Death By Smoking
When I hear about someone who has died of lung cancer, I wonder how many people die as violently as my father did. How many family members experience what I saw on May 15, 1992 at 4:05 p.m. My father died at home. I watched his last breath and I’m convinced that I saw this traumatic event for a reason. I share it so that I can help you, or someone that you know, avoid a similar fate.
Ironically, our nightmare began six months earlier—on Halloween. After coming home from work that day, I listened to voice mail. The first message froze me in my tracks as I unpacked.
“Gary, this is Lois.” She sounded distressed. “Your father’s in the hospital in Colorado Springs. He didn’t want me to call you, but you need to know.”
I helped nurse him back to health before. I was ready to do it again. It was the least that I could do for my best friend.
I lived in Denver. My father was in the hospital in Colorado Springs. Normally, it was about a one-hour drive. Of course, this chilling news about my dad swept in with a snowstorm. The main highway to Colorado Springs – Interstate 25 – was slow and slick. It was only about 6:30 p.m., but it was already dark. Thousands of brake lights ahead of me sporadically flashed on and off every few seconds. The treacherous area called Monument Hill had cars and trucks sliding in every direction.
I had no idea what was wrong with my father, I only knew that he was in the hospital. I had no patience for slow traffic or slick roads. Every surge of brake lights raised my blood pressure another notch as I had to hit the brakes, too.
Three hours later, I pulled into the hospital parking lot. I braced myself for the unknown and raced inside to the information desk.
“Can you tell me which room Larry Chandler is in?”
He was in an intensive care area about 50 yards away. I tried to catch my breath, while walking quickly, yet cautiously, toward his room.
A nurse saw me creeping toward his doorway. She smiled and nodded as though it was ok to go on into his room. I stopped at the doorway and ducked my head inside to make sure he was decent. He had a room to himself. His bed was in the middle of the wall on the right and his head was up against the wall with his feet reaching out toward me. His feet were size 13, so you couldn’t miss them rising up from a small hospital bed. He was expecting me.
He acted as cool as possible for someone sporting a respirator mask, IVs, and a hospital gown. He grinned under his air mask and quickly looked down at his hospital gown to make sure he was presentable. Then he dropped his left leg over the edge of the bed and began swinging it slowly to calm his nerves. He still had muscular legs for a man in his mid-50s. He played college football and baseball in high school and college. He used to be stocky, but he was a shadow of his former self.
“That’s quite the Halloween costume you’ve got there,” I joked.
We talked for a few hours. He checked himself into the emergency room earlier that day because he could barely breathe. He had pneumonia. I’m sure he fought it for weeks before admitting that he needed help.
I let him sleep and went to his house in Woodland Park to spend the night and to check on things for him. He was concerned that some local kids would break in to his house.
I was initially relieved to find out that this incident was only pneumonia. It sounded like a bad cold to someone as naïve as me. I expected much worse. I didn’t realize that pneumonia was the symptom of a bigger problem.
Ironically, I picked up a USA Today newspaper the next day and saw that actor Fred McMurray died of pneumonia the day before. I grew up watching McMurray play the role of the father in the television show “My Three Sons.” The picture in McMurray’s obituary featured him with his trademark pipe hanging out the side of his mouth. It made me think about my father’s diagnosis. What caused his pneumonia? My dad was a smoker. He started when he was only sixteen years old, but smoked more heavily as he aged. It was a terrible habit. I urged him to quit since I was about 10 years old.
After four or five days of inhaling medicated steam, the pneumonia was under control. He could breathe without the respirator. I assumed he would leave the hospital any day and our lives would soon return to normal just in time for the holidays.
The doctors had other plans. They knew he was a smoker so they proceeded to examine his lungs further. Cat scans, MRIs and X-rays all were employed to find a large spot on his right lung that required further examination—a tissue sample.
This bad news came in with another snowstorm. They scheduled a biopsy the next morning at 8:00 a.m. A procedure performed in his hospital room.
I kept taking sick days and vacation days from work so I could support my dad during these frightening times. (This was before the Family Leave Act.) Once again, I called in sick and left Denver at 6:00 a.m. I drove as fast as possible over the snow-packed roads. Once again, cars and trucks were scattered all over the roads. I didn’t even see them because I was so distracted by my father’s biopsy.
