Friday, August 15, 2014

My Ice Bucket Challenge

I had the privilege of meeting Steve Barber and his lively traveling entourage last week. I didn’t get the chance to have a conversation with Steve, but he’s a man I will never forget and I am certainly a better person because our paths crossed.

Steve is living with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. ALS.

ALS is a neurodegenerative disease in which the body’s motor neurons deteriorate, causing rapid muscle atrophy and paralysis. There is currently no cure for this cruel, debilitating, and unforgiving disease.

I wrote that Steve is living with ALS, and I chose those words very carefully. Steve was diagnosed with ALS in 2004, at the age of 25. Ten years later, I met Steve and his family in Chicago. They made the trip from Ontario by train, because commercial airlines can’t comfortably accommodate Steve and his wheelchair. It’s remarkable that we met at all though, because it’s a minor miracle that Steve is even living today.

The average ALS patient lives only three to five years after the disease begins systematically shutting down the body. Lou Gehrig, whom the disease is popularly named for, lived less than two years after his diagnosis. Steve is part of the 4% of ALS patients who live past ten years with the disease.

It’s not only the fact that Steve is still living that is so inspiring; it’s the way that he’s living. Although ALS has robbed him of all of his motor skills, he hasn’t stopped living life. He still has the urge to travel. His family told me stories of how he plans parts of their vacations, using his computer that is operated by eye-tracking technology. I can’t begin to comprehend how it works. For Steve, it’s his lifeline to the rest of the world – a vital piece of equipment that allows him to communicate and maintain some degree of independence.

In his moving speech, Jim Valvano said that, “Cancer can take away all of my physical abilities. It cannot touch my mind, it cannot touch my heart, and it cannot touch my soul.” Jimmy V's words can certainly be said about Steve and how he lives with ALS. They say that the eyes are windows into the soul, but they are so much more than that for Steve. Thanks to eye-tracking technology, his eyes are windows into his mind, into his heart, into his soul, into his entire world.

ALS doesn’t touch a person’s mind, and Steve’s remains sharp ten years after his diagnosis. In Chicago, Steve monitored how things were going at the bar he owns and operates in St. Thomas, Ontario. Somehow, a man who needs help drinking his Bud Light runs a successful bar. I joked with his family that I can’t even hold onto a beer without spilling it. It was funny, because I had just spilled a beer all over the table.

Steve, his family, and his closest friends founded the Believe Army, an organization that raises money and awareness for the ailment that afflicts 350,000 people worldwide. Through various events, the group has brought in significant funds to support the fight against ALS. I am currently fielding my foursome for next year’s 11th Annual Believe Open, the group’s yearly golf event. Serious inquiries only.

I haven’t been nominated to perform the “ice bucket challenge” and I’m not issuing a challenge to any of you. I only hope to raise more awareness for ALS and for Steve’s fight. I want to encourage everyone to make a donation to support ALS research in Steve’s name. The videos and publicity around the challenge have been incredibly effective in raising awareness for ALS, and real dollars are coming in that will hopefully affect change.

To steal from Lou Gehrig’s famous speech: I may not be the luckiest man on the face of the Earth, but I certainly am lucky that I had the honor of meeting Steve Barber.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Relax, It’s Not Like You Cured Cancer: Celebrating Everyday Achievements Like Professional Athletes

The patient’s heart-rate monitor shows no pattern. The machine’s beeps carry no rhythm.

“He’s in V-Fib. Get me the panels,” senior trauma doctor Rog Bronkowski orders.

The beeping gives way to a continuous tone. The monitor shows a flat line.

“Charging, 200. CLEAR!”


Luther’s lifeless body jumps from the hospital bed.

A nurse stares at the monitor and shakes her head. Nothing.

“Come on, Luther. Don’t you die on me you old bastard! Charging, 250. CLEAR!”


Beep beep. Beep beep. The monitor spikes and the beeps march on in perfect cadence.

“We got a rhythm. Let’s get him up to the O.R.”

