The Opry

Life provides its share of wonderful surprises. One never knows when to expect them. It was 2011 – a remarkably tough year for me. But Bridget was coming to San Diego and I was taking her to The Grand Ol’ Opry. We would be backstage and watching my good friend play piano. She would meet the person she described as her future husband – Dierks Bentley.

I had just finished moving to my new place the day before she arrived, and that day it looked like a bubble-wrap/ masking tape bomb had just exploded. We stayed up until 1 am talking that night, and after just a few hours of sleep were off the airport the next morning. We were on our way to what she later described as the best night of her life… unexpectedly one of the most life-changing one’s of mine.

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Growing up in rural Ohio there was not a lot to do, if like me you were not a hunting and fishing enthusiast. To illustrate my point…after moving to California years earlier I went back home to visit my family. One evening I thought I would look for old friends at the neighborhood bar. I was the only guy in the whole place who wasn’t wearing a hunter’s vest and hat there. Twenty-five Elmer Fudd lookalikes and me. I grew up playing basketball and football, camping and hiking. Like many of my friends I also picked up the smoking habit young. Over time I became a tobacco enthusiast and enjoyed it in its various forms. As illogical as it is, I stayed highly active and did cardio-intense workouts while remaining a smoker. A smart person would know that smoking compromises cardio. I wasn’t smart then.

Through the years and through fatherhood I stayed loyal in one form or another to my vice, which never made any sense to my youngest daughter Bridget. Although she enjoyed the smell of my cigars she didn’t like my smoking. In fact, she really disliked it. Her consistent nibbling at me gradually made me want to do something about it.

Like 1.5 to 2 million Americans each year do, I began chewing Nicorette gum in an effort to quit. Over time I did in fact move away from cigars, however not completely away from nicotine. As I weaned away the smoking I unconsciously ramped up on the gum chewing. One habit replaced the other. This went on for several years. Bridget was not impressed.

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We had arrived in Nashville on Monday for biscuits and barbecue at the famous Loveless Cafe. Tuesday night was the big night. This night’s impetus was in December, 2010 at my company’s Christmas party. My daughter proclaimed her love for Dierks Bentley to my friend, the Grammy-Award recognized country music playing Randall P Hart – who promptly invited us to see Dierks backstage the next time he played the Opry. Six months later Bridget and I were walking in the artist’s entrance.

Dierks unfortunately had not been able to play that night, his spot was filled by Chuck Wicks. That was unexpectedly just fine with Bridget. Chuck was a handsome man and apparently a suitable future-hubby substitute.

The night was magical. Musician after musician performing and she along with me sitting behind them in wooden benches looking out over the artists and the crowd. I saw her get misty eyed a few times, which had a synergistic misting effect on me. The capping of the night for me was when my new friend Robbie walked Little Jimmy Dickens offstage and right to us after Jimmy’s performance. Jimmy shook her hand – it was very special, the ultimate for a father. That night I also took a picture of her with her arm around her new future husband Chuck. That was obviously the capping of the night for her.

I had met Robbie there on a previous trip to Nashville, one that saw Vince Gill perform with Patty Loveless (foreshadowing of the biscuits perhaps). I was popping in my special gum while talking with him when he told me how he had successfully broken his multi-decade nicotine addiction using Chantix. While my daughter hugged Jimmy I remembered Robbie’s story, and took some significance from the fact that he and my anti-smoking daughter were sharing a space next to one another on the Opry stage. It was clearly a sign. I decided that night that I would take his recommendation to heart and give Chantix a try. Thank you Robbie for unsheathing the sword that cut the Gordian knot.

When I got home I tried it. Two things happened next, I began to lose my urge to smoke and chew nicorette gum… and I began to have some really vivid dreams. Think Lord of the Rings meets 300 and you are close. Moreover, I felt very weird during the day too, and I began to think odd thoughts. While Chantix has worked for Robbie and 1,000’s of others, even the manufacturer states that it is not for everyone. It wasn’t for me. My doctor asked me to call him before stopping it, I did. He prescribed an alternative stop smoking product – Bupropion.

