All Your Case Are Belong To Us (Jury Duty, Part III)

(Note: This was long enough to break into two, but I wanted to finish. Please pick a comfy seat…)

After 2.5 days of Constitutional voyeurism, it was finally time to make them sit around while we do mysterious crap for awhile. Finally, we’re important!

In fact, during the closing arguments, the plaintiff”s attorney let us know how important. He was hoping for at least $2 million. Until that moment, I didn’t realize that we not only had to pick who was at fault, but if we sided with the plaintiff, we had to pick how much money it was fair for her to get. How do you put a price on that kind of thing? They gave us a chart from 1949 that gave us average life spans for someone of a given age, but that’s hardly enough information.

Our primary responsibility is to determine who was most responsible for the accident. Since she brought the suit, the plaintiff has to prove that the defendant has at least 51% of the blame. In the case of a tie, the defendant wins. Pretty heavy.

Before we go deliberate, the judge reads us a lot of pieces of law that pertain to the case. These laws include:

  • the responsibilities of a pedestrian when crossing away from an intersection (as it turns out, the plaintiff did not cross at an intersection — she actually walked away from an intersection to the place where she crossed)
  • the responsibilities of a driver (just because you have right of way does not mean you can mow down jaywalkers — you are still expected to do everything possible to avoid an accident)

Essentially, from our point of view, the question was whether or not the defendant had enough time to see the plaintiff and make a reasonable attempt to stop or swerve. Seems straightforward enough, but there were several things about the plaintiff’s actions we had to consider:

  • She chose an extremely dark patch to cross — there is no street light in the ~200 yards between the intersection and the convenience store, and it was overcast, so there was no moonlight
  • This was the first night she’d ever made this crossing after dark (although this was her third crossing of the night — she had been to the store once but had forgotten the phone number and had to go back for it)
  • She was carrying one child and had another in tow, so she wasn’t moving fast. She’s not a large person anyway.
  • When she stepped off the median to cross the last lanes, she never checked the traffic again. This is important, because she was holding a baby against her right shoulder, so her peripheral vision was blocked in the direction of oncoming traffic.

And one thing we were never told: what color were her clothes? If she was dressed in dark clothes, she would have been invisible under those conditions. We knew what the 3-year-old was wearing, thanks to those damn pictures, but he was on hidden on the other side of his mother. Frustrating to not know that, and inconceivable that a policeman didn’t think to note it at the time.

Once we picked a foreperson, we went around the table expressing our views. First guy up said the entire case was bullshit, and it was clear to him that they made it all the way across, then the three-year-old broke free and ran back into the road, and the mom chased after him instinctively, then made up the story so she could have a better chance in a lawsuit. Possible, I guess, but we can’t really start assuming new scenarios. (“I think they got to the far sidewalk and Bigfoot kicked them back into traffic!”)

It looks like sentiment is leaning in one direction, so we take a vote: 11-1 for the defendant. This is a classic moment of what lawyers call Es vos defecio mihi (or “are you shitting me?”). The dissenter responds with a classic Ego defece vos non (“I shit you not”) and that’s where we break for the evening.

This gives me time to think things through without distraction. The plaintiff is maintaining that the defendant was driving negligently, and should have seen her and the kids in plenty of time to stop, even after dark. Since she didn’t stop, it is logical that she wasn’t paying attention to the road.

This is when all the math and physics and all the emotional appeals and the debate about whether it was rainy or drizzly or misty or foggy and 75% of the rest of the points they made all week drop out of the picture for me. Yes, it’s possible that the defendant was digging through her glove compartment or turned and talking to her sister or something.

But there are lots of places a driver can be looking without being negligent, like glancing at the speedometer or clock, or looking in a rearview mirror. Or a sneeze, or a cough. Just about anything at the wrong second would be enough.

The main thing is: I can’t think of a reason other than neligence to step in front of a moving car. If she had turned to look before she walked into that last lane, she could have stopped, the defendant would have sped on by, and that kid might be a healthy six-year-old right now.

By the next morning, the holdout had come to a similar conclusion. 12-0 for the defendant.

Afterward

While you’re in the rarefied air of a jury box, you get used to not being allowed contact with anyone involved with the case. You don’t think about what can happen the minute your verdict is delivered: you are normal citizens again and can be harassed by anyone. Sure enough, as soon as we leave the jury assembly room, the entire defense team, the defendant, and her parents are waiting for us. They are all smiles, and want to hear whatever we feel like telling them. This is what I tried to convey:

  • The emotional appeals can backfire. We felt terrible for both parties, and didn’t need help to get emotionally involved in the outcome. The only way we can resolve it is to look at the law and the evidence dispassionately.
  • Questioning the plaintiff’s motives in bringing the suit is unnecessary. She has the right, which is enough. Plus, in her shoes, I would do anything to convince myself that it’s not my fault my kid is dead. When my dog died, we didn’t do a necropsy, partly because I didn’t want to know if I could have done something for him but didn’t.
  • In this case — and I would bet most cases — the parties involved are not trained observers. Quizzing them about mundane details (like distance from a curb) or obscure measurements (like feet per second) in the dark at the instance of a life-changing event three years ago is nitpicky at best, but when they don’t know or give an answer that doesn’t fit the evidence, it doesn’t automatically weaken their case. (“My boy got hit! He was only three! Plus he was 5 feet 8 inches from the curb and moving at 3.2 feet per second!”)

Despite that, I don’t have a serious problem with how either lawyer conducted themselves. They were professional and courteous and laid out their cases clearly. I really just think they spent a lot of time trying to obfuscate the other guy, and I can even understand why they would intentionally do that. Our jury seemed able to cut to the heart of the matter, but maybe we were atypical.