Dr. Bronkowski backs away as Luther is rushed up to surgery. He rips off his gloves and spikes them to the floor with such fury that the devil would be scared to take Luther tonight. From across the room, another doctor sprints wildly toward him. The two meet in mid air, their sides colliding. Two nurses throw their arms wide and violently chest bump.

As Bronkowski leaves the trauma room, the hospital’s chief of emergency medicine greets him with a handshake and a pat on the ass.1

“Nice work in there, Rog.”

Chalk one up for the good guys.

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I was at home this past week, watching some college hoops with my dad. Oklahoma State’s Markel Brown hit an 18-footer in his team’s 12-point loss to in-state rival Oklahoma. While backpedaling to the other end, Brown pounded his chest and barked at Sooner freshman guard Jordan Woodard.2

Disgusted, my dad muttered, “Relax, it’s not like you cured cancer or anything.”

This led to a couple minutes of the two of us joking around about how funny it would be if a doctor talked smack after discovering a cancer cure.

As Richard Sherman would put it, “I’m the best molecular biologist in the game. When you try me with a sorry disease like cancer, that’s the results you’re gon’ get!”

So what if people in our everyday lives (not that finding a cure for cancer is an everyday occurrence) celebrated their achievements like athletes do? Imagine this is the world we live in:

1. Construction workers finish nailing down the shingles on a newly erected house. The foreman raises the roof.

2. A librarian finishes checking out a patron’s book. She holds her finger up to her mouth to silence the crowd.

3. An audiologist gives an elderly man a clean bill of auditory health. He asks the crowd for more noise, cupping a hand over his ear as if to say, “I can’t hear you!

4. An optometrist fits a child with a new pair of glasses. As the newly spectacled child perfectly recites the smallest line of letters on the eye chart, the doctor holds up his three goggles over his eyes.

5. A teacher erases today’s math lesson from the blackboard. She claps the erasers together in a cloud of chalk.

6. A priest delivers a powerful sermon, drops to a knee, performs the sign of the cross, and points to the sky as he stands.3

7. In the same church, a matchmaker sits in the audience holding her hands in the shape of a heart, as two of her clients are being wed.4

8. An undertaker finishes his next job, drops his shovel and does the Gilbert Brown Gravedigger.

9. A landscaper trims the hedges in a backyard. He drops his shears and Lambeau Leaps to the top of the fence. The overweight neighbors in cheeseheads shower him with beer.

10. A birdwatcher does the Dirty Bird after photographing the elusive Brown Booby.

11. A farmer points at one of his chickens and yells, “I wanna' eat your children!

12. An ostrich pulls its head out of the sand and does the Merton Hanks chicken dance.

13. An entomologist discovers a new species of insect. During his press conference he Ali Shuffles and claims that it “floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee.

14. A blackjack dealer reveals a five after showing 16. The players are disappointed with his Icky Shuffle.

15. An electrician wires a house and the room lights up when he flips the switch. Ernest Givens and Haywood Jeffires would appreciate his electric slide.

16. A toddler finishes potty training and takes a bow while performing Randy Moss’s “disgusting act.

17. A tailor perfectly fits a man for a suit and busts out Aaron Rodgers’s championship belt.

18. A weatherman correctly predicted tonight’s thunderstorm. He signs off the 10:00 news with a Usain Bolt pose.

19. A photographer calls the shoot a wrap. He poses while people pretend to take pictures of him while his model strikes the Heisman.

20. A mailman high-steps his way to the next mailbox before delivering a couple bills, a dozen pre-approved credit card applications, and 17 Dominos flyers.

21. A mason lays a level foundation. When it dries, he kneels down and kisses the bricks.

22. A coal miner discovers a massive lode. He takes off running up the tunnel like Bo Jackson.

23. The judge passes down his ruling, hammers his gavel and flips it like a baseball bat.

25. After finishing a home-cooked meal, some dude who lives in his parents’ basement looks into the family camcorder, waves, and mouths, “Hi, mom!”

