Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Sunday: Escalation (or Descent)

This is the 5th of a series of posts chronicling Chris' battle with Acute Myeloid Leukemia.


From Wednesday to Saturday, my stomach pain had been more of a nuisance than anything else. But on Sunday, October 6, that changed. At that point, I still believed I had a stomach ulcer - or something on that level of seriousness. Something that would soon pass. I woke up that morning, and the pain was still there, seemingly more noticeable and present with each passing hour.

Sundays are a whirlwind for me as Worship Pastor at The Bridge. We've got three worship services at two campuses. My sidekick, Sutton Davison, had scheduled a trip to Nashville that weekend, so I had double-duty responsibility that morning. Funny how we get more busy at the worst times, isn't it? I headed to the North Campus first to help The Fryers get ready to lead worship. I remember having to plug in a mic cable under a riser, and as I knelt down my stomach pain became a bit nauseating. I thought to myself, "Am I crazy for trying to do all this today?" But I really felt I had no other option. "I'll worry about my health this afternoon."

I then drove to our Downtown Campus, where we had practice at 9. This was the first time I had sung since the pain started, and it wasn't pleasant. Pushing from my diaphragm and depriving myself of oxygen really aggravated the issue. Rather than the hollow ache I'd been feeling, my pain morphed toward severe heartburn. I thought there was a pretty good chance I'd vomit on stage right in front of the congregation. I've been embarrassed publicly before, but never quite at that level.

We had about an hour between rehearsal and the worship service, and I did something I'd never done before: I went home. I told myself I needed some Pepto for my heartburn, but I really just didn't want to have to talk to people, because I could no longer focus on anything but my pain. I did take some Pepto at the house - remember, this was all for a stomach ulcer. (It wasn't until later I learned that Pepto Bismol is really bad for stomach ulcers. Oops. Didn't matter anyway, 'cause I didn't have no stomach ulcer.)

I was able to get through the worship service without major incident. The heartburn was extremely distracting, and I silently burped between most every line of most every song. Praise the Lord, I didn't vomit on stage, although that would've been extremely rock-n-roll. We picked up Cane's Chicken for lunch. What was I thinking?!

Sunday afternoons are generally a great time of decompression and relaxation for me and my family. But this particular Sunday, Karen and I were going to an Ice Cream Social at church for kid's ministry volunteers. Funny how we get more busy at the worst times, isn't it? I probably didn't need to go anywhere that Sunday, but I certainly didn't need to be eating a wonderfully delicious and unhealthy Ice Cream Sundae. That really put the proverbial cherry on top of a lot of other bad decisions I'd made that week (pun intended).

Needless to say, I wasn't feeling any better when we left the church late that afternoon. One of our best friends, Emery Pendergrass, told Karen she had potato soup on the stove and invited us over. I thought, that's probably exactly what I need. Something easy on my stomach like potato soup. We took the kids to their house and I ate the soup - it was delicious. After dinner, I sat on their couch, satisfied, wondering if finally my stomach would settle. Within ten minutes the pain intensified significantly, to the point that I couldn't focus on anything else, or even sit still. We had to go home.

I just wanted to sleep - for days if necessary - until the pain went away. Turns out sleep would elude me that Sunday night. I lay down in bed, and began experiencing pain like I've never experienced in my life. The dull ache was constant - enough to keep my awake. But every minute or two, there would be a contraction. Yes, that's what I said, a contraction. It would spike to the point that I thought my bowels would explode, and then subside back to the dull ache. That night, more than any other time in my life, I wasn't scared to die. Death would've been a welcome relief from the misery. Blinding pain has a way of reorienting our priorities in ridiculous ways. That's why torture works.

I learned some time later that cancer was growing in my small intestine and constricting my food from passing through. The pressure had built up and built up over the week - fried chicken, steak, junk food, ice cream, potato soup - and my muscles were actually doing the same thing that a woman's muscles do during labor. Except I don't have a uterus, or muscles that are supposed to miraculously expand. So I was experiencing the pains of childbirth with no child-birthing organs. It was a terrible thing.

But I couldn't have known that yet. I lay in bed, hoping not to wake Karen, coming up with new theories in my mind. I doubted that a stomach ulcer would cause this type of cramping. But I'd watched Karen squirm through the unrelenting pain of about three different kidney stones. I felt like she looked in those terrible moments. I remembered sitting in clinic waiting rooms, helplessly watching Karen contort her body in those miserable chairs in a futile effort to find relief. I remembered her moaning and crying as that little rock tried to make its way through a passageway it had no business traveling down. It was like watching Voldemort perform the cruciatus curse on someone in a Harry Potter novel. That's what I felt like. Maybe this is a kidney stone. I hope this is a kidney stone.

