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They say life starts at the beginning, but that the story of life begins at the end.

February 14, 2015

They say life starts at the beginning, but that the story of life begins at the end.

For those of you who might not be aware, I was stuck last week with what is most certainly the knockout punch in my nearly three-year fight with cancer. So while I still have some time left, I wanted to thank some people who’ve brought me so much joy and happiness.

Writing, for me, has always been a joy and, in the face of cancer, a release of sorts. I got it from my mother, who in her own right had a way of blending emotion and language to convey her thoughts and feelings. On the eve of my college graduation she wrote me a letter, in her own hand, on one of those Big Chief tablets, aka John Boy Walton. It was on that night that I knew the source of this joyous skill that would carry me on a 35-year journey to report the news and tell the story of agriculture.

To my mother Amelia, thank you for a mother’s love, helping me study, preparing wonderful meals and believing in me when I sometimes doubted myself. I love you mom. Everything will be fine.

While I love her dearly, as children my sister Tammy and I always seemed to be at odds. So much so that she often confused the function of a broom as a household cleaning tool with some medieval weapon of war. After much product testing, she finally settled on a lime green plastic baseball bat, shaped like a board, called the FUNGO. She would use the FUNGO to administer many a brutal counterattack. All such beatings were well deserved because it seems I spent much of my childhood tormenting her. Those battles and the make-up playtimes that followed were some of my fondest memories growing up at 2335 Richmond Street in Baker. Thank you Tammy for all you’ve done for me and all you will do for the family I leave behind.

Every family has that one member we can all count on no matter what. In the Danna family it’s my dad’s younger sister Aunt Rose. Nannie is one of the most selfless people I’ve ever met. Throughout my life she was there for me, with an encouraging word, a $20 bill or just a hug that said things will be OK. Nannie, the world is a much better place because of you.

Growing up on Richmond Street in the 1960s and ‘70s was a time of pure joy; an endless summer of Frisbees, Schwinn bikes, footballs, model building, Kool Aid and peanut butter sandwiches. Two of my closest friends on that working class strip of asphalt were Bobby Hilburn and his brother Greg. The Hilburn family opened their lives to me and their house was a second home for me nearly all of my formative years. It was a world of G.I. Joes, Dr Pepper, shooting pool and crunchy peanut butter sandwiches. Thank you Bobby and Greg for sharing your G.I. Joes and your lives with me.

One of the smartest kids I ever knew growing up was Ed Breckwoldt. The son of an engineer, Ed and I grew up together across Plank Road. Our mothers used to joke that we were friends before we were born. Ed and I spent our teen years working on crazy science projects, bird hunting, riding around in his mom’s big 1968 Impala and camping and hiking along the nearby streams. I don’t get to see Ed much these days because he lives in Norfolk. But our times together back then were some of the most memorable of my life. Thanks Ed.

Growing up in an Italian-French household taught me the true meaning of family. Never did I dream I would one day work for a company where family would be valued above all else. The Louisiana Farm Bureau is such a company and when I said my prayers a night I always thanked God for allowing me to have spent the last 30 years there. To all my fellow employees at 9516 Airline Highway I say thanks for sharing your careers, lives and families with me.

Today families come in all shapes and sizes. Such is the case with the Couvillon, Hafford, Bossier, Kimball and Hotard families of which I married into on my 53rd birthday last year. They are some of the finest, loving, caring people you’ll ever meet and I’m grateful for our time together. It saddens me we won’t get to spend more holidays and birthdays with one another.

To the mother of my children, I have few words to describe the joy Carla Verbois brought to my life. She gave me Chase and Taylor, two of the most wonderful children on earth. And while things didn’t work out for us, we never stopped loving each other or our children. I know she and her husband Pete will do their best to see that our children are happy and healthy.

To the physician who cared for me over the last three years, I want you to know you did everything you could. Dr. Gerald Miletello is a gifted oncologist who for the last 35 years has cared for cancer patients with competence and compassion. His team of physicians and nurses are some of the finest caregivers anywhere. To Gerald, Janan, Peggy Jo, Missy, Tammy, Camille, Buffy, Connie, Ruthie and Bev, thanks for all you did for me.

One of the great joys of my Saturday mornings for the last 20 years was the time I spent with the BAMMER’s Coffee Group. Made up of reporters, P.R. professionals, attorneys, editors, a veterinarian, businesswomen and a former governor, our meetings at the Books-A-Million (hence BAM, aka BAMMER’s) bookstore on Corporate Blvd in Baton Rouge was always a rich blend of debate, infused with a warm helping of love and respect we had for each other. To each of you, Jim, Julie, Bill, Darin, Bob, Lisa, Bill, Larry, Norma, Malcolm, Doc, Sloan, Cindy, Veronica, Nell, Bobby, Avery, Nancy, Buddy and all those who have gone ahead, thank you for allowing me to be a part of your lives. The coffee wasn’t always stellar but the company was always delicious.

I never dreamed I’d spend a lifetime telling the story of agriculture, but it didn’t take long for me to realize how wonderful Louisiana’s farmers and ranchers are. Up before the dawn, working late into the evening is just what they do, day in, day out. The friendships I’ve made with these farmers over the last 30 years have been a gift from God in their own right. There are so many, but to Marty, Mike, Greg, Hank, Richard, Butch, Cecil, Linda, Jim, Fred, Dane, Ryan, Kenny, Carlos, Joey, Gary and my dear friends Gene and Scott, I say thanks for allowing me to tell the world your story.

