Wednesday, December 03, 2014
Running for His Life
One of the best things about this game is the people you meet along the way. Bill Mooney is one of those people. We've known each know for nearly four decades and the first trait that becomes apparent when you speak with him is his classy demeanor; the respectful, measured responses, the thoughtfulness, the passion he has for the sport. We cannot be considered close friends, but whenever our paths would cross in press boxes across the country, in Saratoga especially, it always was and remains a pleasure: Call it a pari-mutuel admiration society. This week, Bill sent an e-mail to his turf writing brothers and sisters, one which I'm certain, considering the message within, forced all of us to check our stride and think, the way his copy always does. I asked Bill if he wouldn't mind sharing his thoughts with the HRI audience, that it might make a difference in the life of some racing fan who knows what Bill's days are like now and how they might approach life's random fragility and reckless abandon.
By Bill Mooney
The doctors took out my right kidney on Tuesday. The kidney and cancerous mass that engulfed it weighed 20 pounds. I saw the pictures of how it had looked on the ultrasound a few days after the surgery.
To me, it resembled the Hindenburg exploding.
How could a person be walking around for so long with such a tumor inside him and not know it? Believe me, I’m clueless. I had no symptoms. The surgeon speculates that the tumor may have been slowly growing for 10 years, and my body kept adjusting to it. The fact that I had long kept in shape – good diet, lots of long-distance walking, and weight lifting – was also a factor in disguising its presence.
I was told, post-surgery, that they got that one huge infestation in its entirety and that luckily it had not spread into the colon, liver, or bone structures. It has spread elsewhere, however, as kidney cancer tends to do – to my thyroid, to a lymph gland on the side of my neck, and there are spots on my lungs.
There’s also a small cancerous tumor (about the size of a finger nail) in my left kidney. That will be taken care of sometime during the next few weeks via a procedure that “freezes it,” or in effect burns it out. This will involve outpatient surgery, which means I won’t be in the hospital overnight.
An MRI [brain scan] was conducted last Saturday. As I write this, it is the day after Thanksgiving. I don’t want to know the results. I would prefer to wait a little longer, eat some leftover turkey and dressing, and drink a glass of red wine before I find out.
My discharge from Baptist Health Hospital was Sunday. It is standard hospital procedure, when a patient has had major surgery so recently, to have him leave by way of a wheelchair. I refused and told (my wife) Karen and the hospital staff I was determined to walk out.
“It’s three very long corridors,” said Karen, looking at me apprehensively. Yes, but I had walked those corridors when I entered the hospital five days earlier and I was going to walk them now in the opposite direction. And not by using a thousand baby steps, but striding.
So, I did. And now I’m home. Many decisions must be made in the upcoming weeks. The cancer doctor has told us that without further treatment, maybe I’ll live for a year; with treatment, maybe longer. He’s going to start me on minor chemotherapy treatments at first, see what happens, and go from there.
He’s talked about my getting involved in clinical trials at the Vanderbilt University Medical School in Tennessee, and by doing that at least I’d make myself useful. I will not “fry: myself with chemo; neither will I turn myself into some sort of medical guinea pig in a desperate effort to prolong my life.
But I am willing to do some experimenting. I like the way [this doctor] thinks and handles himself. Karen likes him, too. I am a terminal cancer patient – there is no avoiding that hard fact. Termination can be delayed, though, while experiencing a reasonable quality of life at the same time.
One thing the good doctor has stressed is the necessity of keeping in the best physical condition I can. This means getting back to my walking routine, and working my way up to miles, not yards. Well, on Monday of this week, my first full day home, I walked 200 yards. My third day home, I walked one full mile. On Thanksgiving Day I walked two miles. My right side was burning when I finished. This afternoon, I plan to walk further; and tomorrow, further still.
The doctor wants me to eventually get back to doing regular outdoor chores such as raking leaves and shoveling snow. And I will. He wants me to get back to light weight lifting.
This morning, I pulled out a ten-pound weight from under my bed.
I sat there just staring at it for a few minutes. Then I laid down flat on my back on the floor, took the weight, and began lifting it. Ten repetitions. Then ten more. Then ten more after that. Prior to surgery, I could easily bench press a hundred pounds. I doubt I’ll ever be able to do that again. But I bet I can reach fifty.
There’s been so much for the mind to process in such a short period. I’m writing this on November 28. On October 28 I had no idea I had kidney cancer. The following day, I got an email from Nephrology Associates of Lexington, informing me that “one new item” had been added to my record. I clicked on to it, and the item consisted of four words: “Diagnosis: Renal Cell Carcinoma.”
On November 4 I was told the entire right kidney had to come out. On November 11 I was told my cancer was Stage Four, and that if the kidney didn’t come out immediately I had only six months remaining in my life.
A tornado of activity ensued: getting power of attorney and living will documents (both are legal requirements prior to major surgery in Kentucky); getting a regular will written; informing family, friends and co-workers. Making arrangements to have the house and property cared for. And filling out forms – repetitive forms, voluminous forms – for the various medical practices involved.