Around midnight, the vomiting began. I didn't really mind. Anything was welcome because it brought the hope of relief. Vomiting is an amazing thing, isn't it? Our bodies are made to violently expel any substance that threatens its well-being. You use muscles that you don't know you have, and that you certainly can't control. It leaves you weak because of its intensity. My body was doing what my mind couldn't do, trying its best to thrust out whatever was attacking it. In a way, I was glad to vomit. I felt like I had stood idly by all week as this invisible enemy invaded my body. But throwing up was something - I was fighting back. That's what I wanted to do: fight back. But I couldn't because I had no idea who this enemy was. So I contented myself with throwing blind punches into the darkness, huddled alone over my cold toilet.

Karen was not aware of my frequent trips into the bathroom. She needed her rest for what she was going to face over the next few weeks. As I groaned through the pain in bed, she turned over and looked at me. "Do I need to take you to the emergency room?" I was too tough: "No. I'll be okay," barely able to formulate sentences - stupid macho man.

I had a doctor's appointment on Monday morning. I just needed to push through for a few more hours.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014


This is the 4th of a series of posts chronicling Chris' battle with Acute Myeloid Leukemia.

A few years back, some friends of mine decided that we would faithfully meet two weekends a year to reconnect, encourage one another, and have fun. We cheekily dubbed this assemblage the Refined Southern Gentlemen's Club, assuming that it would draw images of well-groomed mustaches, cigars, and playing cards. It did not occur to us at the time that it sounded like the name of a white supremacist group. We also did not consider the common association people made with the term "gentlemen's club." However, the name stuck, and our little group became the RSGC.

The second biannual meeting of 2013 had been scheduled for October 4-5 at Lake Claiborne State Park near Homer, LA. I had seriously considered not attending because of my still hurting abdomen, but felt better about it after talking with my doctor.


On Friday night of our little get-togethers, we always try to find a fun place to eat dinner. We drove out to a remote gas station that serves huge ribeye steaks called Moon's Grocery. I drove my brand new Honda Fit. This was my first of many terrible decisions over the weekend, as I realized driving into the gravel parking lot that Seabass and the Fellas were going to find my little car very "cute."

If you've never been to Moon's, it's a wonderful experience. This was my inaugural visit, and I wasn't going to waste it just because I had an upset stomach. So I bypassed the 1-1/4" and 1-1/2" steaks and went straight for the 2-incher. As with most foolish decisions, this was really fun in the moment, with no thought given to the toll that this slab of muscle would take on my digestive system. We sat, eating until we couldn't move, and watched the Dodgers lose to the Cardinals in the postseason. I am a Dodger fan, so that stunk. But that night felt good. I was with friends having a great meal, experiencing an America that many people will never know about. I was thankful, even if I was miserable.


I didn't sleep well that night. Shocking, I know. The next morning, we carried on our tradition of doing something semi-active by scheduling a Wiffle Ball Home Run Derby. It was a rainy weekend, and we found an open field somewhere near the lake. Our home run derby soon devolved into a game of "full-contact" mud wiffle ball. This would have been a terrible decision had I been completely healthy. But being sick, it was downright stupid. RSGC weekends aren't about making good, responsible decisions.

That afternoon, while the rest of the guys played a rousing 4-hour game of Risk, I slept. I would be awoken every few minutes by a new, sharper pain, but my exhaustion won out and I'd turn over and fall back asleep.


I woke up a few hours later. For the first time through this whole ordeal, I was getting scared. I couldn't lie to myself anymore and say it was just a passing stomachache. (Cancer was still nowhere on the radar.) I could no longer just shut it out of my mind with the force of my will. I wandered from the bedroom, through the living room, and out onto the screened-in porch. It was almost dark, and a light rain was falling. The sound of the rain in the trees and the nearby lake was peaceful. It was a stark and necessary contrast to the turmoil going on inside my body. What was wrong with me? Why wasn't this pain going away? 