Even before I’d ever heard of the Farm Bureau there was a man from Ethel destined to change the face of Louisiana agriculture. I served Farm Bureau President Ronnie Anderson for 25 years and few will ever understand the sacrifices he made on behalf of the state’s farmers and ranchers. The long flights, the living out of a suitcase for weeks at a time, the late-night meetings, knowing he had to be up with the sun to work his cows. Ronnie, to you, your wife Vivian and your wonderful family, thank you for your sacrifice and for allowing me and Renee to be a part of your lives and family.

When I returned to LSU in the summer of 1980 and first walked the halls of the journalism school, I was blessed to foster friendships that would last a lifetime. As I’ve often told my children, everyone has friends, but few of us have true friends; those you can call in the middle of the night and they’ll be there for you. Steve Stewart, Mark Chambers, Penny Heuiser, John Hart and Keith Matulich are just such friends. They’ve been there for me every step of the way for the last 35 years and it’s meant the world to me in ways I can’t describe. I love each of you.

Last week two of my closest friends in the Farm Bureau, Wendell Miley and Carey Martin, staged a spiritual intervention on my behalf. It was the most moving thing I’ve ever experienced. They told me they were concerned for my eternal soul and what these two men did for me can never be repaid. Their prayers have guaranteed me a spot in heaven for all eternity. Carey, I have been, and forever shall be your friend. Wendell, the time Renee and I spent with you and Michelle in Hawaii was one of the happiest times of my life.

To the TWILA Team, Neil, A.J., Avery, Kristen, Taylor, Monica and Holly, I say thanks for all you did for me and for our organization. You are brilliant, wonderful story tellers, talented beyond reproach. Your stories are the most important ever told, stories of those who work the land, raise the livestock and cut the timber that feed, clothe and house the world. There is no more noble profession on earth. Thank you for continuing to tell their story to the world. Never stop filling up the map.

Few of us can say our boss is also our best friend. But for the last 30 years Jim Monroe has been that to me; my best friend and more. He’s one of the smartest men I know and I’ve been honored that he gave me every opportunity at success. Jim and I have traveled the world with the LSU AgLeadership Development Program and there’s no one I’d rather have seen the farming world with than you Jim. Our body of work from those trips are the stories I’m most proud of. Thanks to you and Connie for allowing Renee and I to share our lives with you.

To my children Chase and Taylor, I want you to know that daddy loves you more than life itself. I’m so proud of each of you and want you to know that dad will always be with you. I know you’ll do your best to take care of each other, love each other and never forget all the great times we had. You have been a gift from God and I’m going to thank Him personally when I see Him.

Even before Renee and I married I was blessed with two other children, Dillon Couvillon and Nick LaCour. They’re both products of their mother’s character, love and grace. No two finer young men will you find anywhere. Thank you both for allowing me to share in your mother’s life and thanks for all the great times we had.

Finally, to my wonderful wife Renee; sweetheart, you cared for me in ways many can’t comprehend. You did it with an unwavering commitment to the man you loved and all I can say is thank you and God bless you. It saddens me to have to leave you now, but I know your faith will carry and comfort you all the rest of your days. I love you.

While I’ve spent my life writing on deadline, this story is without doubt the most urgent. I know my time here is short, but my reward will be an eternity. So I won’t say farewell, but rather good-bye for now. It won’t be long before I’ll see you all again on the other side.









Misery and Monsters Among Us

July 7, 2014

Cancer patients have an inside track when it comes to issues of mortality.

Most of us with serious diseases have some idea, a window if you will, about when our time might be up.  It’s a gap that for most of us seems very finite; five years, 10 years, 15 years, but definitely at some distinct point in the future.

If you knew you had a 75 percent chance of being involved in a serious car accident on your way to work this morning, and there was nothing you could do about it, wouldn’t you be extra careful?  Wouldn’t you hug your children and spouse just a little longer knowing something bad was likely to happen to you in the next hour?  You’d tell them how much you loved them with as much emotion as you could muster as you fearfully walked out the door.

But because most of us don’t have a true sense of our mortality, we never give these things a second thought.  Just another drive to the office, just another day at the office and just another drive home in the afternoon.  Freak accidents and acts of violence notwithstanding, we’re certain we’ll live long enough to return home safe and sound as we’ve done for years, decades even.

My dad used to say that if you lived long enough you’d see it all; things you never imagined.  I had an old journalism professor who took that one step further.  He said, “There’s nothing new under the sun.”

“Short of aliens landing at the White House, nothing in history has happened that won’t continue to happen,” Jim Featherston, the Pulitzer Prize winning reporter told me in 1982.  “Man’s inhumanity to man will never, ever stop.  It’s what keeps reporters in business.”

Both Nick Danna and Jim Featherston were right on the money in their own distinct ways and two events in the last seven days made me realize that when it comes to our own mortality, you just never know.

