So, I hear word has gotten out throughout Hobbs about my “situation.” Yeah, cancer sucks.
And it can be a bigger “downer” when it costs you your left leg – just above the knee. But life is what life is. It’s full of ups and downs. You know, challenges.
As I write this, it’s exactly two weeks since I lost my leg and now that I am clear of the morphine induced haze that followed, I feel I need to tell my story of what happened.
Usually when you have a story to tell, you start from the beginning. Makes sense right? But my story has two beginnings, so which one do I start with?
There’s the 2014 beginning and then there’s the Memorial Day 2020 weekend beginning.
OK, I’ll give you the Cliff Notes version of the 2014 beginning. If you don’t know what Cliff Notes are, you’re of THAT generation, so just Google it.
Six years ago I began feeling numbness on the sole of my left foot. I went to a podiatrist. Tests were done and it was determined that I’m pre-diabetic (I am?) and I needed to wear a compression sock on my left leg to help with the neuropathy. My left calf is a little larger than my right, which I was told was swelling normally caused by the neuropathy. I then went back to living my life.
Fast forward to the Memorial Day beginning. The Saturday before the holiday, I am sitting at my cousin Greg Lopez’s house when I feel a little twinge in my left calf. By the Tuesday after Memorial Day, I was in throbbing pain. I could barely put pressure on my leg and I walked like a zombie. Not a good look.
I called my personal care physician, Dr. Cyril Simon. As he examined me he saw my left calf was easily twice as big as my right.
“Bro, I think you got a blood clot!” Cyril is also my friend and my neighbor, and although he says “bro” to everyone, I truly feel he and I are on a “Bro” status.
Two days later I’m laying stomach down in a Nor-Lea Hospital exam room as the ultrasound tech tells me she doesn’t see any clots, but sees two dark spots.
“It’s cancer,” I thought.
So begins the process. During the month of June I felt like a lab rat. Poked here, prodded there. Scanned here, tested there. Two MRI’s later I am sitting with a Lubbock orthopedic surgeon who wants me to spend the next three weeks using a heating pad because he wants to rule out the possibility I’m suffering from a hematoma and the heat will cause the mass to melt down and my calf will absorb the blood.
Three weeks and a third MRI later, not only did the mass not melt down, but it grew. The surgeon says this is now out of his league and schedules me a meeting with a Sarcoma specialist in Plano, Texas.
By now it’s just past mid July. My buddy Raul Gonzales takes me to Plano because it is too painful for me to sit for 500 miles with a bended leg. I have to lie in the back seat with a pillow propping it up. Great times, sarcastically speaking.
I humbly and thankfully stay with my cousin Janet Townsend and her husband Dan, who live in nearby Lewisville and have taken me in as the fourth member of their household (I can’t forget about trusted four-legged buddy and squirrel chaser, Bindi Lou). Thankfully, Janet and Dan’s three sons have all grown and left the house.
Dr. Gerhard Maale is the specialist who looks at my latest MRI, my written history for the past two months, and believes I have an “aggressive Sarcoma.”
DR. MAALE IS THE KIND of doctor who will give it to you straight. One of the things he told me was, “I’ll amputate your leg to save your life.” Back then, I didn’t think that kind of “last resort” planning was going to apply to my situation.
But to be sure of his diagnosis, Dr. Maale schedules three more tests, a full-body bone exam, a chest CT and a biopsy. That means more poking and prodding.
About a week later, the biopsy officially confirmed what I have known for almost two months, I have an aggressive sarcoma in my left calf area.
I don’t know if I ever had the chance, or took the chance, to let that sit in with me. I still don’t know if I have fully accepted that I have a form of illness that cost my mom 18 months of chemo, radiation and a breast almost 10 years ago. Or, not more than 16 months ago, took my dad’s life. As I type this, I realize I haven’t and don’t know if I ever will. Maybe it’s too difficult of a box to open. For now, I’m just going to put it on the top shelf in that emotional closet that I rarely open.
OK. With my diagnosis set, now comes the “Sarcoma Protocol” as set by Dr. Maale. It calls for three days of chemotherapy, followed by ten days of radiation treatments. Then comes two weeks of rest, and more tests (the aforementioned full body exam, chest CT and MRI). More prodding and poking!
