I’M ALIVE: GEORGE MICHAEL’S “WHITE LIGHT”

It was just short of a year ago now that I was rushed to the hospital with unexplained internal bleeding, in need of five units of blood, and sick enough that when the source of the bleeding was discovered – cancer lesions throughout my digestive tract – it was unclear if I would be able to survive the first dose of chemotherapy I desperately needed.

It was all a blur, really. I knew it was serious by the grim looks on the faces of four different doctors who came to explain the situation to me. They seemed to want to make doubly sure I knew what I was getting into when I authorized them to begin treatment. It was only later, after I had pulled through, that my primary care physician told me honestly, “We weren’t sure you were going to make it.”

Looking back, it seems like years ago, not months. I spoke with a good old friend from Los Angeles this weekend, filling him in on all the details of this last year. When I got to the part about being rushed to the hospital I said,

“It was great! My first time in an ambulance and those EMT’s are so damn cute! And I didn’t really know how serious it was so I was just enjoying these guys in their uniforms rushing me to the hospital with lights blazing and the siren droning on!”

Thinking back though, it really wasn’t my first time in an ambulance. Years ago, when I was struggling with drugs and alcohol in Los Angeles, I had an accidental overdose and was taken by ambulance to a hospital near my home. Because of the intoxication, I have trouble remembering exactly what that ride was like, but it’s clear that I haven’t romanticized it as exciting or fun. I’m so glad that I’m sober now. At least that struggle is over.

Twice now I’ve been in the hospital, fighting for my life. Once because my addiction brought me to a point of foolish over-intoxication. And more recently because a cancer that began on my skin had metastasized to my digestive tract, weakening me and making everything more complicated.

Every time I think about this, the George Michael song, “White Light,” featured in this really honest and brilliant video, plays in my mind. I like George. He’s from the 80’s and my youth, and one of the first celebrities I had a crush on (back in the Wham! days). I relate to him as a fellow gay man, and as someone who has also struggled with alcohol and drugs. I respect that he’s been honest enough to talk about all these things, both in his lyrics and in interviews and public statements.

Not many people know that in the midst of his struggle, while on tour in November 2011, he had to be hospitalized in Vienna for a viral infection that turned into a deadly pneumonia. It was touch and go for several days. He was treated in the intensive care unit, spent time in a coma, and underwent a tracheostomy. Finally released on December 21st of that year, George Michael made a public statement thanking the staff of Vienna General Hospital for saving his life.

This song was released in June 2012, just months after Whitney Houston’s cocaine-related death. The lyrics allude to both Amy Winehouse and Houston’s deaths, and George’s fear that it “could have been me.” This lyrical honesty gives credence to rumors that the problems in Vienna were drug related. The video is haunting because it is so brutally raw, so honest, and I’ve been there. It catches my breath every time I see it.

Having just come home last week from the hospital after my own struggle with pneumonia, I thought I’d post this video tonight. As George sings,

“I’ve got so much more that I want to do
Was it music?
Was it science that saved me?
Or the way that you prayed for me
either way I thank you

I’m alive”

My thoughts exactly.

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ONE WEEK STAY IN THE HOSPITAL – AT PARENTS’ HOME RECUPERATING

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Stayed for one week at Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs, a hospital that started out in the mid 20th century as a resort (hence the inviting tower). Great care and food, but I was ready to check out of there. The less time in any hospital the better.

Infection in my lungs and legs (community-acquired Pneumonia and Cellulitis). Legs swelled up with fluid that ran out of room in my thighs and so creatively over-flowed into my groin, penis and testicles. The body really is amazing (and gross). Felt like an elephant for a few days. I’m headed back to normal, which in zoology terms is adequately (but averagely so) human. Healing due to antibiotics, of course. Amazing what antibiotics can still do despite increasing resistance due to the collaboration by big-PHARMA and big-FARM(Agriculture) to feed meat in the food chain daily doses of antibiotics like they were candies.

Had another chemotherapy treatment as well, because my cancer came back and we have to keep it in check.

And just in case anyone is keeping tabs, this hospital stay will be about $100,000 – just like the last one I had in April. That’s the American Health Care system for you, even after the ACA.

Should be home at my place next weekend. Need some hands-on care until then.

ANYTHING IS A BLESSING: SMALL HOMES and SMALL SETBACKS

SMALL HOMES:

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Many people think that the OCCUPY movement dried up and disappeared like dust, but OCCUPIERS have just moved into other areas of action and change.

OCCUPY MADISON is building small homes for those in need of one. Take a look at the following  local news report from NBC affiliate WMTV (Madison, Wisconsin.