The last week of April, just eight days before my diagnosis, I taped a segment at Honey Brake Lodge in Catahoula Parish with a videographer named Richard Stafford.  We were working on a pilot segment for Cabela’s called “TWILA Outdoors,” and were fishing near the lodge on Larto Lake.

Richard, who the Honey Brake staff affectionately referred to as “Mississippi,” was a great shooter.  He even fell out of the boat getting a shot.  Fortunately, he saved the video camera by throwing it into the boat just as he went overboard.

“But I got the shot,” he exclaimed as he surfaced.  “Is the camera alright?”  Typical shooter; more concerned about the shot and the equipment than himself.  That’s the mark of a real pro.

Later in the afternoon at his studio he provided me the video he’d shot, as well as some amazing aerial footage he’d taken with GoPro cameras attached to the wings of an ultralight aircraft he flew at the lodge.  The video featured him flying his small aircraft among flocks of Canadian geese and every species of ducks that frequent the Honey Brake flyway.  It was literally National Geographic-quality stuff.

As the video was downloading I asked Richard how he learned to fly, as well as how often he took the little plane up.

“I fly a couple of times a week,” he said.  “During hunting season I fly more to get shots for our television program.  I just kind of learned to fly it myself.  It’s not really that hard once you get the hang of it.”

Because the ultralight flies below 4,000 feet no flight plan is needed, nor is a traditional pilot’s license.  Richard seemed to be a master of the little aircraft as his video attested.  That was, until 8:30 p.m. Monday, June 30.

At some point that evening while flying near his home he lost control of the aircraft, crashed into some trees and was killed instantly.  He was 56 and left behind a family.  Even though I’d only known Richard two days it was evident he was good at what he did, enjoyed the outdoors and enjoyed helping fellow TV production folks like me.  I wished I’d known him longer.

And then there are the monsters among us.  The monsters who without warning target us and take us without hesitation or remorse.

By now we’ve all read the accounts of the 12-year-old girl found dead in a cane field in St. James Parish near Vacherie.  Authorities have reason to believe Talaija Dorsey was abducted from her home and murdered.  Her mother’s boyfriend is currently in custody.  Whether police have the right man is irrelevant.  Someone decided to abduct an innocent child and kill her.  That person is a monster worse than any cancer, more lethal than any illness because of their deliberate disregard for all human life.  At least cancer sometimes gives you a fighting chance.  Child killers, true monsters, do not.  Given the choice I’ll take cancer any day of the week.

Since May 12 I’ve been seeing the world in a very different light.  As a reporter I’ve always known about and covered the tragedies of life.  But now the tragedies of the world are more meaningful to me, more saddening, not for me personally mind you, but for the victims of those tragedies.  I’ve lived a good life, never known real tragedy and hopefully won’t ever have to experience what the Stafford and Dorsey families are going through.  My prayers go out to both their families.

But as my dad and Jim Featherston always said, “You just never know.”  Anything can happen at anytime.  Reporters will never want for a story about man’s inhumanity to man.

So of late I’ve been living my life by a simple motto.  You can’t get more time in your life, but you can get more life in your time.  I pledge to spend both much more wisely.

Cancer’s Crooked Casino

July 2, 2014

The reason most casinos can keep their doors open is because the majority of people who walk through their doors walk out losers.

Casinos devote tremendous resources to ensuring their odds, their percentages based on every manner of data they collect from players.  The advent of so-called “players’ cards” most gamblers carry provides casinos with a steady stream of the information; information they need to constantly stay ahead of the numbers’ curve.  And most gamblers provide this information willingly.  It’s amazing what a free king crab dinner will get you.

Casinos are all about numbers.  Everywhere you look you consciously and unconsciously see numbers; on the roulette wheel, at the craps tables, the cards at the blackjack and poker tables and on the casino’s bread and butter, the slot machines.

But no matter who walks through their doors, be it the professional gambler or the occasional Friday night slots player, the best odds you’ll get in any casino is 50-50.  Cancer is a lot like a casino.  The odds are the most important factor.  For many, they’re the only factor.

The first question a cancer patients asks is, “God, why me?”  The second question is usually to his doctor, “What are my chances?”  We all want to know the odds.

There was a time when cancer was like a crooked casino.  With its weighted dice, unbalanced roulette wheel and marked decks, the odds were always in its favor.  Cancer never lost.  It stacked the odds against medical science.  Statistically most didn’t stand a chance.  Like those lured into the crooked casino, only the very, very lucky walked out winners.

To a certain degree, depending on the type of cancer, that’s still true today.  Among cancer’s three “Big L’s,” lung, liver and leukemia, the latter, if you believe the Internet, has the lowest percentages of long-term survival.

Studies by the Mayo Clinic and estimate there are less than 16,000 diagnosed cases of AML leukemia a year.  Of those 16,000 cases about 8,000 will be patients 65 and older, while 2,000 will be children, teens and young adults under the age of 21.

And right in the middle, at just 6,000 cases, are patients primarily in their mid-50s.  That’s 6,000 cases in a U.S. population of 315 million.  What are the odds?  Seems like I’d have a better chance of hitting the lottery than contracting leukemia, but here I sit, in the chemo room, one of only 6,000 in my age group who have AML.