By now Dr. Maale has contacted his go-to oncologist in Lubbock, Dr. Isaac Tafur, who just happens to visit Lovington’s Nor-Lea Cancer Center about three times a month. That connection, also with the incredible help of Nor-Lea’s Laura “The Oncologist Wrangler,” has me set up with the next chapter in this story.
I mentioned my friend Raul and cousins Janet and Dan. They are members of an army of supportive friends and family who have helped me. Another is life-long friend Monica Russell, who took me to Lubbock to meet Dr. Tafur. About a week later, we went back to Lubbock for an overnighter when I had a cancer port inserted into my chest.
Now we are ready for the “Sarcoma Protocol” to begin. Army member and “Sister from another mother” Veronica Arguello, stayed with me during my first week of treatments just in case I needed help with anything. Another member of the army is my boss/next door neighbor/landlord and most importantly, friend of more than 20 years, News-Sun publisher and Monica’s husband Daniel Russell, who took time out of his busy day to take me to the chemo treatments. I say busy day, because on top of his work as publisher, Daniel and News-Sun managing editor and army member Blake Ovard, have been sharing my editor position duties during all of this. I was “demoted” to third-string reporter, getting assigned stories for me to write from home.
After the first three chemo treatments and two radiation treatments, there was a day off for Labor Day. Then we were back on with the radiation treatments. I feel blessed in that my chemo treatments were about an hour long, including prep time. Two bags of liquid were dripped into my body. The first was a pre-medicine mixture of an anti-nausea and steroids. The second bag was the radiation with a name I never could remember, so I called it the “Red Death.” I told people that because I thought it made me sound tougher.
This was at the height of my leg pain, which had been constant since Memorial Day weekend. On a scale of 1-10 the pain level reached 11. There were days I couldn’t walk and used crutches. Just moving from my front door to a vehicle was a painful challenge.
You see the pain was a swelling type pain that took place when I was vertical. So standing, walking, using my cane, using crutches, created a very painful experience. I often contemplated if I needed to go into the kitchen to make lunch, or grab a drink from the fridge. However going to the bathroom or taking a shower was a challenge I always had to accept.
The pain medication prescribed by Dr. Cyril, kept it around a 5-6 and the compression sock helped bunches. However, the pain was always there. My best option was to sit on my LazyBoy with a pillow propped or lay in bed.
The pain was in full force during the radiation treatments when I had to take off my socks, shoes and compression sock, lie stomach down on a metal table as the radiation tech positioned my lower body in a certain way to properly zap my leg.
Although my leg never became pain-free, about a week after the treatments I found some relief. I was able to put pressure on it while using a cane.
I even became well enough to get in my truck for a drive. Which was a blessing in itself because after two months of self-isolating, I needed a break from my place. I kept the visiting of friends and family to a minimum. Because of the treatments, my lowered immune system made me a prime time candidate for the COVID-19 virus. Thankfully, to this date, catching the virus has not happened.
Following the treatments, the two-week break, and three-straight days of exams, it was the beginning of October. My appointment with Dr. Tafur ended with him giving me a disc with the exam results and a full endorsement for surgery.
OK, back to Plano with Raul and a visit with Dr. Maale. That meeting ended with the “last resort” plan that I thought, two months prior, as an after thought.
I’M SITTING ON A LOVE SEAT in an exam room with Dr. Maale, Raul and about four or five of Maale’s medical assistants.
“I’m recommending amputation,” he said. And for about the next five minutes Raul asked a plethora of important questions. All I heard were the sound of the adults talking like they are in a Charlie Brown TV special.
So I finally chimed in on the tense conversation that has now filled the room. “Well Doc, as long as this doesn’t mess up my golf swing, I’m all for this.” You have to understand. We in my family call it the “Bailey sense of humor.” It’s extremely dry and can be dark, but mostly it’s often inappropriate. At the moment, it’s the only way I can handle the current emotional trauma that I am trying to comprehend.
Seconds after my golf swing comment, I return to my gaze outside a window seeing the Dallas skyline about 20 miles away. “Maybe it’ll improve my slice,” I said to the window. To which Raul replied, “Dude, there’s nothing that can improve that slice.”
I return to my window gazing as Raul continues to ask questions. I take off my glasses and my COVID-19 mask and I think to myself, “This is happening. This is happening. This is happening Bailey. Get a grip on what is now your life.”