VIDEO LINK OF NEWS BROADCAST:

http://www.nbc15.com/home/headlines/Group-builds-tiny-homes-for-local-homeless-218449881.html

SMALL SETBACKS:

My cancer came back. It’s still treatable. I’m meeting with a new oncologist on Thursday to discuss options.

And if that isn’t enough, I’m writing this from the Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs where I’ve been hospitalized with Pneumonia (just the regular community acquired kind, nothing fancy or antibiotic resistant). Treatable and now being treated intravenuously with Levaquin, a strong antibiotic.

I’m still just so glad to be alive and thinking and dreaming and writing. I take the greatest pleasures in the simplest of things.

As I was driving myself to the E.R. this afternoon I came up behind this old hippie-style van with the following message painted on the back:

ANYTHING IS A BLESSING

And so it is. I really brought that into my soul and heart as I drove the final few miles to the hospital. “It will be a blessing to watch the doctors and nurses do what they do best,” I told myself. “It will be a blessing to  give them an opportunity to demonstrate their skill and expertise.”

It was a blessing to be able to drive myself to seek the appropriate care for my body. And as I continue my stay here at the hospital It will be a blessing for me to interact with everyone along the way – by expressing thanks and appreciation., engaging with questions and encouragement. Smiling. Laughing. Giving a friendly nod.

It is a blessing to be reminded not only of the fragility of life, but also of the sacredness and beauty of it. And to be reminded of how precious it still is to me. Though I sometimes face limits and challenges I could never have imagined, I still am grateful every morning for another day of life. And in that sense, yes, ‘anything’ and ‘everything’ is a blessing. Even the chance meeting of my truck and the van which told me so.

44 YEARS OLD TODAY and SO FLIES THE COOP (from a guy named Michael’s place over to mine)

It’s nice to have a birthday, especially when I’ve gotten such an interesting birthday present from a complete stranger. While browsing the “FREE” section on CRAIGSLIST (something I do on a regular basis to search out finds for SCH) I came across the interesting photo below:

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A fellow named Michael had built this structure out of pallets, and he and his wife Hilda were using it to protect their vegetable garden. You see, out here in the Morongo Basin, if you’ve got a garden, all the local squirrels, jackrabbits, mice, rats, birds, etc. think it’s a nightly buffet. So you have to protect your investment. Michael built this structure with panels that went one foot down in the ground all the way around and covered all the rest of the open space with chicken wire so that no animal could get in and spoil the garden fun.

They’ve had a good run or it, but Michael and his wife are moving on,  so they were looking to give this lovely structure to anyone who was crazy enough to come over and disassemble it. To give it to someone completely free of charge.

“Hey! Over here! I’m JUST crazy enough to give it a shot! Pick me! Pick me!”

They did.

I really like that word FREE. And taking something that had been given a second chance (wooden pallets) and made into a garden structure — and then taking that garden structure and giving it a SECOND CHANCE over at my place as two new structures (more below) — well, that’s what my whole Second Chance Homestead philosophy is about. It’s about as close to birthday nirvana as you can get!

So I talked my friend John into helping me take this thing apart.

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My friend John V. stands ready to mount the demolition.

It’s a good thing I’ve still got my pickup truck. Because it allowed me to move all the pieces from Michael and Hilda’s place over to my very own plot of Second Chance Homestead land.

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 The pieces of the puzzle stacked not so neatly in the northwest corner of my backyard. (above and below)

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SO WHAT AM I GOING TO BUILD?

Two things actually.

A chicken coop. And a greenhouse for growing things in a protected environment just like Michael and Hilda did.

Of course the “greenhouse” will actually be an orange house because that’s the color they decided to paint all of this wood, and since they gave me two free gallons of leftover orange paint I think both the coop and the “greenhouse” will stay orange.

I’m finally getting my energy back and can’t wait to get busy building. Hammer and nails here I come.  I’m 44 years old and I and these blood orange walls are not going anywhere but up…UP…UP!

THE WORST PART IS OVER, OR IS IT? (this is a cancer update — but read on, the news is good…)

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So this is me, in a photograph taken yesterday by my brother as we were both celebrating our birthdays to come in Oak Glen, California. I turn 44 years old tomorrow. My brother turns 41 on the 22nd. I don’t look like a guy who has spent the past year fighting cancer, do I? 

On September 10th they biopsied several areas where I had cancer. The pathology results came back negative for cancer, meaning that I don’t have it in those places anymore. Further tests to explore me inside and out also confirmed that there is no apparent cancer present at this time. Five chemotherapy treatments and things seem to have been cleared up for now.