Survival percentages for most cancers can be found across the Internet on hundreds of reputable sites.  Surprisingly, there’s a lot of consistency to the statistics.  And while those survival numbers take into account every type of patient, ethnic group, young, old, sick, healthy, smokers and the obese, white males in their mid-50s with AML have the lowest five-year survival rate.  Only 25 percent will make it past five years.

Which brings me back to slot machines, the casinos’ bread and butter.

Despite the fact they have the lowest odds of all, about one in four, slot machines are by far the most played games in casinos.  Again, it’s about the numbers and American’s apparent inability to understand mathematics.  Most players can’t count cards, don’t understand the nuances of poker and don’t want to risk $5 a hand at the blackjack table.  In their minds, $5 represents 20 pulls on the quarter slots and that’s got to be better than just a single play against a dealer where the odds increase to 50-50.

Players will sit at slot machines, many knowing they only have a one in four chance of winning.  It takes little effort and no thought to hit the spin button.  You don’t even have to understand where the numbers or symbols have to fall for you to hit.  As my sister Tammy, who often finds herself in front of the penny slots, told me, “Don’t worry about that.  The machine will tell you if you’ve won or not.”

Maybe it’s the ease of use in most players’ minds that makes up for their willing acceptance of the lower odds at the slots.  Regardless, about 75 percent of slots players leave losers.  Casinos know it and there’s nothing players can do about it.  And when I do find myself in a casino I only play the slots even though I know the odds as well.

The same can be said for my cancer.  Even though I know the odds for long-term survival are one in four, I have no choice but to play the “cancer slots.”  I’ve never played blackjack, or any other game in a casino, but nothing forces me into the Hollywood or L’auberge to face my one-in-four prospects.  Cancer compels me through the door of its disease-filled, often crooked casino and right to a seat in front of “Safari” or “Wheel of Fortune.”  It does it everyday.  It never forgets to remind me that 75 percent of people with AML won’t last five years.

But then again, as my sister Tammy told me, “Someone makes up that 25 percent survival category.  That’s a real statistic too.”  And my sister plays a lot of  slots and she wins a lot of money.  On one of her recent visits to L’auberge she walked out with $1,500.00 on the penny slots.  That’s a lot of king crab, sis.

Tammy, Renee and I find ourselves talking a lot about the odds these days.  They constantly remind me that I’m in remission and got there inside of 40 days of diagnosis.  Sometimes, as strange as it sounds, that’s not as comforting a fact as it should be.  I don’t know why.  I ask myself, “Would you rather be in remission or not?”  The answer is stupidly obvious.

Upon further reflection, 25 percent were the exact survival odds I had as I sat here two years ago draining a bag of chemo.  Stage 3 esophageal cancer takes 75 percent of its victims in the first 12 months, so maybe in my cancer casino, 25 percent isn’t as bad as it sounds.  It’s time to spin the wheel.  Mr. 25 percent is ready to play.

Now, where did I put my “Players’ Club” card?




Remission: A Dewey Defeats Truman Moment

June 6, 2014

It’s the photo every newspaper photographer dreams about, a moment in time that will be his legacy.

That’s what Eugene Smith had when he shot the famous photo of Harry Truman holding up a copy of the Chicago Tribune declaring his opponent, Thomas Dewey, victor in the 1948 presidential election.

The Tribune, in an effort to get the story out first, hadn’t waited for all the results to be tallied, particularly California, generally seen as a lock for Republicans.  As a result, gaffe would haunt the newspaper for years.

That’s kind of what happened yesterday when I got word my bone marrow scan was empty.  Four nurses came into the room with Renee on speakerphone to give me the news.  I was pretty wiped out, but distinctly remember one of the nurses using the word remission.

Not so.  Upon my visit with Dr. Miletello yesterday he cleared up any and all confusion.  First, there will not be another bone marrow extraction.  Between now and June 20 blood tests will determine whether the marrow, once re-kick-started, is producing either healthy cells, or goes right back to producing cancerous, immature blast cells.  If it’s the latter, the chemo process starts all over again.

It’s not what I’d plan to write about tonight, but so many of you have called, texted and emailed me your best wishes, I felt the need to clear things up.  The get-well cards delivered to the room really make my day.  Thanks to AgLeadership Class 8 for the candy and other goodies.  I’m doing my best to sample a bit of everything that shows up at the door and that’s a lot.


Walking With My Farm Bureau Family

June 2, 2014

I’ve had many conversations over the years with fellow PR professionals who say the company I’ve worked for since 1985 simply doesn’t work on paper.

They’ve been fellow LSU journalism school graduates, people I’ve met through professional associations, as well as true PR hacks I’ve come across at conferences.

The conversation usually begins with them wanting to know exactly what Farm Bureau does and why it needs a PR department.  That’s my cue to start bragging and I never hesitate to lay it on thick.  I use the words Farm Bureau family a lot.

By the end of the night they’re scratching their heads, often in disbelief that a company can treat people the way the Farm Bureau does and still stay in business.

I’ve heard lots of the following:  “You give raises every year?  In this economy?  Are you crazy?  How about we just let you keep your job.”  “A company Christmas party?  That’s gotta cost 10 grand.”  “Sick days with pay? A company-provided health saving account?  Let’em be responsible for their own health.”  “Matching 401k, competitive salaries?  You pay your women what you pay your men?”  Seriously.