What sunk the plaintiff’s case was that it was too steep an uphill climb to offload a majority of the blame to the defendant. Maybe for the next one they can use my Bigfoot theory.

Speaking of whom, when I turned away from the lawyer, she and her parents were standing there. Her parents were all smiles and bowing, but she just looked exhausted. She thanked me, I told her I was sorry for all she’d gone through and wished her luck, and they left. I imagine she is glad to not have to come up with a giant pile of money, but I also bet that thump she heard still echoes in her head.

Overall, I’m glad I had the experience. I understand more clearly how important having a jury is, and I’m glad I was involved with an interesting case, even if it was a horrible story. Beats listening to a tenant sue his landlord because of water damage from a faulty dishwasher.

As I left, I heard that same juror tell the defense lawyer that he knows the kid turned and ran back into the road. One of the other people sitting at the defense table turned and said “Remember when I asked you that two months ago?”

Jerk probably caused a mistrial. Anyone out there know a sure-fire way to get out of jury duty? Just in case…

That’s not a knife

Before I drag you back into more glum medical crap, here’s a picture of a Siberian Husky puppy coughing up another Siberian Husky puppy.


I know from long experience that if the worst thing that comes from your Husky’s mouth is another Husky, you’re living the good life. But look how cuuuuuuuuute!

In other news, I got scheduled for surgery today.

I don’t mean I’m having surgery TODAY. I mean on this date, I got put on the surgeon’s schedule. I am going under the knife on 3/19, about four days after I return from The Amazing Adventure. We could have done it before the trip, but I would still be recovering during the cruise. And I’m already signed up to drive an all-terrain vehicle around Mazatlan.

Anyway, the day after I get back (3/16) I go in to get some bloodwork done, meet the anesthesiologist, slip him or her a stack of Benjamins to not kill me, and start fretting. Then on 3/19, I go under the gas/knife. Three hours later, I’ll be in recovery as a newly minted athyroidist.

I think the surgeon knows his stuff, although he is foolishly unafraid of the Law of Dramatic Tragedies:

The chances of the worst possible outcome, no matter how remote, increase proportionally with the smugness of the assurance that it will not happen. SEE ALSO: The “I’ll Sign The Insurance Forms When I Get Back” Law.

So this is what will happen to me, because they never happen to anyone else:

  • My parathyroid glands will be damaged, meaning I will have to take calcium supplements along with my synthetic thyrid hormone forever
  • My voice box will be damaged, turning me into a Gilbert Godfried impersonator until the End Times
  • The surgeon will underestimate the sharpness of his scalpel and cut my head off

The last one may seem a little over-the-top. But when the surgeon was telling me about the incision, he did that little “cut” move with his fingers across the neck, which can either mean “turn it off” or “you are so dead.”

Assuming he doesn’t cut my head off, I’ll stay there overnight and come home first thing the next morning, then get pampered for a few days.

Not much else to tell you. It’s still a month out as I write this, but there are few enough steps that I can see the end.

Stay tuned!

Of Course We Want To Hear Your Witness (Jury Duty, part II)

If you’ve never sat in a jury box, you’ve never lived. Sneak in sometime and try one out. To get a chair that comfortable, you normally need to take extreme measures, such as a haircut. It was a three-day reenactment of Twelve Squirmy Men. One of the chairs was squeaky, and none of us knew which one.

We still don’t.

Did you know that all courtrooms in America have the same basic layout? The idea is that the judge can look across at the witness and see the jury at the same time. Why he wanted to look at us is unclear, unless he was trying to figure out where that squeaking came from, or to see if the giant Ten Commandment tablets topple over onto whichever one of us was most unjust. (Not that he was watching any of us — the judge told us early on that he liked jury trials because he could get other work done and only had to pay attention when someone made noise. He had a big computer monitor on his desk.)

The Lawyers Make Their Cases

At this point, both lawyers are prepping a long cavalcade of math and physics and accident reconstruction and extremely depressing photos. But first, we’re going to put the defendant through the ringer!

Honestly, I didn’t know the plaintiff’s lawyer could do that. I figured the Fifth Amendment protected them against this kinda thing. But I’m not a lawyer, and none of the real lawyers objected.

Prosecutor: How fast were you going?
Defendant: About 40.
Prosecutor: Were you tired?
Defendant: It was a long day.
Prosecutor: Why did you hit them with your car?
Defendant: I was having an affair with her husband and needed her out of the way because she knew I was laundering money through an IHOP syrup cartel to pay off my debt at the dog track and the baby she’s carrying is mine.
Prosecutor: The prosecution rests.
Defense Attorney: Ummmm… objection.
Judge: I am the GODDAMN TETRIS MASTER.
Mystery Juror: *squeak squeak squeak*

Okay, no, some of that was made up. She really got off light: doing 40, exhausted but not sleepy, dark and rainy, never saw her, don’t know why, not boinking the boyfriend. Not really sure why they bothered.

Then comes the plaintiff’s accident reconstruction expert. The defense have one of their own, so we get settled in for some high-speed math.

His contention: The defendant was not moving at 40, but more like 25. She had plenty of time to stop. There is evidence she was turned backwards driving with her butt cheeks. The blue sweater she is wearing now is unflattering.

His problem: There is no obvious point of impact, just the positions of the victims after the accident, so he is free to pick any speed he wants and plot backwards.

His handicap: He sucks at applied physics. I can see that, and I’m a liberal arts major. If anyone wants to know the details why he’s full of crap, let me know.

In any case, the lawyer is trying to show that there would have been plenty of time between when the plaintiff entered the range of the headlights and the time of impact for the defendant to swerve or stop.

One thing about this witness is that we saw a lot of photos of the accident site, including shots of the dead boy. Why are we seeing pictures of the dead boy? We all believe he’s dead. Nothing about the way he’s lying there tell us much about who was at fault. This reeks of the incessant appeals to emotion that permeate both cases. I’m more than a little disgusted by it.