So in that sense, the worst part is over. But it isn’t either. Because I still have to do “follow up” chemotherapy to try and make sure the cancer doesn’t come back. I did my first “follow-up” a week ago, and I have to do two more doses, the first week of November and the first week of December. I don’t like chemotherapy, and I’ve had a real easy time of it. I’ve kept my weight on (I’m a healthy 164 now and never dropped below 158 during this whole process). I haven’t lost any hair in obvious places but did lose a small amount on my legs that no one but an obsessive me would notice. I still think that I lost some of my lower eyelid eyelashes but I never counted them so I can’t be sure. And the top ones seem to be all there. But did I mention that I don’t like chemotherapy even though I’ve had an easy time of it? It just tires me out. Really tires me out. For days that drag on into a week and then two. But then I feel good again with lots of normal “Tim” energy that I try not to spend  dreading the fact that I know I’m going to have to go down chemotherapy road again. As Charlie Brown says, “Uggghh…”

But who’s complaining. It’s kept me alive. I gotta keep going. And I’ll have energy for Thanksgiving and Christmas and maybe 2014 will be cancer AND chemotherapy free.

Thanks for the prayers, well wishes, love, support, listening, encouraging. I swear that medicine worked more than the chemicals they pump into me at the Cancer Center. But I need the chemicals too. So here’s to two more treatments, and the beautiful fact that I’m alive to celebrate another birthday. What a joy it is to be alive. What a joy it was to celebrate that fact with my family yesterday in a beautiful place where they grow apples and pumpkins and sell fresh pressed cider and candied apples and apple and pumpkin pies.

Oh. And I almost forgot. My mom and dad gave me the best birthday present. The piano that I grew up with and learned to play on. They gave it to me!  It’s being delivered to my place so that I can play it again every day as I did when I was a child and young man.  I owned another piano in Los Angeles, but sold it when I moved to the Coachella Valley in 2012. I haven’t had anything to play in almost two years. And this isn’t just any old piano. It’s MY old piano. It helped raise me.

Thanks mom and dad for the keys – to life, and the black and white ones. You’re the best and I love you much. Besides being alive, this is the best birthday present ever.

NEEDLES AND THE NINETEEN SEVENTIES: GREAT ART and “THAT SMARTS!” ALTERNATIVE HEALING

Yesterday I was in Palm Springs to receive acupuncture. I do it from time to time to restore balance in my body and help recover from chemotherapy. I haven’t experienced anything like it. There’s a pinch at the start (“That smarts!”), followed by 40 minutes of relaxation as needles tend to various energy points in my body. It leaves me feeling renewed and remade. After a session with my acupuncturist Askat, I felt revitalized enough to do some shopping. Feeling revived, I headed over to Revivals, a “thrift” store whose takings benefit the Desert Aids Project.

First the well-being. If you are in the Palm Springs area and need acupuncture, want to explore options in Chinese Herbology, or just lie down for a restorative massage, be sure and check out the Desert Wellness Clinic at http://desertwellnessclinic.com/. I cannot recommend them highly enough.

And next – Revivals. They’ve got everything under the sun, but I was interested specifically in previously owned artwork to adorn the walls of Second Chance Homestead.

I collect artwork that is graphic – mostly posters, prints and lithographs with big, bold type and rich, expressive hues. I always want “text” with my imagery. A recent gem “find” came into my collection for just $10 – a framed poster from a shop in San Francisco circa 1973. 

note: I’m not a professional photographer but I’ve tried my best. Also, my home was pretty dark and I needed to use the flash! I know…I know…

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“Goines Posters: 1968 – 1973,” by David Lance Goines. Designed for a 1973 exhibit in a San Francisco gallery. Reprint featured here (1977) by Portal Publications Ltd. for an exhibit at the Thackrey and Robertson Gallery, also in San Francisco. 20″ by 28″.

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Detail from “Goines Posters: 1968-1973,” by David Lance Goines.

Maybe Revivals had on its shelves some good pieces to go with the Goines poster. After only a few minutes perusing their stock, I found not only companions but two true “soul mates” from the same shining decade.

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“Broadway,” by Hilary Knight for the Triton Gallery, NYC.  1974. Number 3 of 150. 

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Detail of “Broadway,” by Hilary Knight.

I love discovering amazing pieces that were once loved but have fallen onto hard times and found themselves in thrift shop stock. They are like orphans that need to be adopted. And with my recycle/repurpose/renew/re-use Homestead ethos, I LOVE to give a great work a second chance to be displayed and continually admired.