I pulled my iPhone out of my pocket and put a song on called "Song of Solomon" from a new Martin Smith album. I'm really not sure why I played it, but I'm glad I did. The haunting, repetitive melody wasn't his song at that moment, it was mine. When I feel the cold of winter, and this cloak of sadness, I need You... All through the valleys, through the dark of night; here, You come running, to hold me till it's light.

I walked back inside, trying to act like everything was fine. I hung out with the guys for a while, ate something, packed up my things, and started for home.


The road from Lake Claiborne to Ruston is notoriously curvy. And it's dark and still at night. A dead calm. In fact, I didn't see another car for the entire 25 mile ride home. The car was quiet - I didn't play any music - just me and my thoughts. Am I okay? Will I wake up tomorrow feeling fine, having worried about nothing? How sick am I?

A light fog began descending along the way. And then something really strange happened: I rounded a curve, and there was a guy walking down the road carrying a backpack. Needless to say, he startled me. This guy was in the middle of nowhere on a pitch black night, wandering down a remote, curvy highway alone. Just thinking back to it now spooks me out. But as I drove the rest of the way home, I thought about that guy. In a way, I identified with him. He was just a shadow - a hazy figure on a dark background, walking down a foggy road because there were no other options, unable to see what was ahead, but walking towards it nonetheless.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Something Ain't Right

This is the 3rd of a series of posts chronicling Chris' battle with Acute Myeloid Leukemia.

We're stubborn creatures. It's funny how we can tell ourselves that everything is okay when we know it isn't. Don't judge me - you do it, too. We're so committed to our version of how life should play out that we will ourselves to shut out any reality that threatens it.


In the early morning darkness of Tuesday, September 17, I grabbed a strawberry granola yogurt out of the fridge and quietly slipped out of my sleeping house for a leadership meeting at church. As we gathered at 5:30am to pray, I endured the usual jabs about why I had swapped out my regular sausage biscuit for a healthier alternative. Just wanting to eat better.

About mid-morning, my stomach started to feel funny. That's what happens when you eat healthy, I joked to myself. I didn't know if I was nauseated, or sick, or if it was nothing. I of course assumed the latter. It was serious enough that I convinced my buddies to eat lunch at Zaxby's with me, where I ordered a chicken salad. I couldn't finish it, but it was refreshing and delicious. I felt better that afternoon.

See? It was nothing.


Two weeks later, sometime on a Wednesday, it came back. Just a subtle discomfort in the abdominal regions. It's difficult to explain the feeling. It wasn't hunger; I know what that feels like. It wasn't gas; I definitely know what that feels like. It was deeper than those things. A kind of pain you couldn't pinpoint. But I wasn't worried. Because, of course, it was nothing.

It went away last time; it'll go away this time.


It had been a day and a night now. The pain was still there. I started mentioning my discomfort casually to friends. Jeremy said he figured it was a stomach ulcer. Those hurt really bad. I googled it, and sure enough, stomach ulcers hurt in the abdominal regions. My friend Jason gets stomach ulcers all the time, and my detective work included an interview:

Me: "Jason, do stomach ulcers hurt really bad in your abdominal regions?"

Jason: "Yes."

So that's what I had. Problem solved.

My mind also made another connection. Our fridge had been on the blink. It took way longer for us to notice than it should have, so this is slightly embarrassing. We'd wake up to pools of water on the kitchen floor. (With toddlers running around, this isn't an uncommon occurrence). I realized that my blocks of cheese were "sweaty," and smellier than usual. (Still topped my wheat thins with 'em, though). Turns out Owen's little hobby of hanging from the refrigerator door handle had the effect of the door not shutting properly. So our food only cooled about half the time. We called Bill, the appliance guy, and he fixed us up. But there was a pretty good chance all that time spent eating spoiled food would make my stomach feel "not so normal." Two pretty good hypotheses, if you ask me.

Just in case, I ate lunch at Zaxby's. Worked last time.


I was still hurting on Friday. Couldn't really tell if the pain was getting more severe, or if the prolonged dullness just made it worse. At any rate, I called my doctor.

Me: "Doc, I'm going out of town this weekend. But I've had a weird stomach pain for the last couple days. Probably an ulcer. Should I be concerned?"

Dr. Wood: "Probably not. But make an appointment to see me on Monday morning just so we can rule out anything serious."

Me: "Okay. Thanks Doc."

I then entered the thick, impenatrable medical darkness that is the weekend. Where the only place to get medical care is the Emergency Room. Scary stuff. Could I make it to the light of Monday? That would prove more difficult than I could have possibly imagined.