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Thinking back, I had experienced similar vivid dreams once before, only these were far more sinister. Think Cheshire Cat meets Freddy Krueger. I was in the hospital having my first of two blood transfusions. When the cat with the wide grin and knives for paws came at me in my sleep I also asked for a change in medication. Five days before we did not yet know if our baby was to be a Bridget or a Brandon. This was the day of the sonogram. She was healthy, had all fingers and toes, and was to be our third daughter. This day I was given a great gift. Looking back, it may not have been the best of days to be using a table saw.

It seemed to happen in slow motion. I remember the sounds and colors of the accident, but not the moment itself. I have a flash of running out to my front yard and falling to my knees holding my hand. I have a vague recollection of an ambulance and my first taste of morphine. I distinctly remember asking the pilot of my life-flight helicopter to please land at the nearest 7-11 store so that I may buy some Planter’s Peanuts, preferably the honey roasted variety. Morphine really works.

Another flash being wheeled into surgery, then the dreams began. I became coherent five days later. The surgery lasted eighteen hours, the impact eighteen years.

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On the day I left the hospital I was prescribed pain medication. Eighteen years later, and months after my fateful Nashville trip, I sat at my mom and dad’s breakfast table. The morning debate was over Americans and exercise. I was joined by my brother Richard, my sister-in-law Charlene and my cousin Maria (affectionately known as ‘Mudhead’)

Rich and Char are both Neurologists specializing in Stroke prevention and rehabilitation.  Their program, introduced recently in several countries around the world, focusses on exercise-based interventions – specifically treadmill exercise (http://www.umm.edu/neurosciences/stroke.htm). Considering that 8.3% of all Americans have diabetes (with another 3% undiagnosed and approximately 79 million considered pre-diabetic), and diabetes is a strong precursor to stroke, Rich and Char also focus on diabetes prevention. It was Mudhead who reasoned it out. If both stroke and diabetes were both on a significant rise in America, why weren’t more Americans attentive to the two easiest self-managed preventive measures, diet and exercise? “It is because our society wants to go see the doctor and get a prescription for the great big exercise pill” stated Mudhead.

Nearly half of all Americans take at least one prescription medication. I was on five.

I would leave the next morning for home. There I would unpack, then re-pack. I would fly to Rio De Janeiro two days later. While home I bought two 210-piece packs of Nicorette for my trip. I was still chewing nicorette gum.

Muito Mais Chuva

It was raining hard the day that my most important Second Starter moment occurred . We had visited Corcovado hours earlier, and now were on descending Pao de Azucar. I  found myself reflecting on what Mudhead said on the ride back down. Did I really need all the pills for pain, or was I looking for the pain medicine equivalent of ‘the great big exercise pill’? I thought about the recent success of one of my dearest of friends in weaning off her medications, and before I touched the ground at the base of Pao de Azucar  I unknowingly cut Gordian Knot that had become my life. I decided that I would try life without pain medications.

Eighteen years before I severed the index and middle fingers of my left hand. The doctors were able to combine parts of each of them into one big Franken-finger. Two blood transfusions, 1,000 plus stitches, two metal pins. Franken-finger.

Though my injury is truly minor compared to W. Mitchell’s and to others I have seen, it was significant enough to hurt like hell. The severity of pain, like some many things in life,  is personal and situational. Minor cuts and bruises hurt, but the traumatic amputation raised the bar on my manageable pain threshold. I hadn’t suffered Mitchell-like injuries, but the ones I had endured were the most painful I had experienced.

I left the hospital eight days after my arrival with an appointment to see an occupation therapist in three weeks and a prescription for Darvocet to be filled immediately.

Since that day and over the years, pain medication became a perceived necessity in my everyday life. Every morning for eighteen years I doled out three Darvocet and six nerve block pills that comprised my daily med regimen. If I was to be traveling I had to ensure that I had ample stock to last the entire trip, or squeeze in a doctor’s visit if I didn’t. I traveled a lot, so this was a scheduling nightmare sometimes. It had to be done – I needed my meds.

In eighteen years I had never imagined a day without pain medication. Phil version 2.0, Phil ‘post-Second Start’ would be pain med free.

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