Which brings me to the pink flamingo.

One of the dearest members of my Farm Bureau family, Raquel Landry, sent me a CARE package Monday.  Inside were all my favorites; Snickers, Hershey bits, the works.  But also included was an inflatable pink flamingo and enough flamingo accessories to throw a beach party catered by the B-52s.  It was awesome.

My daughter Taylor was here and eagerly dove into the box of goodies.  In a few minutes my hospital room and its décor were transformed.  Large flamingo vinyl door panel, flamingo wall stickers, flamingo stirrers (oh for a Beefeaters and tonic right now), cups and even a flamingo lantern.  That lantern will come in handy I assure you, as I make my way to the you-know-where at odd hours.

The flamingo thing is kind of an inside joke among Federation staffers and our young farmers.  Quel and I go back a long way, with a photographic record of some events that are better left in the recesses of the darkest photo albums.  (Think Jell-O shots in Florida and ripping off that Wendy’s to get the ketchup cups we needed to make them.)

No sooner had the box of flamingo gear arrived than the door opened again.  This time it was cards from Cyndi Guercio, her boyfriend Trey and Kathy Labatut.  Inside Cyndi’s card were two photos that went back almost 20 years.  As a photographer it seems I remember only the photos I’ve taken, not the ones taken of me.

One was at Pat O’s in New Orleans, the other was the last night of LFBF convention at what used to be called the Farm Bureau dance.  Twenty years ago.  Not a care in the world looking back: new fatherhood, great job, great bosses, excellent working conditions, a company that cared about its people.

Little has changed.

Today the Louisiana Farm Bureau Federation and the Louisiana Farm Bureau Mutual Casualty Insurance Company remain committed to its employees.  The Farm Bureau workforce has never been canon fodder for corporate profits.  Never will be.  When you think about all that’s happened to our company in the last 30 years, hurricanes, market crashes, recessions, you name it, not once has the company let people go.  As a cancer patient I can preach a little religion here when I say this.  Our company is a gift from God.

Just today I got a note from Melanie Dennis informing me that blue jean day for Cancer Services of Greater Baton Rouge raised more than $1,000.  As a company with several cancer-survivor employees and family members, that kind of community support by our employees is another reason the Farm Bureau family has remained so strong.  When you invest in people, good people, the dividends are guaranteed to bring you the highest returns.  It’s a no-brainer, the balance sheet be damned.

So be it a pink flamingo, a bag of candy, a snapshot from the past, or a text from a fellow employee and dear friend from Baker who donated platelets on my behalf, my Farm Bureau family has never let me down, never let me walk alone, held my hand and put its loving arm around my shoulder.  That love gives me a comfort and a peace that reassures me even now that everything will be OK.


And Then There Were Seven…

May 29, 2014

When Betty Rene’e Hafford Couvillon LaCour became Betty Rene’e Hafford Couvillon LaCour Danna on Monday, I knew the DMV didn’t have a license big enough.

At 37-letters long, the name, while reflecting the last 48-years of her life, would be so unwieldy in the legal sense that she’d likely dry up a lowly BIC if she had to sign her name more than twice.

But over the last three days she’s simply introduced herself as Rene’e Danna; 10 letters and only five different letters.  By marrying her I’ve saved ink pens the world over.

When I first met Rene’e’s family I felt like I needed a program to keep up with all the Hotards, Haffords, LaCours, Couvillons, Kimballs and Bossiers, not to mention the spouses of granddaughters and their extended families.  The Dannas are few.  There was time back in the late 1970s when all seven Danna households listed in the Baton Rouge phone book were blood relatives.

Today our ranks stand at just six immediate family members who carry the name, something my son Chase often questions me about.  He’s getting in touch with his Italian heritage and the “family” name is very important to him.

So when I heard Rene’e introduce herself to a client Tuesday as Rene’e Danna, I couldn’t help but smile.  Somewhere the ghost of my great-great-great-great grandfather from Sicily was nodding his approval.  There were seven of us again.

Monday’s marriage to Rene’e was, in the interest of my improving health, a brief affair.  Guests included the mother and sisters of the bride, the members of the groom’s immediate family, Connie and Jim Monroe, Julie Baxter, Bill Bryan, Nick LaCour and his brother Dillon Couvillon via Facetime from New York.  Officiating was Jim Engster, my friend of nearly 30 years.

As a reporter, Jim’s a pretty good parson.  The vows he wrote for us were concise.  He didn’t bury the lead, as they say in Journalism 101.  I know some of you saw some of the photos posted on Facebook.  I’ve posted a few others here.

Thanks to everyone for your texts, calls and emails.  I’m trying to answer as many as I can, but with my white blood cell count officially below 100 I’m not the most energetic person right now.

Blood transfusions begin tomorrow and thanks to all of you who will be donating blood on my behalf.  Rene’e and I are truly grateful to have people in our lives who care about us so deeply.

With the infusion comes renewed energy hopefully.  Any rejection issues notwithstanding, the marrow should reset itself and begin producing healthy cells.  Right now my target date for release is June 20.  I know I won’t make the Farm Bureau convention but know that I’ll be there in spirit.  My Farm Bureau family means so much to me and I can’t imagine my life without all of you.