When he first appears on screen, his mother breaks down, and that’s the first time she’s had a reaction to anything. I realize she doesn’t speak English — she’s been sitting in this courtroom all these hours without a clue what’s being said, and without warning a picture of her son lying dead in the gutter appears on the screen in front of her. It’s extremely sad, and I start paying more attention to the two women at the center of this.

I’m not the most empathic person ever, but by the end of all this, I feel awful for both of them. The plaintiff doesn’t know what’s happening, but knows this all has to do with her son — she must have been sitting there in a daze, reliving the whole thing in the midst of white noise with the occasional name she knows.

However, the defendant does understand every word, and she sits behind her desk, quiet and haunted. She is not only reliving it, she is listening to it described in mind-pounding detail, again and again. Whether we ultimately decide the accident was her fault or not, she did kill a boy with her car.

No wonder neither of them laughed at my joke about executives.

The defense makes basically the same argument, although with a slightly different conclusion: the defendant was driving properly and the plaintiff dragged her children into the street directly into the path of a moving car, and there was no time for a driver’s reaction that would have saved anything. Stepping in front of a car is both negligent and a failure to yield the right of way. And there is no dependable evidence that suggests the defendant was driving with her butt.

With that, they turn it over to the jury. Showtime!

(to be concluded)

Jury Duty! For Justice! (Part 1)

It’s a simple formula:

(Scheduled medical procedure) + (Getting paid by the hour) + (Upcoming vacation time) = A jury duty summons

No one looks forward to jury duty. I had a pile of work waiting for me, plus my neck ultrasound. I heard dozens of anecdotes about how people walk in and mostly waste a day sitting around, and that’s it. Judging by how my luck had been running lately, I knew that’s exactly what would happen.

No, that was sarcasm. I was doomed. And to make sure I was doomed…

I made them laugh during jury selection.

Brilliant move on my part. I’ll say something that will make me memorable, but not in a negative way, and have them forget anything else about me that might make me not the best choice. I might as well have gotten in the box and started taking notes.

Lawyer: Mr. Walters, in your time as a writer, do you have any experience working in any aspect of traffic safety?
Me: Not personally, but my father used to work for a company that made traffic signals.
Lawyer: Was he in planning or manufacturing? Or did he do something else?
Me: He was an executive, so I don’t think he really did anything.
Everyone in the courtroom, including the judge and court reporter: HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA
Lawyer: Thank you, Mr. Walters. (Translation: now we just need 11 more)
Lady next to me: (whispering) They’ll remember you for a long time.

Sure enough, I got a seat in the box. During our first break, one of the other jurors said “you know, I’m an executive.” Of course. The judge’s wife is probably a V.P. for QuikTrip or something. I did notice that neither the plaintiff nor defendant even smiled, for reasons that became starkly obvious later.

Others tried different techniques with more success. These people did not get on the jury:

  • I have a blood pressure issue, and forgot my meds. In fact, I’m feeling dizzy. Can I go outside for a minute?
  • Will we get out by 2:30? I have to pick my son up from school, and my husband is out of town.
  • My first impression is for the plaintiff.

No one laughed at any of those people, so I have that going for me.

Swearing In

I was curious about this part. Would I have to either swear to God, or make a stink to simply affirm that I’ll do my juror thing as best I can. But the “…so help me God” part is apparently reserved for witnesses. And there’s not even a Bible.

Don’t Talk About Jury Club

Before the Opening Arguments, we have to hear instructions from the judge. We are not allowed to:

  • Talk about the trial to anyone, even each other, until after we render a verdict
  • Allow our cell phones to ring
  • Consort with anyone from either the defense or plaintiff’s team
  • Accept bribes
  • Fail to alternate our merges
  • Fart, then giggle
  • Have sex with either legal team without signing a waiver

An outrage. Someone farts in court and you can’t react? But it makes sense — the last thing we need is to give anyone reason for a mis-trial. So we sigh, turn off our phones, and pass the envelopes full of money back to the lawyers.

The Trial Begins: Opening Arguments

These are intriguing. You hear two people telling the same story from different perspectives, and you feel that both stories are close to the truth. Our job is to figure out who was the screwup, not who is the liar. Also, at this point, we are just hearing the first details about the case, so the lawyers have this chance to sort of lube us up to swallow the steady diet of minutiae we’ll be fed for the next few days.

The Incident: On the Sunday after Thanksgiving, 2005, at about 9pm, the plaintiff was crossing a road in Norcross (an Atlanta suburb) called Beaver Ruin Road. (No, I don’t know why it’s named that. I should look it up, because all my theories end up either gory or perverted.) Beaver Ruin is a major road — five lanes and a concrete median. It was also damp, overcast, and off-and-on drizzle.

The plaintiff was walking with her two sons, aged one and three. She was carrying the younger one against her right shoulder, and holding hands with the older one with her left hand. She was about 2 feet from reaching the far curb when the three of them were hit by the car driven by the defendant at an estimated 40mph.

All three of them were knocked clear. The plantiff broke some bones, the one-year-old fractured his skull and sat in the hospital for a few weeks. And the three-year-old was killed instantly.

A very sad case, of course. This is really the first of the three lawsuits filed, one per victim. This one was on behalf of the dead boy.

Once all that came to light, the ressponsibility side of all this kicked in for me. Two lives completely overturned because a child was killed, and we had to pick whose fault it was.

(to be continued)

Ultrasound and the Fury

Sorry for the title. Couldn’t think of anything.