I arrived at the hospital five minutes late. By the time I got there, a doctor and a nurse had eighteen inches of stainless steel scope down my father’s throat. They were clipping a tissue sample from his right lung.
“Look through the scope,” the doctor said to the young nurse. “You can see the tumor.”
This was devastating news to me, but I didn’t flinch. I had to be strong and confident. Meanwhile, the doctor steps aside, while my father continues gagging on this telescope with tweezers. My father is watching all of this while squinting in excruciating pain. There is no painkiller involved for this type of procedure. The nurse quickly looks down the scope and steps back. She looks back down at my father and wipes a tear from his eye as he continues to gag on the scope.
The doctor steps back into my father’s face and looks down the scope again. He works his fingers along the side of the instrument until he finds the trigger that actually clips the lung tissue.
Just a few days later, the biopsy confirms that he has lung cancer. I thought back to the newspaper article about Fred McMurray. I wondered if he really died of lung cancer instead of pneumonia. Pneumonia doesn’t sound as bad and there’s a stigma that surrounds sick smokers like a fog. The doctors treated my father like a statistic the moment they found out he was a smoker. It was as if they were saying to him, “SUCKER.” Fortunately, there were some nurses that treated him like a human being.
Even though he had an aggressive form of cancer (non-large cell), the doctors ruled out surgery. The tumor was too large and his heart too weak to remove the lung. It seemed that his determination to live was getting weaker with every breath. Therefore, chemotherapy and radiation were the only options they could prescribe. They released him from the hospital one week before Thanksgiving.
He was scared and so was I. Neither of us ever admitted it. We had no idea what to expect, but we were determined to fight together. I’m glad that we didn’t know what was coming.
I had a feeling this was going to be his last Christmas, so I was determined to make it as pleasurable as possible. I bought a tree and decorated it for him. I was a hardened bachelor at the time and hadn’t put up a Christmas tree since I was a child. It was a peaceful touch for a difficult time.
The doctor said to keep his heart strong with as much exercise as he could handle. I bought him a bicycle to help him recover from his previous illness over the summer. He enjoyed it but it was snowing now and he couldn’t use it at his mountain home. I bought him an indoor exercise bike for his early Christmas present. I also bought him a new Walkman portable stereo to encourage him to get out and walk as much as possible.
We also started a juicing regime. Carrot juice is a good anti-oxidant, which is supposedly beneficial to cancer patients. We both bought juicers and carrots in bulk. I tried to convince myself that we could beat this disease with exercise, diet, medication and hope. I did everything he did as a sign of support (except chemo and radiation).
We both went back to work in late November. We bought him a new car to give him more hope. I bought him a nice down jacket to keep his failing body warm in the Colorado winter.
He took himself to and from chemotherapy like it was the dentist. He insisted it was no big deal and that I should get back to my job and life. I called him every day. He lost a lot of weight and he didn’t have much to lose. His eyes looked bigger every time I saw him because of his shriveling face.
He fought as hard as he could for about three months. The company sent him home for good in March. He lost his stamina from the chemotherapy and radiation treatments. He couldn’t work. They might as well have put a knife through his heart. It was a crushing blow to a man who worked all his life. His job was part of his identity. A man who grew up on a farm and started working in high school to help support his widowed mother and younger brothers. He was a meat cutter—a butcher—all of his life. In fact, he cut off his right index finger at the middle knuckle while working his way through high school. He used to scare kids by placing the knuckle stub in his ear or nose to look like he had his finger stuck deep inside his head.
His lung cancer quickly spread and impaired his ability to function mentally or physically. The cancer rapidly disabled him and he was ashamed to tell me at first.
One morning in early March, he called me at work. I could barely hear him and he could barely hear me. It sounded like he was about to die. Unsure of what was happening to him, I rushed out of my office and drove about 70 miles to his home in Woodland Park. It was the last time that I would ever darken the doors of that building. I found my father alive, but disoriented. I thought this might be the end, so I rushed him in to see one of his doctors in Colorado Springs.
A new series of CAT scans determined that the lung cancer had spread to his brain. His right arm and leg were paralyzed by the brain tumor. Medications soon reduced the size of the brain tumor and his mind became functional again.