Until next time…

I Michael, take thee Renee…

May 25, 2014

It was Good Friday, April 6, 2007 and I was already questioning my decision.

Here I was at the bar of the Capital City Grill on the day of our Lord’s crucifixion, having a gin and tonic and waiting for my first date with a South Louisiana Catholic girl.  Given the thoughts running through my head about this beautiful redhead I was about to meet, I was certain I’d already committed more than a few mortal sins.

“Maybe I should have waited until next weekend,” I thought.  “Certainly she would have told you if today wasn’t a good day for her.”  That was all the convincing I needed.

I’d first seen her photo two months earlier on a pop-up menu on Yahoo! Personals.  She sat curled up in white rocking chair on her porch, a porch I would later spend hours with her on, with what I’ll always describe as a come-hither gaze.  She, however, would forever insist it was nothing more than a warm expression.

“Another, sir?” the bartender interrupted.  At that moment my phone buzzed.  A text from her:  “In restaurant.  You here?”  I quickly closed the tab and walked inside.

She was backlit as I entered the restaurant, but her red hair projected a glow that would, throughout our relationship, prompt total strangers to approach her and tell her how beautiful she is.

I shook her hand and she smiled.  I reintroduced myself beyond my web presence and sat down next to her.  Convention says a man should sit across from a woman on the first date, but I really didn’t want to be that far away from her.

Like all first dates we searched for common interests and common people.  Turns out she knew an old childhood friend of mine.  Even went out with him once.  But throughout the wine, dinner and dessert I found myself being more taken by that smile and that red hair.  I found the evening passing much too quickly.

It was wonderful spring night as we left the restaurant and I suggested a ride around town in my new Tahoe.  It had a sunroof and I quickly deployed it as I headed away from downtown.

We stopped at Sullivan’s for a nightcap.  It was there she commented on my Rolex.

“That’s a beautiful watch.”

A moment of truth.  “Thank you,” I said. “It was $15.  Downtown Shanghai.” 

Somehow I knew that truism wasn’t going to be a deal breaker.  This was not a pretentious woman.  We laughed and she never again questioned my watch fetish.

Back at her car downtown I prepared to say goodnight.  No matter how old you are there’s always uncertainty in that moment.  But she didn’t hesitate.  She leaned in and kissed me for longer than I was expecting.  She pulled away, smiled and kissed me again. 

It’s usually an hour’s drive from downtown to Wakefield, but that night, as I returned home, road seemed never-ending.  She and that kiss were lodged in my brain.

And since that April night it’s been seven wonderful years with a beautiful woman who’s shown me nothing but selfless love.  She took care of me during my first illness and I credit her with saving my life.  She now stands ready to do it again.  I know I don’t deserve her but somehow God saw past my gin and tonic that night and has kept her in my life. 

While Renee and I have traveled across the country in our seven years together, winters in Hawaii, summers in Santa Fe, Christmases in New York, nothing can compare to our trip to Paris last month.  We went to Europe to celebrate our seventh anniversary April 6.

The weather was perfect, the food magnificent and the wine beyond compare.  We climbed the Eiffel Tower, strolled the Louvre, ascended the spiral staircase of the Arc de Triumph and, with she as navigator, traversed the City of Lights on foot and by rail.

But what I’ll always remember most about that trip was our walk down the Champs-Elysees.  It was mid-afternoon and sun was shining.  A gentle breeze had most Parisians snugging up their scarves and turning up collars.  As I walked beside her, her spring scarf tied loosely around her neck, her sunglasses covering those beautiful blue eyes, her red hair reflecting the afternoon sun, I realized I was the happiest man in the world.  Right at that moment things were perfect.

For the next three days we returned to the cramped quarters of the Paris Buxelles Hotel, recapping the day’s events in each other’s arms.  We laughed, we loved, we lived. 

My travels over the last seven years have forced me to leave Renee behind quite often.  I’ve set foot in 16 countries on four continents and there have been nights when I miss her painfully.  And now, with the uncertainly of this disease, it grieves me to think I might have to leave her behind once more.

But this woman I’ll marry tomorrow, Memorial Day, May 26, 2014, my 54th birthday, will forever be part of me, my life and lives of my family.  For whatever time God choses to give me, I’ll always have my wonderful Renee and Paris in the spring.


Nursing a Culture of Caring

May 24, 2014

Despite the huge bay window before me, when 26-year-old Kacey Allain walks into room 4419 the brightness level goes up about 50 percent.

The petit brunette RN is back on the morning shift and enters with a gleaming smile. It’s early, just before 7 a.m. and Dr. Gerald Miletello has been standing by my bedside for about five minutes.

“Kacey,” he says, greeting her with a tone of endearment as he returns her smile with his.  As a cancer patient I like it when my oncologist smiles.

Accompanying Dr. Miletello this morning is RN Kory St. Pe’, a tall, strapping nurse who single females everywhere would love to make their Mr. Right.  I find out later he’s married.  Sorry ladies.

Kory’s a handsome kid with dark hair.  He stands arrow straight, sentinel-like, arms folded near my bed, as though protecting Dr. Miletello and me from harm.  I like a doctor, especially an Italian one, who travels with muscle.