Late on the afternoon of November 13, five days before the surgery, I got a phone call from the cardiology department at Baptist Health. I was told that I had never had a heart stress test, and because of that the surgery could not occur.
Could I get a heart stress test now? No, I was told, they were all booked up. I told the lady that, literally, my life was at stake.
“I’m sorry, sir,” she said. “There’s nothing we can do.” At 11:10 the following morning, I was informed that a cancellation had occurred and if I got there in 20 minutes, I could do the stress test. I was there at 11:29.
But then I was told that if I had consumed any caffeine during the past 24 hours I couldn’t take the test. And so I lied to them. “Oh, no, I don’t drink coffee, never do,” I said, knowing all the while that with each delayed day, that mass engulfing my right kidney was poisoning my body all the more.
They wanted to conduct a nuclear stress test, without putting me on a treadmill. But I knew that work on a treadmill helps neutralize the presence of caffeine. I casually said (while hiding the panic within me), “oh, please, I’d like to do the treadmill. I’m in good shape. I walk; lift weights.”
I received the clearance to do so. And on that treadmill I literally ran for my life. Faster, faster, “Oh, I’m fine, I’m fine,” I kept telling the nurses. Friday evening, the precise time was 8:08 p.m., the cardiologist left a message on my answering machine. The results of the stress test were “good,” he said, and I “could go ahead with the surgery.”
Amidst the chaos, there were moments of calm. They would most notably occur at 4 a.m. when I’d wake up and in the darkness I could hear the rustle of the wind in the branches of the tree next to the bedroom window, and the horn from a railroad engine sounding in the distance. I’d roll on my right side, and put my arm around Karen, and from her low breathing and the warmth coming from her I’d gain strength.
And I would think to myself, “It is okay. I can do this.”
The night before the surgery, in the TV room, just before going to bed, we turned out the lights and put on Karen’s favorite song, Fields of Gold, sung by Sting. And we danced to it. We danced to it twice.
And I learned something else during the days immediately prior to the surgery. Yes, it’s flattering to be a multiple Eclipse Award winner. And to be a Tony Ryan Award winner. And especially to be a Walter Haight Award recipient, because that was something bestowed by my peers.
But, much more importantly, I learned that many, many people believe I’ve impacted their lives over the years. People inside the racing industry; people outside the racing industry. Colleagues, friends, relatives – recalling to me so many things, so many little favors that I had thought nothing of at the time or had long forgotten. And this has brought to me another realization – while I have contributed to the lives of others, I so dearly wish I had done more.
Did I pray? Yep. I still do. Every night before bedtime, I kneel down and ask God for strength, wisdom, and guidance. But I do not ask God to spare my life. (Others may do that for me, if they wish, but I don’t.) And not once, not even for a few seconds, have I gone through the, “Why Me? Why is this happening to me?” routine. I view that as a waste of time and a waste of breath.
Sunrises have never looked so beautiful. Sunsets have never looked so beautiful. Even cloudy, blustery days in late November have never looked so beautiful, even with the trees barren of leaves.
And Karen has never looked so beautiful. “This is going to be a big roller coaster ride,” she has said several times. And no one knows that better than her. Karen’s late husband, to whom she was married for 34 years, was diagnosed with cancer during their 32nd year of marriage. Two years later, on his 55th birthday, he died. Karen’s been through this before.
This morning, I got on the scale. Weight: 147 pounds. Body mass: 22.3. I’m 67 years old and there’s nothing wrong about those numbers for a man my age. I’ve got 29 staples in my right side – they were scheduled to come out Tuesday.
I’ve still got some time. Exactly how much? I don’t know. But I’ve pretty much got two goals left: to keep myself as physically and emotionally strong as possible and to enrich the lives of others. The latter can often be accomplished with a few kind words.
By that, I mean giving encouragement to a young turf writer. Believe me, folks, the new generation of turf scribes is loaded with talent. And I know that for a fact, because I watch them at work and read their material.
I also mean expressions of gratitude and respect to members of the older generation who practice the craft. You’ll never know how many times, how many hundreds of times, I’ve read the work of the colleagues from my own generation and thought, “God, I wish I could think that clearly, I wish I could write that well.”
And keep in mind, if I should direct some encouragement or gratitude your way, it will be stated with 100% sincerity. That’s one of the benefits of being a terminal cancer patient. There’s never a need to fool anyone. I can forevermore say exactly what I think. By giving strength to others, I gain strength for myself. Please don’t deny me the dignity of doing that.
I’ve never been to Rome. I plan to take Karen there this April. I’ve never been to Del Mar. Or to Portland Meadows. Or to Yankee Stadium. Maybe I’ll finally get to these places. But, most of all, I want to dance a few more times to Fields of Gold with Karen. No, not a few more times – lots of times.
Written by John Pricci