 I also love the fact that I’m able to buy truly amazing and often original artwork at affordable prices, and that the money that leaves my pocket goes to an important cause.

Affordable? How much do you think I spent on “Broadway”? Just five dollars and twenty-five cents, thank you. Money well spent.

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“George Berke,” by Michael P. Smith. 20″ by 27″. 1977. Number 599 of 1000.

The second print,  “George Burke,” depicts a reveler at the 1977 Mardi Gras celebration in New Orleans. It cost me all of nine dollars.

Total three pieces: Under $25 (twenty four dollars and twenty five cents to be exact).

 Could I have come away with even one cheaply framed mass-produced unoriginal print from Ikea or Walmart or Target to hang on my wall for that small amount of cash?

Even better – I never have to fear someone walking into my place and saying, “I LOVE that print! I have the same one at home!”

 The God of Second Chances. That’s MY curator. 

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Detail of “George Berke” by Michael P. Smith

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I DON’T YET FEEL LIKE A MILLION BUCKS…BUT I’M GETTING THERE…

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It’s been a long hot summer and quite awhile since I’ve posted to the blog. I’ve been busy putting off plans for the Homestead and tending to my health. It’s the most I’ve been able to do.  In late February/early March I was diagnosed with a rare yet treatable skin cancer. By April it was spreading aggressively across my skin (back, legs, face, scalp, arms, chest – you name it) and had metastasized to my digestive tract. It still remained treatable, but it upped the game (and the price) of my cancer treatment.

To date, I’ve had five chemotherapy treatments with a drug called Doxil. It’s used to treat breast cancer, the particular skin cancer I have, and sometimes ovarian cancer. It’s effective but also expensive. The treatments I’ve been receiving have gone for about $50,000 a pop. Yes, that’s right. There is no “typo” there. In chemotherapy treatments alone I’ve “spent” $250,000 on my health in less than six months. And this doesn’t count consultations with my oncologist, CT scans and other procedures associated with my treatment. But that’s not all. I’ve had lots of doctor and ER visits, rides in ambulances, and a hospital stay. Want to know what all that can cost?  Read on…

Some backstory:

I  didn’t have any insurance when I first got signs that I was sick. To make matters worse, I’d been laid off from my job (a part-time job with no benefits) two months before, so I didn’t have any money.

It was irresponsible, but I waited almost three months to go see a doctor. I felt caught between a rock and a hard place. I had NO money and NO insurance. The thought of walking into any medical facility in the United States seeking diagnosis or treatment was altogether frightening.

Rationalization and denial became my M.O.  I told myself I was stressed, that my body would heal up on it’s own, that I was young and it couldn’t be that serious.If I kept my head in the sand long enough, maybe it would all just go away.

Here’s where Obama and Health Care Reform come in. In 2013 I was lucky enough to qualify for an early roll-out pilot of the Health Care Reform law that was taking place in select California counties. Now that I had insurance I made an appointment to see a doctor. “First available” was in February. That is when I learned I’d be facing the biggest challenge of my life.

The Cost:

I’ve had countless doctors visits, which bill at several hundred dollars each. At each visit I have extensive blood tests that also run into the hundreds of dollars. I’ve had three ambulance rides to hospitals, each of which can go for over $1,000 a pop. I was in the hospital for one week for observation after they gave me my first chemotherapy dose. Cost for care: just under $100,000.

And then there are visits to the E.R. In the past six months I’ve been to the emergency room more times than I care to admit. Add ’em all up, and they’re worth another $100,000.

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That much, you say? Let me give you just one example:

After my fourth chemotherapy treatment I was having really bad stomach pains and had to go to the E.R. twice within 24 hours. Remember, my cancer is in my digestive tract. It does all kinds of crazy things with my stomach, intestines, esophagus. Think vomiting, diarrhea, etc. And sometimes PAIN.

The first time I was there for about 7 hours and had a CT Scan. I was given DILAUDID by injection and allowed to sleep on a bed for six hours. Then I was sent home – told to come back if the pain didn’t subside. When the Dilaudid wore off the pain was the same. I drove back to the E.R. and waited there for 2 hours until they prescribed some additional medication and discharged me.

FIRST VISIT: $13,479.37

SECOND VISIT: $3,067.47

GRAND TOTAL FOR 24-HOUR EPISODE: $16,546.84

The Million Dollar Man:

So, to summarize…I’m not quite at a million dollars, but they’ve spent more than half a million in six months just to keep me alive.

