I felt better the minute I entered UMC’s Trauma Center the other day.
No, it wasn’t because I knew that if I showed up — as Andrew Linn did after an auto accident in 2011 — with a metal pole driven through my mouth and out the back of my head, surgeons led by Dr. Jay Coates could not only remove it safely, they’d also put me on the path to a recovery so full no one would ever know I had even been injured.
I felt better simply because 74-year-old Dr. Dale Carrison remains on duty. He’s the guy who was a former FBI agent who didn’t become a physician until he was in his 50s. Unless he’s been performing some kind of magic trick that I can’t figure out, he has a zest for life and as much energy as someone 40 years his junior.
I had come to say goodbye. Carrison’s one of those people I’ve met in more than 40 years of journalism, and nearly 70 years of life, who’s had a profound effect on me. He, too, admits to having real concerns about changing gears later in life; “I admit I was scared med school might not work out.” But that only gives more power to the line he often quotes: “It is better to try and to fail than to fail to try and forever experience the inestimable loss of what might have been.”
I’ve agonized over this decision to leave Las Vegas. What finally made me act as I have is the sense that my life clock seems to be ticking louder every day. My wife and I have decided to enter a full-time Heritage Studies doctoral program that explores the interrelationships of history, literature, geography, anthropology, culture, environment and folklore. Arkansas State University in Jonesboro has the only program of its kind in the nation.
That I’ll be getting my Ph.D. after one of my daughters really isn’t surprising. Seven years ago, 42 years after I asked Patricia Harden to marry me, she finally said yes. Things seem to work out a little more slowly for me.
My last day at the Review-Journal was Friday. I’m now driving a Penske rental truck eastbound on Interstate 40.
How we’ve gotten to this time and place — the Mississippi Delta serves as a kind of living laboratory for this academic program — fascinates me. In journalism that translates to what I’m a stickler for — context. Too often I’ve felt that the rush of daily journalism hasn’t given me the time to put two and two together. I hope this program will give me a chance to better understand why and how things add up.
This wouldn’t have been a difficult decision if I didn’t love what I do. The Review-Journal gave me the opportunity to pursue some meaningful journalism. For that I’ll be forever grateful. I think we’ve been able to give Southern Nevadans a better handle on health issues. That’s something we can be proud of.
I’m not retiring. In fact, I have to pick up the pace to be happy. I’ve got books to publish, pieces to write, teaching to do, students to mentor, children to nurture. For too long I’ve whined that jobs and family obligations only gave me time to turn out one book. No more. I take heart in the fact that Laura Ingalls Wilder didn’t publish her first novel until she was 65, yet she still managed to crank out 12 books in the “Little House On the Prairie” series.
If I come back to my first love of daily journalism, my work should show a better sense of how America has evolved.
In the living laboratory that is Las Vegas, no one’s situation moved me more than that of Elizabeth Trujillo.
As you may remember from my earlier pieces on her, Trujillo discovered in 2012 that she had two lumps in her right breast. Laid off from a job without benefits — her husband’s construction job also didn’t offer them — she didn’t have insurance coverage or money to pay for care.
Unable then to get Medicaid — government workers told her she would get insurance only if she became pregnant again — Trujillo heard from her circle of friends and acquaintances that only by getting a job with insurance could she get the care she needed. She said a family care doctor she visited and paid with cash never pointed her toward possible free care through the American Cancer Society or any other entity.
The 29-year-old mother of three young children prayed she could get a job with insurance. She got one, but it wasn’t until five months after she discovered her lumps — by that time one was as large as an orange — that she received the surgical, drug and radiation treatment necessary for what was diagnosed as breast cancer.
It was much too late.
She was already stage 4 when she presented herself to doctors. Later, when the Affordable Care Act kicked in, she received insurance through the state exchange. But the cancer had spread to her bones.
Trujillo and her family prayed for a miracle.
The miracle didn’t happen. She died in her dad’s home in Montrose, Colo., on Aug. 2, three weeks before her life insurance policy went into effect. Megan Hess, the owner of the Sunset Mesa Funeral Home in Montrose, which handled her Aug. 6 funeral, said she originally based the arrangements on the policy paying off. “She had to be alive for 24 months and just missed it,” she said. “I’m out $9,200 but I slept good knowing the mother of three children had a beautiful funeral.”
I’ve never met anyone who exhibited more grace under pressure than Trujillo. Even though she was in considerable pain and grew weaker every day, she wouldn’t allow herself or her family to engage in a pity party. She always brought a conversation about her situation back to the joy her children brought her, about her educational dreams for them.
Yes, she believed that there should be universal health coverage — “that’s only fair” — but she wasn’t bitter.
“I just hate to see young kids like mine grow up without a mother,” she said in our last conversation a couple of months ago.
As I stood on her front lawn, I told her I was having a difficult time deciding on whether to go back to school.
“If you really want to do it, you should,” she said. “You only live once.”