Sinking the Pink

My wife and I recently lost a dear friend named Vickie Wen after she endured a long and courageous battle with Stage IV metastatic breast cancer. Our hearts ache with grief as we remember this amazing human being. Those that knew Vickie were never the same after meeting her. She was inspiring, gracious, humble, determined, focused, outspoken, and faithful to God until the very end.

In addition to being a committed wife to her husband Art and mother to two beautiful children, Vickie was an inspiring and profound writer. Through her blog iwantmorethanapinkribbon, Vickie took all of us through her journey with cancer while providing fresh perspectives on coping with this insidious disease. Prevalent in her writings were her strong criticisms of the Pink Ribbon campaign and its misguided mission of promoting and selling pink merchandise while claiming such activity produces meaningful funding for cancer research.

I have nothing but the deepest respect for those who are battling cancer (including my wife) or for those who are survivors. In my opinion, the Pink Ribbon campaign was created with good intentions. I believe those who participate in its activities or purchase its products believe they are doing so to honor friends and loved ones.  At the end of the day, however, consider asking yourself this question: How much money is really being used for cancer research and how much is being funneled back into marketing pink products?

In my opinion, cancer is a holistic disease. It can spread very rapidly and consume the entire body. Statements such as “Saving the Ta-Tas” and other ridiculous slogans are completely missing the point. It’s about the entire body not just the parts glamorized across the covers of slick magazines. Kicking the living shit out of this god-awful and wretched disease will take an unwavering, single-focused, well-funded effort. Make no mistake, battling cancer is not about gimmicks and slogans, it’s about warfare.

To honor our friend Vickie, my wife and I have chosen to abstain from Pink Ribbon activities and the consumption of pink merchandise. We believe it’s time to get focused and serious about this disease just as our friend Vickie did.

We love you dear Vickie and know you are resting in paradise free from the ravages of cancer. We will miss you greatly.

ellen-and-vickie

Vickie (L) and my wife Ellen (R) at one of my wife’s chemo treatments.

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The Final Countdown

My wife and I love the latest Geico Insurance television ads that have been running.  Our favorite one features the Swedish heavy metal band Europe rocking out to their 1986 hit “The Final Countdown” inside a small corporate break room. The song begins as the cooking time expires on an employee’s burrito slowly rotating inside a microwave oven. As the song continues, a handful of lethargic employees on a lunch break are stunned by the sudden loud music and massive spark showers flying across the room. The ad closes with one of the employees gently shaking her hips to the thunderous music. In my opinion, this ad is absolutely hilarious (I have included the YouTube video below for your viewing enjoyment).

This song also declares the final chapter of a long chemotherapy journey for my wife and has become our anthem. After 17 weeks of treatments, we have one more to go. We are counting the days.

The outpouring of support during our time of need has been unprecedented. Words cannot begin to express the gratitude and love we feel at this time. We are both humbled and grateful. To all of you who have supported us, we thank you and love you. You have been a blessing beyond words.

When we cross this finish line, we are going to celebrate first with friends and family then privately. In February, we are taking a road trip down to Santa Barbara to reflect, celebrate, and acknowledge our blessings.

The road ahead of us awaits. It’s time to commence the final countdown.

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Kicking a wretched bastard to the curb

I vividly remember it as if it had happened yesterday. On July 22nd, I was frantically driving from work through rush hour traffic to meet my wife for dinner at Black Angus. Unfortunately, I arrived late but eventually found my wife sitting at our table soberly staring at a glass of red wine. I sat down beside her, apologized for being late, then inquired about her day. She began by telling me that she had received the test results from the doctors then turned to me and said through tears three horrifying words I hoped I would never have to hear: “I have cancer”.

Months before, my wife had been experiencing unusual levels of discomfort in her abdomen. Symptoms included bloating, nausea, vaginal discharge, cramping, and fatigue. After consulting with her doctor, a CT scan was immediately performed. When the scan results arrived, the images revealed a mass above the uterus along with a sizeable buildup of abdominal fluid. A biopsy of the abdominal fluid later confirmed the presence of cancerous cells.