I picked up my ultrasound report! I don’t mind admitting that I was a little nervous about it. I knew it was going to say something like “it is unclear how the thyroid mass was spotted amidst the twisted striations of late-term throat cancer being held in check by a radiation-proof strain of lymphoma.” But this is what it actually said:

(I’m going to skip the upper 3/4ths, which is mostly what’s known as “doctor crap.” I’ll jump to the bottom where someone has put things into something similar to English.)

IMPRESSION:
1. Abnormal 3.7 cm node in the left upper/mid cervical region. Node demonstrates abnormal abnormal inferior appearance with eccentric thickening of the Inferior cortex. This may just be a reactive lymph node but suggest cytologic evaluation of the node.
2. No other adenopathy in the neck demonstrated.
3. Mass in the left lobe of the thyroid gland.

I wonder if I’m voiding my rights under the Privacy Act by telling you guys this?

Anyhow, I know what you’re thinking: “Cervical region? *Snort*” I thought the same thing. But I looked it up, and the cervical region is the neck, not the cervix. If that’s the most confusing thing you encounter about medicine, you are fortunate.

But don’t you wonder how many women have had some major surgeries in very private areas when they really just needed a thyroidectomy? I suggest following the Scrubs example and rechristening the entire region covered by bikini bottoms as either the “bajingo” or “hoo haa.” As in “I can’t ride my bike for the next couple of weeks because I just had surgery in the lower bajingal area.”

Back to the ultrasound report.

Basically, they found one funky lymph node and D’oh! can’t even say for sure that it’s a problem. Still no Smoking Cancer Gun.

While driving back, Dr. Beasley (the kindly, helpful Doctor #3 from my original post) called me since he’d been looking at a copy of the report. He basically said for me to continue on with the surgical consult on Tuesday, and then call him back to let him know if/when surgery is scheduled, and he’ll take over after that.

So. All things considered, this is probably the best I could hope for out of an ultrasound. Things still positive, and still managing to keep the OH SHIT OH SHIT OH SHIT IT’S CANCER side of my brain under control.

More on this after Tuesday. If I get the time, I’ll write up my jury duty experience to kill time until then.

Ultrasound screenshot

It looks like I'm going to give birth to a piglet in a space helmet.
I'll call him Link Heartthrob.

They Slimed Me

I had my ultrasound!

It was disgusting. It’s basically a Wii controller covered with a sex-aid lubricant, and smeared all over whatever you’re having scanned. In my case, it was my neck, which is harmless enough. But I kept thinking “if I had testicular or prostate cancer, would I have the same attractive lab tech?” I hope I never find out. But if I do, stay tuned to this blog!

Nothing really to report. I saw my ultrasounds and they look the same as every other ultrasound I’ve ever seen, like someone vomited a bunch of Rorschach tests. The doctor (Doctor Doh — and I am not making that up) couldn’t tell me much on just a cursory glance, but he’s allegedly writing up a report right now. He said there were a couple of suspicious places, and I am going to write to President Obama to see if he can strike the word “suspicious” from the medical vocabulary.

I hope to pick up a copy of the D’oh! report this afternoon. I’ll post a summary tonight or tomorrow.

But I have scheduled my appointment with the surgeon. I am meeting him the afternoon of 2/17, and if all goes well (i.e., we feel that he’s not a jerk or an idiot) we will schedule the surgery itself then as well. They tell me he can normally work in surgery like this within a few days, so by the end of next week we might be in business.

Also: I have been in jury duty all this week. Justice was served on the case this morning, and I can finally talk about it. Stay tuned for that too.

A Brief History of Cancer

This is an attempt to make the longest blog post ever. But also, so many people from so many directions have asked for background and updates. This is an attempt to get the full story out. Good luck 🙂

It all started with an infected abscess on my shoulder blade.

I won’t go into that, because it’s a little disgusting. I’ll just say it ended with a trip to the emergency room and surgery so minor it was barely more intense than a haircut. That set off a reminder that I hadn’t had a physical in just over a year and a half, and Maria was going to hound me about it until I did.

Doctor #1 – Early December 2008

The first doctor involved is Susan Boyle, my primary physician. I love this woman. She is friendly and funny and thorough. (ETA: When I wrote this, it was long before the Other Susan Boyle had made her appearance. I haven’t seen my doctor since then, but I bet she feels like Michael Bolton from Office Space. -4/20/09)

She said “do you drink, smoke cigarettes, smoke marijuana, or buy your crystal meth out of the back of an El Camino from a smelly man in a hoodie known only as ‘Doug’? Sorry, I’m required to ask.” She also calls me personally at home, after hours, with my results from the bloodwork — everything is fine, but she is there to answer questions for about 15 minutes. Hard to think of good questions when my results are all normal, so it was things like “using the blood you took from my arm, are you going to be growing an army of cloned Super Soldiers that look like me? When will they be ready, and can I have one to walk my dogs?”

But during the exam, she finds a lump just under my throat. She says she could take a look at it, but it is too close to my thyroid gland for comfort, so she refers me to North Atlanta Endocrinology and Diabetes (or “NAED,” which is the sound made when a Southerner calls to someone named Ned).

Doctor #2 – Just before Christmas, 2008

So I get an appointment with the first NAED doctor who could see me, a man named David Shore. A friendly, plain-spoken man with a hint of a New Jersey/New York accent. Hey, I grew up in Alabama — like I can tell a friggin’ difference between the two. The conversation went like this:

Dr Shore: “So your PCP found a lump on your thyroid.”

Me: “Yup.”

Dr Shore: [Feeling my neck] “Yeah, that’s a lump! Come back next month and we’ll stick a needle in it.”

At no point in all this am I particularly stressed. You hear “lump” and you think “cancer,” but it could be a host of other things. My dogs even get them, and they always turn out to be little fat deposits. And remember: this all started because of an abscess on my back, so I know from lumps.

January 15, 2009

Biopsy Day!