A couple minutes later Dr. Maale is making a list of instructions for his medical assistants. Raul is leaning against the wall trying to comprehend what was told and I feel it’s time for another joke.
“Doctor, are there any taxidermy services available?” I dead-panly said. Dr. Maale stops what he is doing and turns to me with the strangest eyes. I said, “I figured I could get a stiletto heel, a fishnet stocking and a lampshade. Maybe I can do some sort of ‘A Christmas Story’ thing?”
Dr. Maale, completely straight-faced, looks at me and seriously said, “I’d think I’d lose my license.”
“Well we wouldn’t want that would we doc?” I responded.
Nothing. Of course everyone was wearing their masks, so I couldn’t tell if there was any reaction. Man, what a tough crowd. Days after the surgery, I met up with one of Maale’s assistants who said Dr. Malle is not one for jokes. However she and the other assistants considered the taxidermy joke, one of the best reactions for a patient who just learned he/she was losing a limb.
“It worked on me, I laughed a little bit,” the assistant said.
Whew! It’ll take it!
A week later, my leg was gone. So was the constant pain. Of course, with the morphine dripping into my body, I wouldn’t have felt my face if I punched it.
One of the most amazing things I’ve learned through this experience is the healing power of the body. Two days after the surgery, I was standing up using a walker. A day later I took my first step. By Friday I was off the morphine, moving around my recovery room with a walker and coherently chatting like a teenager on a sugar-high.
That’s when I got moved to my inpatient rehabilitation room, where for the next week I began to learn my new life.
My motto through this is has been, “I’d rather lose my leg than my life.”
Another amazing realization is the small things we take for granted. Like standing in front of the mirror while shaving or brushing your teeth, or taking a shower. It is now a 15-point process for me to shower. One of the first steps is the proper application of a plastic boot to keep my limb, and its 50 staples dry. Each staple was counted twice by Janet, because I didn’t believe her the first time.
My physical therapist, Boy (his real name is Agapito, but he was nicknamed Boy as a child), painfully bent and stretched me in areas I didn’t know existed on my body. But after each session, I learned I could move better. I was relearning how to use my body. Gabrielle was my occupational therapist, who taught me the 15-point showering procedure. I learned new balancing techniques and worked on my upper body strength and core conditioning, both of which are necessary for my new life.
I will be using a walker and wheelchair for the next 2-3 months, while my limb heals itself and the swelling decreases. I also wear a “stump shrinker,” which is a compression-like sock, made of the same material as my favorite sweatshirt. The sock is supposed to help shape my limb into the cone-like look best suited for a prosthetic leg. They say when I get good enough and while wearing pants, people won’t even know I have a fake leg.
But that’s in the future. Right now, I’m learning how to sleep on my left and right side while not angering the limb. Because there is only so much hydrocodone I’m suppose to take in one day.
There is so much I have not talked about that has taken place and I realize maybe this can be a series of columns as I learn this new life.
I NEVER MENTIONED the wonderful nurses at the Nor-Lea Cancer Center. I never talked about my dark sense of humor when it came to having my friends as servants. The term “hey man, I have cancer!” was oftenly used. I never talked about my feelings as I rang the cancer bell when I finished my treatments. That may be a column all onto itself. I never talked about what former Maddox Foundation CEO Bob Reid has done to help save my life. I am eternally grateful to him and so blessed to consider him a friend. I haven’t talked about the need to go shopping for new clothes. Since all this started I have lost more than 100 pounds.
In hindsight, maybe I should have started with the second beginning. But I just didn’t think any of you would think my ordeal was a big deal.
Then I heard Daniel and Greg share their stories of people in the community visiting them or calling or texting them inquiring about me.
Some people were visibly shaken by the news of my cancer diagnosis and amputation. It shocked me. It humbled me. I truly didn’t think people, outside of my group of friends and family, gave a damn about me.
Seriously, I thought I wasn’t that important. Greg and Daniel both said I’m a well-liked guy who is “an influential” member of the Lea County community. Really? Me? Nah. I’m Ray and Cecilia’s boy. I’m Danielle’s brother. Her husband’s (also named Daniel) brother-in-law. And I’m proudly Akemi’s uncle. That’s who I have always been and will always be. But if you feel you want to hear more of my story, I will humbly tell you.