On July 27th, my wife underwent an operation known in the medical community as a debulking procedure. This three hour procedure removed all of her reproductive organs including the uterus, both fallopian tubes, and both ovaries. The surgery also drained several liters of abdominal fluid and removed all detected cancerous tissues. Fortunately, no life sustaining organs were disturbed during the surgery and the colon remained intact. The surgery confirmed a cancer staging of IIIC.

After several weeks of physical healing from surgery, my wife will undergo a grueling 18 weeks of chemotherapy.

The subject of cancer has always terrified and angered me. Cancer is a disgusting, vile, and merciless disease that slowly claims thousands of innocent lives every year. My wife and I have several dear friends and acquaintances who are either battling cancer or are survivors. I honestly never in a million years imagined we would ever have to host this unscrupulous killer. Now it has come to us.

When I envision cancer, I picture an unwelcome visitor who barges into your home without being invited in. It lies on your sofa and kicks off its shoes. It smells and looks awful. It disrespects your possessions, eats your food, and vomits all over your carpets and floors. After a few days, it begins to destroy your home and threatens the life of you and your family. Eventually, you are left with no available options but to call in the local SWAT team. When the officers arrive armed with automatic weapons, you shove the unwelcome visitor against the wall and command the SWAT team to open fire on the visitor until it wheezes its last breath. After the smoke clears, you toss the lifeless blood soaked body into a trash dumpster and begin the process of rebuilding your life and home. That’s cancer in my nutshell.

We are committed to fighting this because it simply has to end. For us, cancer is just one more spoonful of mashed potatoes dumped upon a full and creaking plate about to collapse. My wife and I have miles of road in front of us to explore and years of living to finish together. We just ain’t got time to deal with this shit. Attention cancer, this is your final warning. We are coming after you and you are going down.

It’s time to call in the SWAT team and kick this wretched bastard to the curb.

If you are interested in following our journey, please visit my wife’s CaringBridge site here.

Ellen Surgery

My wife coming out of surgery to install a port for chemotherapy on September 4, 2015

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The fire down below

On September 9th 2010 at 6:11pm, a 30-inch (76 cm) diameter natural gas pipeline exploded within the city of San Bruno California killing eight people and injuring 58. The enormous fires produced from the rapidly escaping gas completely incinerated 35 homes, dozens of parked vehicles, and scorched over 10 acres of private and public property. 70 additional homes were also damaged with three becoming uninhabitable.

The raging eight alarm inferno required a crew of approximately 200 firefighters battling high winds and other obstacles to bring the flames under control. Eye witnesses to the disaster claimed the initial explosion produced a wall of flame almost 1000 feet high. Within hours after the explosion, overwhelmed fire crews desperately reached out to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection to request an additional 25 engines to pump water along with four air tankers, two air attack planes, and one helicopter to dump fire retardant from the air.

By 10pm local time, the fires were only 50 percent contained and continued to burn until approximately 11:40am the next day. After the last ember was finally extinguished, the once charming middle class neighborhood was now reduced to a war zone.

After a thorough investigation by the National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB), it was discovered that the welds on the 28 foot (8.5 m) section of ruptured pipe were both antiquated and defective and eventually failed from years of gas pressure variances and stress. The NTSB investigation also revealed that the pipe was installed in the ground in 1956 and contained no documentation or maintenance records. The pipe section was part of a gas pipeline network known as Line 132 and was installed, maintained, and owned by the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E). Additional findings included PG&E’s lack of response after San Bruno residents reported smelling natural gas hours before the explosion and the time it took PG&E to shut off the gas supply to San Bruno after the explosion (95 minutes).

When the pipe blew open, it ruptured along a top lateral weld sending gas straight up. As gas was released, it instantly ignited and produced a wall of flame hundreds of feet into the air. In addition to the main line explosion, flaming gases traveled through a network of service lines feeding off the main line setting individual houses ablaze. The crater left from the explosion measured 167 feet (51 m) long by 26 feet (7.9 m) wide.

In August of 2013, I left a full-time technical writing position at a semiconductor company to join a small consulting firm (who shall remain nameless) working for PG&E on improving employee training programs for its Gas Operations division. The relationship between my firm and PG&E was primarily born out of the San Bruno disaster and PG&E’s overall training and documentation shortcomings.