But there’s much more to these two nurses than radiant smiles and cut biceps.  They are outstanding young medical professionals who have answered the call to caring.  And the Baton Rouge General knows it.

Dr. Miletello continues his consultation.  My treatments are progressing perfectly, he says.  Then, while informing me about an additional medication that’s been added to my regimen, a question arises about my body’s reaction to the chemo.

He quickly engages Kory and Kacey.  For next 30 seconds much medical speak is exchanged.  The nurses each present their interpretations.  Gerald, one of the South’s premier oncologists, is in agreement with the RNs’ assessments.  He thanks them and reassures me again that things are on track.

This is the kind of culture the Baton Rouge General and the Pennington Cancer Center has fostered over the years.  Despite both the accepted and perceived hierarchy in the healthcare world, the General and its entire medical and support staff see themselves as a team.  Everyone’s role is valued, everyone’s opinion matters.

This culture is further reinforced later in the morning when I meet “Mrs. Karen,” one of the many PCAs who attend to the daily comfort and cleanliness of patient rooms.  As a personal care assistant, she’s been with the General just three years and says she loves her job.

As she enters my room she’s quick to explain the protocols she’ll be adhering to as she cleans and restocks my room.  She sanitizes her hands as she prepares to work.  She exercises great care as she sprays down countertops, shielding any overspray with her gloved hands.  From the wastebasket she carefully removes the plastic bag, wraps it, places it aside and quickly inserts a new one.  It almost appears to happen in a single motion.

But it’s not until she reaches for her dust mop that something truly amazing and prophetic happens.  She begins sweeping the floor, humming softly while moving the mop in perfect figure-eight patterns.  But suddenly she pauses as she reaches the sofa on which Renee is sitting.

“I won’t sweep under your feet because they say if you sweep under a woman’s feet she won’t get married,” she jokes.

Renee and I look at each other and smile, working to contain our laughter.  Miss Karen doesn’t know that in three days we’ll be married.

“Sweep away!” Renee says, lifting her feet.  “We’re getting married Monday!”

Miss Karen is shocked.  “Really?!” she asks.  “Yes, right there,” Renee says, pointing the center of the room.

The two begin to talk about marriage and family.  Karen says she and her husband have been married 20 years.  “How he put up with me all those years I don’t know,” she laughs.  “But I would not trade him for the world.”

I think I know why he’s kept you all these years Karen.  And I just met you.

Until next time…

A Sweet Suite

May 21, 2014

Suite 4419 of the Pennington Cancer Center is unchanged from my last extended stay here two years ago.

While I was actually in the room next door during my recovery here in 2012, I remember the big corner suite because it had a balcony, leather recliners, full entertainment center, a large sitting area and brass fixtures.  I had to walk past it on my physical rounds each day.  “Must be reserved for big donors,” I remember thinking.

So where else would they stick the Baton Rouge General’s poster boy for cancer survival this second time around to battle his leukemia?  Room 4419.  Big-time score.  Yes, Room 4419 is definitely an upgrade, a kind of “on-the-house” comp as they say in casino-speak.  I immediately put in a request for a BBQ grill for the balcony for a Memorial Day cookout.  I want to kick off the summer right and some traditions just can’t be overlooked.

The magical 30 percent pre-leukemic cell count was reached yesterday, so it was off to the upgraded suite with me.  After a brief consultation with Dr. Miletello this morning, I got checked into the room at 11:11 a.m. (Is it just me, or do any of you see this time of day on the clock more than any other?)

The plan is to be hospitalized for at least the next 30 days.  The chemo began flowing at 3:30 p.m. today and will do so around the clock for the next four days.  First up, something called the Red Devil, although not the Red Devil chemo of 20 years ago, I’m told.  That stuff, according to 21-year breast cancer survivor Michelle Miley, just scares the cancer out of you.  There was a time when that level of chemotherapy represented the most aggressive of treatments.  Today it’s just another tool in the toolbox.

The four-day regimen will be followed by a two-week recovery, followed by another bone marrow test to check for remission.  If there is remission, I’ll follow up with four more chemo treatments, then home for R&R.

Dr. Miletello said I could have visitors on a limited basis.  However, if you even think you might have the sniffles, I’ll see you in July.  We’ll shake hands, hug and kiss then.  Also, I can’t have flowers, plants or other foliage delivered to the room.  Apparently they can carry diseases.  Chocolates however…

Thanks today to my sister Tammy who was with me when Dr. Miletello gave me the news.  She spent the afternoon at my side and her presence means so much to me.  A big shout out to John Boudreaux of Cancer Services of Greater Baton Rouge for personally delivering me an Angel Food Smoothie with a shot of yogurt.  Made all the difference my friend.

And thanks to everyone for your words of encouragement, texts, emails and calls.  Having all of you in my life is really making this easier and I sincerely appreciate it.

On a much more personal note, there will be two milestones celebrated during my 30-day stay here at Pennington.  The first will be on Memorial Day, Monday May 26.  On that day, 54 years ago, at 1:10 p.m., Amelia Soulier Danna gave birth to her first child, Michael.  He was welcomed by his father Nick, who nearly burned up a ’57 Chevy Belair getting them from Rougon to Our Lady of the Lake Hospital as his mother screamed “You have to drive faster!”  Mom, dad, son and the Chevy were doing fine.