I’m back at Dr. Shore’s office, lying on an inclined table with my feet about two feet higher than my head. The nurses are passing needles and swabs and bandages back and forth across my field of vision, and I keep having to sit up because the blood rushes to my head. Finally, Dr. Shore comes in, and they spray what they claim is topical anesthesia, but which might be cooking spray for all the numbing properties it had. Needles go in six or seven times, hurting way more than giving blood at the Red Cross.

They tell me I’ll get the results back in a week to 10 days, although it turns out to be both. I’m sent on my way.

January 23, 2009

At about 3:00pm on Friday the 23rd, I get a call from Judy, Dr. Shore’s medical assistant. She says Dr. Shore wants me to come in next week to talk about my results.

Me: “Okay, I can come in any time. Can you tell me what my results are?”

Judy: “Your biopsy came back abnormal.”

Me: “What does that mean? They just got weird results, or are we talking cancer?”

Judy: “Dr. Shore will have to give you the details next week. I’ll have the appointment desk call you before the end of the day to make an appointment as soon as we can next week.”

Me: “Can I talk to Dr. Shore now?”

Judy: “I’m afraid he’s not available the rest of the day. Someone will call you soon. Have a nice day!”

Have a nice day. Hilarious.

By 4:45 I still haven’t heard from the appointment desk, so I call them and get the “gone home” message. I leave a mildly snarky voicemail and call Judy back. She’s gone too, and my voicemail this time is more of an emotional plea for mercy, in case she checks her voicemail over the weekend. She doesn’t.

The Dark Weekend of the Soul

Maria flies out Saturday morning to New York. She was in Boston when I got my abcess removed, too. Next time she flies to New England, I better come along.

I keep myself entertained as best I can over the weekend, but I’m basically stewing about Judy and getting nervous about my biopsy report.

January 26, 2009

I get into my office at about 8, and immediately I call Judy (voicemail) and the appointment desk (voicemail). I don’t know why people feel that medical treatment in America has become so cold and impersonal — the answering machines I spoke with struck me as very tender and caring.

A little after 9, the appointment desk calls. Whomever is on the other end has a perky, upbeat voice that seems more appropriate for telling me about a new offer from my cable company. She chirps that Dr. Shore wants to see me at 3pm.

Of course I’m there early. At about 3:45, someone comes to the waiting room and shouts that Dr. Shore got held up by a medical emergency, and if we wanted to reschedule, go to the desk. The only way I’m leaving there without talking to Dr. Shore is in handcuffs while being read my rights. But you have to wonder: a medical emergency? He’s an ENDOCRINOLOGIST. What sort of medical emergency are we talking about? Did someone’s pancreas become explosive? This will be a mystery as long as I live…

I finally get back there about 20 minutes later, and he comes in. I think he could sense that I was a little on edge.

Dr. Shore: “I’m surprised your wife didn’t come with you.”

Me: “She’s out of town on a business trip.”

Dr. Shore: “Oh, that’s too bad. I know she’d want to hear this immediately.”

Me: “She was still in town on Friday.”

Dr. Shore: “… so about your biopsy…”

That’s when he tells me I have thyroid cancer. Or, more specifically, he says the results came back as “suspicious,” but we need to proceed as if it is cancer, and from that point on, he talks as thought it’s definitely cancer.

He is the first to hit me with two cliches that I have since grown impatient with:


  1. “This is the best type of cancer to get.” (A brazen lie. The best type of cancer to get is one located in someone else’s body. Preferably someone you don’t like. Schadenfreude Carcinoma.)

  2. “A year from now, we’ll be laughing about this.” (I don’t think so. Even if I set a new record for recovery speed, I’m not seeing a Gigglepalooza at the end of the road. A huge sigh of relief and a fanatical devotion to regular exams, sure. But I’ll miss out on the Chucklefest.)

His prescription:

  • An ultrasound to see if it’s spread to the surrounding lymph nodes or anything
  • More cowbell
  • Surgery to remove the whole thyroid gland
  • Radiation treatment
  • Synthroid pills every day forever and ever
  • Regular scans to see if the cancer comes back

He gives me a copy of my biopsy report, some additional reading material, and the business card of a surgeon he recommends. Funny thing about that biopsy report – it’s fairly detailed, including a document history. The pathologist who did it sent it back to them on Monday the 19th, four days after I got the biopsy, and four days before the late Friday call that ruined my weekend. I am not happy.

Intermission

It is at this point where I start telling friends and family what’s going on. To this point it had only been Maria. This is about when most of you reading this probably heard about it first. I am flooded and overwhelmed with supportive notes and emails and phone calls and tweets and Facebook postings, and I am quite moved by all of it. And sorry if I didn’t get back to you in a very timely manner — my head hasn’t been where it should be.

My friend Stephen had gone through thyroid cancer a few years ago, and he gives me a lot of helpful information, including the name of his endocrinologist, with whom he has been pleased. I call Dr. Beasley’s office, and they can’t see me until Feb 3, which is about a week away. I also call to make an appointment for the ultrasound, which they can’t schedule until Feb 12. So I spend the next week alternating between feeling sorry for myself and feeling stupid when I hear from old friends fighting with much more impressive and scary types of cancer.

Doctor #3

They always call you into the back rooms right as you’re at the Moment of Truth while playing Risk on the iPhone.

The first thing that strikes me about Dr. Beasley’s setup is the form they give me, asking how I prefer to be contacted, and can they leave detailed information on voicemail? I tell them they can leave information in as many places as they possibly can — I don’t care who else knows what’s going on with my thyroid, as long as I know as soon as possible.

Dr. Beasley comes in. He’s an older, very friendly man who laughs a lot. He reminds me a little of my late grandfather, except Dr. Beasley doesn’t appear to be drunk. He asks a lot of standard questions about my history and habits (“You know Crystal Meth Doug? How’s he doing? I bought moonshine and illicit powdered tiger penis from his grandfather when I was in med school.”)