One of the main reasons I joined this firm was a desire to make a difference in how PG&E trained their Gas Ops technicians. As I dove into my assignments, I found the work to be meaningful and necessary and firmly believed the programs our team were working on would hopefully prevent another San Bruno from ever happening again.

In November of 2013, our team was informed that PG&E’s training budget would be significantly reduced thus making headcount reductions necessary. On January 3rd 2014, my firm fired approximately 50 percent of its staff including me. The months that followed brought additional cuts to staff leaving just a handful of people to work on dwindling PG&E training programs.

On April 9th 2015, the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) overwhelmingly voted to slap PG&E with a 1.6 billion dollar penalty for its negligence, incompetence, and culpability in the San Bruno disaster. In addition to the PUC ruling, PG&E still faces an enormous litany of litigation and criminal charges from the destruction of personal property and loss of life.

To this day, the PUC fine marks the largest financial penalty ever brought against a public utility in the United States.

In my opinion, PG&E should pay every dime of this fine as punishment for its misguided priorities and negligence. Public utilities hold some of the highest risk of any company on the planet due to their responsibility to public safety and as such should be held to the highest levels of public and government accountability imaginable. In short, there can be no financial compromises on safety or training programs. I cannot imagine the jobs at my previous consulting firm that could now be restored or additional hiring that could result from 1.6 billion dollars.

Make no mistake, a majority of the infrastructure beneath us is several decades old and is in dire need of inspection, replacement, and repair. Until PG&E seriously begins refocusing on its training and documentation priorities, the haunting possibility of another San Bruno or worst will always be lurking below us.

Fire crews working on the San Bruno Fire September 9th 2010

Fire crews working on the San Bruno Fire September 9th 2010

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The spirit of ’76

On April 25, 1976 at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles California, two radical fans (a father and his 11 year old son) jumped the outfield barrier wall and ran onto the playing field carrying an American flag. After crouching down in center field, they attempted to incinerate the flag in front of thousands of shocked and booing fans. The incident occurred in the fourth inning of a game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the visiting Chicago Cubs.

Upon witnessing what was about to go down, Rick Monday, the 30 year old center fielder for the Chicago Cubs immediately sprinted towards the duo and grabbed the flag seconds before it was set ablaze. Monday then calmly walked over to Dodgers starting pitcher Doug Rau and handed the flag over to the sounds of thunderous cheers from the crowd. The father and son were later apprehended and arrested by ballpark police officers.

When Monday came to bat in the next inning, he received a standing ovation and was greeted by a special message on the score board that read: RICK MONDAY…..YOU MADE A GREAT PLAY.

What makes this an extraordinary story is that Rick Monday (now 68) was a Vietnam veteran who served in the United States Marine Corps Reserves (an ROTC commitment established at his alma mater Arizona State University) prior to his 18 year career as a professional baseball player.

On August 25, 2008, Monday was presented with an American flag flown over the Valley Forge National Historical Park to honor the April 25, 1976 event. To this day, Monday still possesses the original flag he rescued from destruction.

Years after the incident, Monday recalled his patriotic actions: “If you’re going to burn the flag, don’t do it around me. I’ve been to too many veterans’ hospitals and seen too many broken bodies of guys who tried to protect it”

You made a great play Rick Monday. God bless you Sir and God bless America.

Rick_Monday_American_Flag

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Strapping on the oxygen mask

Anyone who has ever traveled by airplane has heard the FAA required pre-flight safety announcement prior to takeoff. I, like many other passengers, often zone out during this important information except when it comes to the part about using the oxygen mask in the event of a cabin depressurization. During this portion of the safety announcement, passengers are instructed to place the oxygen mask over their mouth and breathe briefly before assisting their children. There’s a reason for this. You simply cannot properly assist your children if you become incapacitated. You must take care of yourself first then attend to the needs of your children.

As I raise my 13-year-old son with special needs, I am becoming more aware of my profound shortcomings as a parent. I am convinced that I cannot be the best father for my son unless I am constantly regulating and monitoring my emotional and mental health. This often requires personal time away that belongs to me.  I also encourage that my wife take the personal time she needs that belongs to her. There is no shame when parents need to place themselves first. We’ve earned it and we deserve it.

