Tag Archives: AML

An Unknown Soldier

Veterans’ Day and Memorial Day make me sad because my late husband, Richard, was not quite a veteran but his service to his country killed him.  

His first career was as an aerospace engineer.  He worked for the Army Research Lab at Aberdeen Proving Ground–a civilian who got a paycheck from the Army.  This career happened years before we met.  I asked him what exactly he did and he answered, “If something that flies blew up but wasn’t supposed to blow up–I investigated that.  If something that flies didn’t blow up when it was supposed to blow up–I investigated that too.”  

SCUD shot down by Patriot missile.  Richard's not in this picture.  But this is what he did for the Army.

SCUD shot down by Patriot missile. Richard’s not in this picture. But this is what he did for the Army.

He went to Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm to document the performance of the Patriot Missile System (was supposed to blow up–sometimes did, sometimes didn’t, often blew up the wrong target).  He even testified before Congress during the hearings about the Patriot.  

I have snapshots of him in the desert, in Army camo, Army-issued sidearm and everything, standing next to SCUD missiles (the ones that didn’t blow up).  He investigated the terrorist bombing of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia.  He worked on the Blackhawk Down helicopter crash from Somalia.  But he wasn’t a veteran.  

His investigative work wasn’t limited to Army aircraft.  In 2003 we were sitting in a hot tub in Bermuda at sunset and struck up a conversation with a lively couple.  They were part of a large group, there for a family reunion.  After a while, the wife revealed to us that they were there courtesy of Muammar Gaddafi, who had finally paid a financial settlement to the families of the people killed in the bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.  They were one of those families who had lost a daughter 15 years before that night in Bermuda.  Now that Gaddafi had paid millions in blood money, this couple were treating the people who had helped them survive their loss to a vacation.  Richard tensed up beside me.  After they left the hot tub, I asked him, “Did you work on that one?”  He nodded.  

On 9/11, he could barely speak through his rage–because he had worked on the investigation the first time terrorists had tried to blow up the World Trade Center in 1993.  Now that they had finally done it, he was no longer in the game.  He had moved on to being a business professor.  

One year on Veterans’ Day, we were watching the broadcast of the laying of a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  I shed a few tears.  He sat stoically, holding my hand.  I asked, “Doesn’t it make you sad?”  He answered, “It is sad.  But it also makes me proud that I did my part.  I helped.”


Hemophagocytic histiocytes in bone marrow

Thirteen years passed since those days when Richard traveled the world wearing Army fatigues, getting an Army paycheck, on Army transport…but not a veteran.  When Richard developed a viciously aggressive form of leukemia at the age of 37, his doctors concluded that the cause was most certainly benzene exposure.  Why were they so sure?  Because the damage to his chromosomes was so severe that it couldn’t be a fluke.  Because 13 years is the incubation period for that kind of leukemia.  Thirteen years earlier, he had been blowing up or reassembling all kinds of aircraft.  And aircraft fuel is high in benzene.  The office that Richard worked in, investigating all those explosions was situated in a converted aircraft hangar.  When the Army Research Lab converted the space to a laboratory, they didn’t bother to dig up the old fuel tanks or test the soil to see if it was contaminated.  

If he had had any other job, he wouldn’t have died.  If he had even had a different office, he wouldn’t have died.   

All that work he did keeping our soldiers safe killed him.  That’s why I feel conflicted on Veterans’ Day.  I wish he had heard “thank you” for the work he did.  Or “we’re sorry” from the Army.  I am proud to know there are soldiers who have made it home because of something he figured out in that lab.  He gave his life in that lab.  

CAUTION: These Pants Cause Cancer

Cancer pantsThese are the pants that I was wearing on June 30, 2004.  That was such a busy day, a Tuesday, I think.  Maybe a Wednesday.  Richard and I had returned home from our vacation in New England, first at Linekin Bay for sailing then on Cape Cod for his cousin’s wedding.