Then he says something interesting: “It might not be cancer.” And he draws a little diagram like this:

See, the thing about a needle biopsy is that it gets very little material. My results were “suspicious,” which means they spotted some cells that are commonly associated with a type of thyroid cancer. This is only a little more certain than the “indeterminable” result, which is when the pathologist looks through a microscope and goes “WTF?” and starts dreaming about naming rights for a new neck disease.

Dr. Beasley said we could do another needle biopsy, but what would be the point? The only way to be sure is with an open surgery biopsy. Dr. Beasley said that’s likely what Dr. Shore was suggesting, but didn’t give all the background information. I’m not so sure, but I’ll get a proper vent about that experience up later.

From my perspective, not much would change. It would go like this:

  1. I go under the knife.
  2. The surgeon removes the affected half of the thyroid. (The thyroid is sort of butterfly-shaped, and has two distinct lobes. My little growth is on the left lobe.)
  3. The diseased lobe goes off to a pathologist on site to do whatever they do to test for cancer. This takes 20-30 minutes.
  4. While this is going on, the surgeon pokes around the area to see if anything looks odd. Enlarged lymph nodes, funny colors, whatever. If anything looks wrong, the surgeon will remove it.
  5. The pathologist comes back with either a “yes, cancer” or “no, not cancer” verdict.
  6. If it’s cancer, the other half of the thyroid comes out, I get sown back up, get the radiation treatment and Synthroid pills, and come back every few months for a scan.
  7. If it’s not cancer, I get sown back up, skip the radiation, and probably still need the Synthroid but at a much lower dose.
  8. I wake up and learn the verdict.

I understand everything a lot better now. Dr. Beasley spends more than 30 minutes with me, giving me a full neck physical (feeling my throat when I swallow, things like that), swapping jokes, and anticipating and answering questions. Then he has to go, and a nurse comes in and sits with me for another 10 minutes and she tells me what the radiation treatment is like, if it comes to that. (I have to board my dogs while I’m doing it and Maria and I have to sleep in separate rooms, since I’ll be “hot.” No point in giving them radiation sickness.)

So we decide:

  • I’ll meet with the surgeon, Dr. Schmitt. I’ll let him talk through the procedure, and if I’m comfortable with him, I’ll move forward with scheduling the surgery.
  • If I’m not comfortable — if he seems hell bent on cutting out my entire thyroid based on the needle biopsy results alone, for example — I’ll get a recommendation from Dr. Beasley.

That’s where we stand now. If you have made it this far, you know everything about what’s going on with me that I know. I’m much calmer now after talking to Dr. Beasley. After all this, I might not have cancer at all. (Still — assume I do. Prep for the worst and all.)

Thanks again to all of you for your concern and support. I’m told that a positive attitude is important, and I don’t think I could have one without you guys.

Birds Shoot Back

It’s tough to be the man of the house when you’ve just learned to drive.

See, my parents split up when I was a kid, and my dad ultimately moved far away. So I was left as the Sole Non-Chihuahua Male in a house with my mom and younger twin sisters. So the traditional Man Crap fell to me, but I had no one to guide me. No testosterone Sherpa. (I do actually have an older brother, but he is about 14 years older from a previous marriage, and was not living at home for most of my childhood memory.)

What if something happened to the car’s alternator, or any other problem not solved by adding gas to the tank or air to the tires? What if I had to run some high-gauge copper wire behind the wall to do whatever you would need to do in that situation? What if we were attacked by crazed Visigoths who wanted to break our A/C unit and make off with the women? What if all the grocery stores were destroyed and I had to hunt for food?

Well, I could learn about that last one. My Uncle Don invited me to come with him and my cousin Marc to kill birds. Don’t worry about dinner, Mom — I’m bringing home a trove of fresh blue jays.

I must have been 16, since I remember being excited about making this long drive alone. Uncle Don lives on the far side of Athens, AL, a drive of just over an hour from Huntsville. I remember it was autumn, both because of the weather and because we scheduled this for an off-week for Auburn’s football team. Don had the guns, ammo, and land. All I needed was my killer instinct.

I know shit about guns. Thanks to my choice of reading materials, I know far more about phasers and swords. I got the quick lesson on shotgun use: don’t point it at anyone, and hold the butt hard up against your shoulder before you fire. The recoil hurts a lot less if it’s just pushing against your skeleton than if it gets a running start. You can test this yourself. Hold a book up to your shoulder and have someone hit it with a baseball bat, then again without the book.

Two hours later, I’m standing alone in the middle of a field, feeling like an idiot. There aren’t any birds out here. I hear the occasional shotgun boom in the distance. I’m guessing that Marc is just shooting to make us think he found birds. I do actually see a deer. I level my gun at it, but I don’t want to shoot it. Starting to think I don’t belong out here. The deer is heading off Uncle Don’s property, which is dangerous. The neighbors might know how to hunt.

Then, I see a bird! It’s coming out of some trees and flying RIGHT TOWARDS ME. I can hear it CHIRPCHIRPCHIRP, but to me it sounds like HAHAHAHA. It’s maybe 50 feet off the ground.

Safety: off. Butt: firm against the shoulder. This is before I ever had a physics class, but I do know I have to lead it a little, but it’s hard because it’s coming straight towards me against an overcast sky. Closer…. closer… The gun barrel is rising higher and higher…

BLAM!

Most memories replay in our heads very much like we experienced them originally. We see them as movies filmed through our eyes. The details may fade or change over time, but the perspective remains the same. But sometimes, events live in our memories as still shots, like a photograph or a drawing, and we see them in the third person. That’s how the memory of the shotgun blast lives in my mind.

