch in diameter in my right temporal lobe, with malignancy as the primary consideration.
Scary stuff. But at least the last part of the report suggested some better news, in a backhanded-compliment sort of way. It said: “Remainder of the brain is unremarkable.”
Two lessons from this highly eventful day:
1. The next time you walk out of the gym under your own power, you should maybe give thanks for more than just another “great workout.”
2. Everyone should have a buddy like Roger Roy.
NEXT UP: Surgery, Diagnosis, Prognosis