26. A dad gets a “Father of the Year” card on Father’s Day. His wife asks him what he’s going to do next and he answers, “We’re going to Disneyworld.” His kids, ages 15 and 17, boo and do not vote him “Father of the Year” the following year.

27. A checkout girl at the grocery store finishes scanning your items, spins a can of creamed corn like a top, and signals first down.

28. A businessman finishes an important sales pitch that the client bites on. He firmly shakes the hand of every member on his sales team.

29. A Tough Actin' Tinactin spokesperson by day, and fire walker by night, waves his hands at his feet in an attempt to cool them down.

30. Carrot Top is fined $20,000 by the President of Comedy Central for using a prop in his celebration.

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I wrote the majority of this list on my flight back to Chicago. Almost immediately after we touched down the pilot got on the horn and welcomed us to the Windy City. “Welcome to Chicago, ladies and gentlemen. How ‘bout that landing? That’s about as smooth as it gets folks.” I thought it was funny, but  appropriate, to hear a pilot talk a little smack after doing what he gets paid to do.

I was the last person to exit the plane and the pilot was waiting for me to disembark. As I approached the front, I sarcastically mimicked his “How ‘bout that landing?” rhetorical question. We both nodded in approval and he lifted his hand to deliver a fist bump. What would he have thought if I did the explode thing after our knuckles collided?


1Of course the doctor is then fired, sued, does 2-10 for sexual assault, and never practices medicine again. But a win’s a win.

2Oklahoma was up by nearly 20 at the time, making Brown’s gestures look pretty silly.

3I refuse to refer to this as “Tebowing.”

4Somehow Gareth Bale actually trademarked that?

Friday, April 5, 2013

Tan Is The New Black, White, And Brown

Sometimes we’re lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time and we witness something beautiful.

This story might read like it’s ripped from the script of Lifetime’s next made-for-TV movie or a re-run of Touched By An Angel on the Hallmark Channel. You've probably read something similar in one of those chain emails your mom sent you, or in one of those sentimental Facebook posts emblazoned with a title reading something like "Wait Until You Hear What a Man Said to a Little Boy on the Train!”

The story starts on the train while making my normal commute to work. Alarmingly, the train was nearly empty and there were only four of us in the rear car of the train. A woman was seated across from me with her young son next to her, and a man was sitting in the seat farthest toward the rear of the train.  The woman was white, the man black, and the little boy somewhere in between. The woman was reading what appeared to be a trashy celebrity gossip magazine, while the boy was swinging his feet below him and staring at the man in the back, who, with his head resting against the window, appeared to be asleep.

When the train eased to a stop, the boy hopped down from his seat and rambled toward the back of the train, his head bobbling from side to side with every step. He ambitiously climbed up into the seat next to the sleeping man and quietly kneeled next to him. The train’s doors closed and we pulled out of the station. The boy sat calmly at first, but his impatience won out and he poked the man in the shoulder a few times, which was enough to startle him awake.

The man appeared to be agitated by being so rudely awakened, but his face softened when he saw the boy happily bouncing on his knees next to him.

Once he had the man’s attention, the boy divulged his reason for bothering him. 

“I like how brown you are,” he said. 

The man cocked his head slightly, showing his confusion. 

The boy continued, “My dad’s brown like you are. That’s why I’m tan,” the boy said proudly, as he pulled up the sleeve of his jacket and pointed to his tanned forearm.

The man’s response is what makes this story worth retelling. He sat up in his seat, put his hand on the boy’s shoulder, and uttered some truly beautiful words.

“Well, your father must be a handsome man. And you wanna’ know something, kid? One day, we’re all gonna’ be tan just like you.”

The boy’s face lit up. He turned toward his mom as if to say, “Did you hear that mom?!” He looked back at the man and nodded his head. Then, without saying another word, he got down from his seat and skipped back up the aisle like he was walking in the clouds. He practically dived into his mother’s lap. She wrapped him up in her arms and looked back at the man in the back of the train. I could see tears welling up in her eyes. 

The man simply winked at her, sunk back down in his chair, and rested his head against the window as he closed his eyes.