In that instant, three things occur to me simultaneously:

  1. I didn’t lead the bird enough
  2. I didn’t have the shotgun tight enough against my shoulder
  3. I have just fired a shotgun straight up in the air

Me: “SHIT! Oh shit! Fuck fuck fuck!”

Bird: HAHAHAhahaha…. (continues to fly in perfect safety off into the distance)

I already said I didn’t know physics, but I did know enough to know what happened to things that went straight up.

I drop the gun, collapse to my knees, bend my head down to the ground and cover my neck with my hands. For several seconds, nothing happens. Maybe the wind took the pellets? Maybe they reached escape velocity? You see celebrating Muslims firing machine guns into the air all the time. Maybe I am more a danger to the shuttle than to myself? But no.

The first pellet hits the ground nearby with a soft thump. Soon, more and more are thumping, like microwave popcorn almost ready to eat. I hear, more than feel, one hit my jacket. It doesn’t penetrate the fabric, and I have been a big fan of air friction ever since. It seems like they fall for several minutes, but I know it must have been only a couple of seconds.

I stand up, searching for my gun and dignity. In the direction the bird went, I hear “BLAM!” “HAHAHAHA”

Glancing around quickly, I don’t see anyone. My standard male Fruit of the Looms have turned to lacy silk, but no one is the wiser. What little taste I had for hunting is long gone, and I spend the rest of the day deliberately shooting away from live animals and never raising the barrel higher than 10 degrees above the horizon.

We gather again after we’re all out of ammo to see how we did. Tallying up our kills, we have a total of zero, although Don and Marc brag of some “near misses.” The only person who hit anything was me when I shot myself, but I don’t tell them.

Since then, word has apparently spread that I am no danger to the avian community. There are always birds around, from LBJs to birds of prey. I was even adopted by a parakeet, but that’s another story.

Support your local grocers, people. I’ll be dead without them.

Who Y’all Gonna Call?

If you’ve ever lived in, visited, or been anally raped by hillbillies while making pig noises in the Deep South, you’ve no doubt noticed the piles of history we have around here. “Look at that historical SQUEEEEEEAL SQUEEEEEEAL object!” is something we often hear tourists sob. That’s especially true of the Atlanta area, even though many of our historic objects have been burned down for more than 140 years.

We’re reminded of this on the Roswell Ghost Tour, a two-hour nighttime walking tour of Roswell, Georgia. Roswell was formerly home to a bunch of Cherokee Indians, who kindly donated it to the white settlers by being declared illegal and forcibly relocated. Ironically, 60 years later, those same white settlers were declared illegal by Union soldiers and forcibly relocated by General Sherman.

But modern Roswell is still rife with large antebellum homes, every one of which is haunted. Ghosts love them some creaky, drafty places for some reason. Many of those houses are now museums or other officially preserved structures, but one is also a J. Christopher’s and another is a salon when I once got a serviceable (i.e. non-haunted) haircut.

I entered this environment with sniggering anticipation, along with fellow GhostHunterBusters Rich, Lisa, and Kelley. Plus maybe three dozen other people exhibiting varying degrees of credulity, but none more than our tour guide Elizabeth.

Light Anomalies

Our first stop was Bulloch Hall, unfortunately not named for Jim J. Bulloch. At Bulloch Hall, you’re going to get light anomalies, featuring 2/3rds the creepiness of regular anomalies. Light anomalies are when lights suddenly come on or go off. This happens so much at Bulloch Hall that they might as well put a disco inside. We have anecdotes out the wazoo from docents working there (Bulloch Hall is a museum now) who have shut everything off for the night, only to notice as they were driving away that the attic light or a front room light was on. Elizabeth assured us that there were no motion-sensitive lights installed, and the only light timer was inactive, so ghosts were the only logical explanation.

While she was telling us this, the porch light came on. The porch light mysteriously comes on whenever someone climbs the porch steps.

Perhaps we were unfairly skeptical, but we were unmoved by the lights. None of us are electricians, but we thought of other explanations besides ghosts fascinated by light switches. How reliable is the wiring in a 170-year-old house? It’s a big place – how often does a docent forget a room until getting back to the car? Once word spreads about light anomalies, how often does the power of suggestion turn a forgotten light or blown-out bulb into a supernatural event? I was reminded of Ghostbusters, and not for the last time that night: certainly no human being would switch on lights like this.

Also at Bulloch Hall: a rocking chair sat placidly on the porch, as chairs do. Elizabeth told us that chair sometimes starts rocking on its own, sometimes speeding up, sometimes slowing back down again. Right as I was starting to think of a reason for that, a breeze hit me on the back of the neck. Or maybe a ghost was flirting with me. Or maybe it was Rich. Regardless, I guess you can think of wind as ghosts, in the sense that they can make things move.

Ghosts at Bulloch

The front steps at Buloch Hall. Sometimes you can see the ghostly image of a smartass in pink mugging for the camera.

Full-bodied Apparitions

The mother lode. Or, as Elizabeth put it, the Holy Grail of paranormal investigation. I guess that means they’re rare, but every place we where stopped had one. By my account, about 15% of the Roswell citizens are dead. Roswell is one tragic apartment fire away from having a filibuster-proof ghost majority.

Not all of them live in houses on the tour, either — the person who runs the tour has seen one walking around outside. Probably more. I made it a point to accidentally bump into several people on the tour, just in case we had spies. Didn’t find any, but in downtown Roswell we have an adolescent slave girl, a young boy wearing knickers, several young curious girls (one in a townhouse, one in a cemetery), a grumpy elderly couple, a habitual jaywalker, and most interestingly, a ghost cat.