I love my son more than anything in this world, but I also cherish the personal time I claim as my own to recharge, rehabilitate, and strap on the oxygen mask. I know my son benefits more if I’m present, conscious, breathing, and emotionally available to met his needs after I have met mine.

oxygen mask

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Balls to the wall

Recently, I came across an article in the San Jose Mercury News describing the final toast of the four surviving members of the “Doolittle Raiders”. The “Doolittle Raiders” were a band of 80 specially trained Army airmen who participated in one of the most courageous retaliatory bombing missions ever undertaken in response to the devastating attacks on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

On April 1, 1942, 16 specially modified B-25 bomber aircraft were loaded onto the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Hornet docked at the Alameda Naval Air Station located in Northern California. The 16 aircraft were accompanied by 80 Army airmen, 71 Army officers and 130 enlisted men. The mission was orchestrated and led by the legendary military aviator Lieutenant Colonel James “Jimmy” Doolittle of the U. S. Army Air Forces.

The weaponry each B-25 would carry included four customized 500-pound (225 kg) bombs. Three of the bombs contained high-explosive munitions and the forth was an incendiary package designed to separate and scatter explosive tubes after its release from the bomb bay.

The primary objective of the Doolittle bombing mission was to fly 16 B-25 bombers 480 nautical miles at extremely low altitudes (to avoid radar detection) to Japan to destroy 10 military and industrial targets located in the cities of Tokyo, Yokohama, Yokosuka, Nagoya, Kobe, and Osaka. The attacks were designed to be rapid and devastating and were intended to cripple Japan’s growing industrial capabilities.

On the morning of April 18, after being unexpectedly sighted by a Japanese patrol boat, the B-25s were ordered to launch immediately. Because each B-25 aircraft was so laden with fuel and ordinance and had only 467 feet (142 m) of takeoff distance; each pilot was required to use a takeoff technique known as “balls to the wall”. After each aircraft was positioned forward for takeoff, pilots shoved the throttle lever balls against the instrument panel and held them at the full power position while the twin engines ramped to maximum power. Once the engines achieved full power, the brakes were released to rapidly accelerate the plane forward.

Miraculously, all 16 B-25 aircraft launched successfully off the deck of the U.S.S. Hornet without ditching into the ocean. After all bombers were airborne, they regrouped for the long flight to Japan. During the first half of the flight over the Pacific, the B-25s flew in small formations then flew in single file. Each aircraft flew slightly above wave top level to avoid radar detection.

When the bombers reached Japan, each B-25 crew jettisoned their bomb loads over the six targets within seconds. Of the 16 participating bombers, only one missed its target. None of the 16 aircraft were shot down by anti-aircraft fire or Japanese fighter plane attacks.

After the bombing raids were accomplished, 15 of the 16 B-25s flew southwest over the South China Sea and into Eastern China while one bomber, extremely low on fuel, headed towards the Soviet Union. With a refueling plan foiled and other unforeseen challenges present, the bomber crews had no choice but to either crash land or bail out once their fuel tanks ran dry.

Fortunately, most of the crews were kept safe by allied Chinese civilians and soldiers. Of the original 80 participating “Doolittle Raiders”, 69 survived the mission by avoiding capture from Japanese forces.

In the end, the Doolittle Mission restored and boosted morale to the United States following the devastating attacks on Perl Harbor just 5 months before. The mission proved that the United States was still capable of responding with remarkable force even after taking an enormous hit to its military. Moreover, it exposed the vulnerability of the Japanese military who believed they were invincible after an overwhelming and victorious attack on the United States. In short, the Doolittle Raid became a turning point in a war that was just beginning to escalate.

On Veterans Day this year, three of the four surviving members of the “Doolittle Raiders” toasted their fallen comrades by sipping 1896 cognac. The 1896 cognac was selected because it was produced the same year their heroic mission leader Lieutenant Colonel James “Jimmy” Doolittle was born.

The “Doolittle Raiders” were and are among some of the most courageous members of the “greatest generation”. Before these last four men pass from this earth, their complete stories should be captured and find their rightful place in history along with others who have faithfully served their country above and beyond the call of duty.

Doolittle B-25

B-25 bomber awaiting takeoff from the U.S.S. Hornet on April 18, 1942.

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