Something about that just doesn’t seem right…Should it really cost this much? A bag of medicine that drips into your arm at $50,000 a pop? An Emergency Room visit that lasts less than 12 hours and costs over $13,000? Hospital stays that cost more than I will ever make in a year?

I used to think that the key to reforming our healthcare system would be the extension of health insurance so that every American is covered. I don’t believe that is enough anymore. The cost for healthcare in this country, driven up by the for-profit nature of the healthcare and pharmaceutical industries, is unsustainable. The whole system is sick. Much more sick than I am.

Feeling Like Patty Hearst:

Someone’s getting rich. Someone or some corporation is getting filthy rich.  And government’s getting stuck with the tab. I feel like I’ve been held captive by an out of control healthcare system that has used my unfortunate situation to milk the system for all it’s worth. Like I was kidnapped, kept in a closet, brainwashed and then forced to help some freaks rob a bank.

Do I really want to be a part of this? Do I have any choice?

But I’m getting better. I guess I shouldn’t complain.

Note: All the external cancer sites are now gone as a result of treatment. In a few weeks I will have procedures to determine the progress of treatment within my digestive tract. A recent test shows that the cancer has not spread elsewhere in my body. I may require additional chemotherapy treatments, but I am hoping to be in complete remission by the end of the year.

 

OFF TO A SLOW START AT THE HOMESTEAD…

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A great book by the Canadian Doctor Gabor Mate that I finished reading about six months ago. I had no idea it would foreshadow what I am facing now.

I have been trying to figure out an easy way to explain to readers of this blog and supporters of the SECOND CHANCE HOMESTEAD project why it seems that progress both in cyber and real space have cranked to a halt. I’ve only been able to make a few posts here when I intended to do three or four a week, and I have only been able to barely begin a few of the projects on site that I originally planned to have completed by now.

 What has been holding me up? Wasn’t I going to hit the ground running February First when I took up residence?

 I did, but ran into a wall in the middle of the month. I’ve been hesitating to write about this because I don’t want the subject and direction of this blog and project to take a left turn into a day by day account of…well – some very unexpected circumstances that I’ve had to sit back and make my priority.

 While I expected to be chasing around chickens, ducks, and goats by now, my body said “Wait a minute. There’s something we need to deal with first.” I have recently been diagnosed with some serious health challenges, including several sites on my body of an aggressive skin cancer that can spread rapidly without detection or treatment. Luckily it has now been detected and I am in treatment. It is starting to at least slow down – a little.  I don’t really want to go into more detail at this time except to say that I have caught it early and have assembled around me a very competent health team to walk me through this. My doctor, his Physician’s Assistant, his Registered Nurse and L.V.N. work very well together and are providing me with the support and treatment I will need to beat this. They have my complete trust, and have already helped me establish a strong footing on the path to healing. As a complement to Western treatments I am also receiving weekly treatments by a highly skilled Acupuncturist who works out of Palm Springs.

 My prognosis is good. My health should generally be restored in six to twelve months and all expectations are that I will be “cancer free” or “in remission” at that time. There are a few other things I’m facing, but they should also be fairly resolved in that time period, and nothing is life threatening.

 I didn’t realize how much of a “Second Chance” I was getting moving to this place. I thought this year would be about revisioning my life, not saving it. But if saving my life is where the universe wants me to begin, I’m more than willing to start there. I hadn’t been feeling well for awhile, but I had put off going to the doctor for because I had no insurance.

 A shout-out to OBAMA and HEALTH CARE REFORM.When I moved to SECOND CHANCE HOMESTEAD I became a resident of San Bernardino County, and was able to get full medical coverage under an “early rollout” pilot program of the new Health Care System that will go statewide in 2014. I was finally able to make an appointment with a doctor and it’s a very good thing I did. 

At the time of diagnosis my body was ready to take a real turn for the worse. It was one of those “just in time” moments. If I’d waited another couple of months I would have faced certain early death.  

 Healthcare is expensive, and so are the drugs that go with it. One of the medicines I was prescribed cost over $3,000. I wouldn’t have been able to take it if it wasn’t for OBAMACARE.

 I don’t want this project or blog to devolve into a “let’s beat cancer!” crusade. I will keep trying to move forward as best I can, and ask for your understanding and patience if this takes a little while. I will from time to time give an update of my health status.

 Prayers, well wishes, and good thoughts are welcomed and deeply appreciated at this time. I know I have a lot of love being sent my way.

 SECOND CHANCES. They come in all kinds of packages and at the most unexpected times. But this really isn’t what I meant when I moved here to start SECOND CHANCE HOMESTEAD. But how often do plans work out just the way we’ve intended them to anyway?