Unlike the first, the second milestone to take place here in the hospital won’t require a fast car.  It will, however, require a minister, a ring and an “I do.”

Until next time…

Bikinis, Kisses and Camaros

May 19, 2014

It happened exactly 40 years ago this week and the only thing I remember was bikinis.  Lots of bikinis.

It was the end of the second week of May 1974 and Mark Stafford and I were high atop the tower of the Miracle Strip Amusement Park in Panama City, Florida.  The one thing I don’t remember is the photographic record of that day.  I never knew such a photo ever existed, but now, on this Monday, here it was in my inbox, a Kodachrome memory from my lifelong Baker High School classmate.

According to Mark the photo of us was snapped by Tammy Bishop, who was either the oboe player or the lead baton twirler for the majorettes who always accompanied the Baker High School band.  It was our annual end-of-the-school-year band trip to Panama City, a less than melodious affair since it was the only time we actually got on a bus without our instruments.

This band trip in 1974 was purely R&R.  It was five days of sneaking beer, cigarettes and make-out sessions, all the while listening to older boys lie about all the girls whose imaginary zippers they’d managed to lower.  Mark was in possession of a moment in time that would forever be part of my family’s photographic past and he’d sent it to me as a gesture of friendship and remembrance.

At first I was surprised.  But the more I looked at the photo, the more melancholy I became.  Mark and I were both 14 at the time, although with him towering over me I looked like I was about 7.  No matter.  It was Panama City baby, and the Miracle Strip was the place to be.  The Baker Band would make three more such trips there during our high school years and the band would continue to do so until the trial lawyers stepped in and the school could no longer afford the liability insurance.

But the summer of 1974 was one to remember.  I’d just finished my freshman year of high school.  I’d avoided getting beaten up, had made first-chair third-trumpet, was about to get my first job and was now spending five days watching girls who normally donned wool band uniforms run around on the beach in polyester bikinis.  In my pocket was $60 and on the day of that photograph my life was perfect.

But as I stared at Mark’s photograph in my inbox I couldn’t help but think that inside that small boy in the visor, running through his spaghetti-string arms and throughout his entire wraithlike being, was a monster keeping a close eye on the hands of my biological clock.  A creature nestled deep in the recesses of my bones, listening to a 1.26 billion-second countdown that could not be aborted.  A countdown that would be reached May 12, 2014 no matter what.  Yes, the photo is of Mark and me, but also present is a dark, misshapen, hideous specter, hidden, unable to be brought forth by any of Kodak’s chemicals.

My cancer was with me in that photo, I’m certain.  The genetic die already cast, so to speak.

“It was inside you even then,” I thought as I continued to look at the image on my computer.  I could see those freckles I hated so much, a broad smile before my teeth began to shift with puberty.  The visor slung low, my shirt and shorts a perfect match, sunglasses dangling coolly from my right pocket.  Eased back in the corner of the tower taking it all in.  Mark and I would soon be back on the beach watching the bikinis.  But with us, high above Panama City’s major attraction of the 1970s, was leukemia.  It paid the bikinis no mind.

And in that moment I was there on that band trip in 1974.  I remembered how simple things were.  No cares, no worries.  Friends, sun, sand, waves, amusement parks, mopeds, kisses, beer and bikinis. I was back in Panama City the day of that photo, its Miracle Mile crowded with teens, beach bums, hippie holdouts, Mustangs, Monte Carlos, Grand Funk Railroad’s “We’re An American Band” blaring from Jensen 6x9s, jacked-up Novas and bad-ass Camaros with Cragar rims and hood scoops letting the 427s breathe.  I closed my eyes.  Let me be there, right now, knowing then what I know now.

The wave of nostalgia continued.  I could hear the amusement park rides below; the screams of teenage girls as the tilt-a-whirl flung them from one side of the rotating steel slingshot to the other.  There was the smell of scorching asphalt and suntan lotion and Pabst Blue Ribbon; cigarettes, lipstick, Miss Bojangle’s  $3 perfume and Brute from a green plastic bottle; a girl, older than me but willing, I was told.

Then my phone rang.  A reporter.  He was saying something about the death of longtime ag commissioner Bob Odom and our upcoming convention.  As I listened I thought how, at 14, we really do have all the time in the world.  And we should.  That’s why God starts us at birth and counts up.

But right now, today, at 54, I find myself counting down.  That’s not a defeatist attitude by any means, it’s just the natural progression of things.  Life invariably reaches a tipping point.  All things do and no amount of bikinis, kisses or Camaros can change that.  But a photo from the past certainly slowed the process, if only for a moment.

I had my second blood test today.  The results should be known tomorrow.  I want to thank all of you who sent me texts and emails wishing me well over the weekend.  A special thanks to Nolan and Gwen Babineaux for burning a candle for me this weekend.  Thanks Mr. B.  I hope you’re well.  Thanks also to Father David of Holy Family Catholic Church and to Renee who’s standing by my side with love and words of encouragement.

And thanks to my dear Baker High classmates Mark Stafford, Rhonda Langlois, Mark Sturges and Paula McAllister Plaisance for commenting on and sharing that photo.  Mark, it might have been taken 40 years ago but its value to me today can’t be overstated.  Thank you.