We had so much to do after two weeks away from home–laundry, cleaning, paying bills.  I went right back to work.  I was teaching a Microsoft Access class that day.  Richard spent the day trying to get seen by a doctor to see if anyone could figure out why his vision was going blurry.

The day before we left for vacation, he cut the backyard with a push mower.  When he came inside, I noticed that he had a big red spot in the corner of his eye.  I asked a nurse friend and she said it was probably a simple burst blood vessel.  A common instance when one overexerts oneself.  It would clear up in a few days.  But it didn’t.  Over the two weeks we were away, the eye stayed red.  By the end of our trip, his vision was so blurry that he had to pull over to the side of the highway and let me drive through Boston.

Richard got in quickly with Dr. Blue, the ophthalmologist.  Dr. Blue looked inside Richard’s eyes and found what he thought was a dangerous bleed.  We spent a few hours in a panic–what if Richard lost his sight?  How could our life work if he went blind?   There was talk of going to Atlanta the next day to see a retinal specialist.  Fortunately (I guess), Richard also mentioned to Dr. Blue that he hadn’t been feeling well for a while and Dr. Blue had the foresight to order a CBC.  While I taught Access, Richard had the blood test done.  By that afternoon, Dr. Blue had called to say that we must get Richard to a hematologist that day.  A normal white cell count is between 4,500-10,000.  Richard’s was over 70,000.

We didn’t know the specifics yet, only that the doctor would be waiting on us at Northeast Georgia Cancer Care.  There was that word.  The unimaginable prospect of Richard losing his vision melted away and was replaced by that word.  We sat in the waiting room there, among those people with cancer.  I couldn’t find a single thing to read on the coffee table that wasn’t about…that.

So.  Dr. Marrano brought us back.  Richard took my hand and told me to wait in another room, that he wanted to talk to the doctor alone.  Dr. Marrano was so gentle with us that my heart went hollow.  You don’t have to be that nice and careful with someone who has anemia or an infection.

I sat in an exam room by myself.  I was so afraid that I couldn’t raise my head up and look around.  All I could see was those ridiculous pants.  Orange jungle print.  Ludicrous pants that hadn’t a care in the world.  I sat there thinking, “He’s over there on the other side of this wall and the doctor is telling him that he has cancer and I am over here trapped in this room with these incredibly obnoxious pants!”  If only, if only, if only.  If only one thing could be different.  Staring at those pants as the knowledge sank in that our normal life was over.

Dr. Marrano tapped on the door and brought Richard back to me.  The door closed behind him–I didn’t get to talk to the doctor.  Richard held my hand again and told me how it was going to be.  Looked me right in the eye and said, “I have leukemia.”  How there were lots of treatments and he had youth on his side and he was heading to Johns Hopkins for the absolute best experts in the field.  

Maybe those pants held me up.  I remember wanting to fall down in a heap.

We drove home, like people do.  I started crying at the traffic light at Prince and Satula.  He patted my hand on the gearshift.   The light changed and we moved on.

That night, we tried to find a doctor to talk to, any doctor.  My sister wasn’t answering, so we called Richard’s college buddy, Eeric.  A giant Viking of an orthopedic surgeon, but he knew how to interpret a CBC.  Richard was on one phone breaking the news to his parents.  I walked out on the deck to read the numbers to Eeric.  When I read the hemoglobin score, he sucked in his breath and whispered, “Shit.”   Normal range is about 14-17.  Richard’s was 7.  Eeric made me promise that I wouldn’t let Richard so much as brush his teeth until he had had a transfusion, which was scheduled for the next morning.

At the end of that long day, I took off my jungle print pants.  Nine years later, and they’re still hanging in the closet, with a fine haze of dust over the hanger.  I never could bring myself to wear them again–those are the cancer pants.  Couldn’t give them away either–they are part of a day in my life that will always be vivid.  Livid.  Obnoxious.  That innocent woman who walked out into the world in her ridiculous pants.  She never came back.

What’s that crazy thing in the back of your closet that you can’t throw away?