Truly. We were walking through a neighborhood and a black cat crossed our path. We laughed, and Elizabeth said “that’s a real cat, but there is a phantom cat around here.” I can only assume Elizabeth spends her days kicking cats, and her foot passed through one once.

We didn’t see any full-bodied apparitions of any species. I think we need a federal program where we pay people to wander through Roswell kicking homeless people, just in case. If you’re not going to go away when you’re dead, you can just keep paying taxes.

Ghost Smoke

This was my favorite. There was a large house that was built just in time for Christmas 100 years ago or so. They threw a Christmas/housewarming party, not knowing the chimney was blocked. Roof caught on fire and the place burned to the ground. So they decided to build another one, and piled a bunch of wood in the lawn to cure for awhile. The stacks of wood were hit by lightning and burned. The current house is made of bricks. It is from this house that we get the story of the Three Little Pigs.

Now, when groups of people stand in front of the house, occasionally someone in the group claims to smell smoke. Not the most frightening story ever, but still… ooooOOOOooooOOOOoooo…

My problem with the phantom smoke is twofold.

  1. How is the smell of ghost smoke different from that of regular smoke coming out of the chimneys of any of the other half-dozen old drafty houses nearby?
  2. What, exactly, is this a ghost of? No one died in either fire. The first house was brand new, and the second was still un-begun. How haunted could they be?

Also, Jimmy Carter’s aunt used to live across the street. She’s dead now. No word on whether she’s a ghost. Fingers crossed!

Screaming

There’s an old cotton mill in Roswell. During the Civil War, all the men in the area were off fighting in the Confederate Army, so the mill was operated primarily by women. General Sherman learned that the mill was making supplies for the Confederates, so his Union Army took it over and carried all the ladies inside away, before moving on to Atlanta proper, in his quest to make more ghost smoke. There’s only one report of any of those people making it back — a woman who returned five years later, to find her husband had remarried.Now, the mill is empty, and the trail leading to it is closed for renovations, which means the only people who go there are teenaged smoochers. Those reliable witnesses report the sounds of women screaming and a mill running. Our tour guide’s thought was that the Union Army did themselves a little raping before hauling the women up north.

But there are a lot of things wrong here. I can’t find evidence of widespread raping, although I suppose they could also start screaming if they were told they had to go to Philadelphia. Who wouldn’t? Also, a modern teenager wouldn’t know what a cotton mill sounds like unless the Jonas Brothers sampled some cotton mill noises.

The Founder’s Cemetery

We stopped at the Founder’s Cemetery, where several of the original white guys and their slaves are buried. It’s also home to one of the more playful apparitions: a small girl who sometimes reaches up to hold your hand, sometimes scampers behind a tree, and sometimes sits in the big tree looking down at the tour groups. We didn’t see this little girl, but I think I saw a ghostly Wesley Crusher.

Ghost Wes

"Captain, anomalies detected in the terminium graviton sub-emissions! And I guess I'm dead!"

The cemetery wasn’t a total loss. We didn’t see anything at the time, but we did get a picture of some orbs. We didn’t appreciate it at the time, because orbs are bullshi–… I mean, you can only see them in pictures, and there are some skeptical types who think they’re flash reflections off dust or pollen.

 

Conclusion

What causes ghosts? Or, more specifically, what makes the spirit of a dead person/cat/woodpile remain among the living when most others just go into the light?

I’m not an expert on ghosts. But that’s okay — I think no one else is either, for the same reason that no one is an expert on the political system of Neptune. From what I can tell, the main type of ghost are dead people who don’t fully realize they are dead, because they died during some mind-bending tragedy or trauma. (Another kind is like what’s reported at the cotton mill, which is simply a looping playback of a past tragedy. There is probably a ghost of me at my alma mater buying a ticket for that Joe Piscopo show over and over.)

So if ghosts are tragically dead people looking for release or vengeance, why bother with flipping the lights off and on? How is making a chair rock going to ease a tortured soul? The haunted restaurant got prank ghost phone calls (almost immediately after the owner passed out business cards and told us ghosts crank called), because a woman hung herself after her Union solider boyfriend was executed for treasonously falling in love with a southerner. REVENGE IS HERS! Ghosts might be avenging spirits, but sounds like they are also dicks.

Next time you’re mad at a family member, randomly move chairs and dishes around and flip the lights off and on. Let me know which reaction you get:

    • “Please forgive me! I am covered in shame, and I repent the wrongs I have done you!”
    • “Goddamnit, stop that before I break this Bundt pan across your head!”

So ghosts don’t have much of an action plan. But how convincing are the ghost stories? All those anecdotes from a pre-scientific antebellum slave-owning culture have to be compelling, right?

No. Early on, Elizabeth said:

People experience the paranormal differently. Some people see something, others feel a presence, still others smell something, and others don’t sense anything at all. Just because no one else experienced it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

Pay close attention to that last sentence, as I think it sums up the core of the whole “ghost hunter” philosophy. Basically, you have to be “sensitive” to these things to experience any of it, which I think means “willing to immediately jump to the supernatural as an explanation for any phenomenon.” If you tend to look for a more natural explanation first, you’re most likely going to arrive at one very soon, and miss out on seeing/feeling/smelling the ghosts. Combine that sensitivity with a spooky nighttime setting, personal anecdotes, and a few science-sounding assertions, you’ll find yourself open to Elizabeth’s suggestions.And if you don’t want prank calls at your restaurant, don’t tell us you get calls from ghosts right after handing us fliers with your phone number on it. In any crowd our size, you’re going to get cell phones and smartasses. You know where that leads:

Final Note: Chip Coffey is a supporter of the Roswell Ghost Tour (and regular attendee, but not the night we were there). The manager of the haunted restaurant told us this, like it’s something we should be impressed by. If ghosts come back to the scene where great wrong was done to them, Chip better be ready for a whole bunch of visitors someday.