By this time, I had exhausted my sick time and vacation time. I resigned my job and moved in with him. I kept him at home and drove him back and forth to the hospital every day for radiation and chemotherapy. It gave us an opportunity to share some quality time – even though it was a critical time. I was happy to be in a position to help, but I underestimated the challenge.
We talked about the good old days. We made plans. Once we got the disease under control, we planned to move back to my home in Denver. We needed a plan to keep our minds off the daily routine of cancer treatment.
The day I moved in, I found him asleep on his bed with a burning cigarette in his hand. I immediately searched the house for cigarettes and threw them away. I wasn’t trying to make him quit at this late stage, but I didn’t want him to burn the house down. He agreed and tried to quit.
It wasn’t long before the stress of his fatal situation caught up with him. He began smoking again. This was tough for me to accept at first because cigarettes caused our miserable situation. That’s when I realized that a nicotine addiction was destroying both of our lives. We both were sucked into this nightmare thanks to one addictive and deadly product.
“The withdrawals are making me hallucinate,” he told me one morning. “I almost crawled out that window last night. It felt like I was losing my mind.”
I began to admit that he wasn’t going to live much longer and that this was no time to fight the addiction. I gave into his desire and began buying his cigarettes again.
“What brand do you want?” I asked.
“Winston Lights and Kool Menthols,” he said though it was business as usual. “The menthol is good for me. It helps me get some of this shit out of my lungs.”
He began taking his cigarettes to the hospital with him for radiation treatments. The radiologist often had to take the pack out of his shirt pocket so she could radiate his chest. The doctor tattooed an “X” on him to mark the exact spot to focus the radiation. The tattoo was just inside of his right nipple.
Our life soon had a new routine. Radiation. Chemotherapy. Carrot juice. Cigarettes. Good conversations. That was our life. He had a new truck, but could only look at it. I wouldn’t let him drive any longer because he almost tore the driver’s side door off its hinges one day when it rolled backwards on him unexpectedly.
It was a sad role reversal. All of a sudden, I was running my father’s life. I was telling him what he could and couldn’t do. I wrote out a will for him and we went to the bank to give me the power of attorney over his affairs. Meanwhile, we both pretended that it was all just a precaution.
While he slept, I was trying to start a business from his kitchen table. It wasn’t working very well from this remote mountain town. It was tough to be positive when I was slipping into a state of depression. I was losing my identity. I was losing my strength.
My father stayed fairly positive during the whole saga. However, he broke down when he completed his last radiation session. We were riding the hospital elevator up out of the basement when he started shaking his head in disbelief.
“I’m so glad it’s over,” he said with a tear in each his eye.
“I’m proud of you,” I said. “You’re a fighter.”
It came to an end on May 15. I returned to Denver to take care of some business. My sister took care of dad that day, but she left early and left my father alone for about two hours before I returned. It was the moment he had been waiting on. Like a teenager desperate to drive, he took his car keys from my room and drove himself around. He went to the local greenhouse and bought some flowers for his garden. He went to the drive-through at Wendy’s and bought a chicken sandwich to eat at home.
My father had just finished potting his new plants and went inside to eat when I arrived. I noticed the flowers on the porch when I approached the door. They were purple and white. Petunias possibly. I grabbed my bags and went on in. I didn’t see him immediately, so I yelled out to let him know I was barging on in the front door.
“I’m back, dad. Have you had dinner and your medications, yet?”
I could see his reflection in a mirror I strategically placed outside of his bedroom. He was sitting on the right side of his bed with his chin down against his chest. I sensed something was terribly wrong.
“I have a sandwich…but I can’t finish it,” he said lightly.
I quickly closed the front door and put down my bags. I rushed toward his room, while watching him in the mirror. As I turned the corner, it was the beginning of the end. It looked like he was throwing up. It wasn’t food. Blood began gushing from his mouth. Every ounce of blood in his body was on the floor in about four seconds. He never said another word and he never took another breath. I watched helplessly from eight feet away. Somehow, I knew nothing could be done to help him.
He went into instant shock. He never knew what hit him. He never budged after his head fell forward against the nightstand. I stepped back into the living room and called 911. I never went back into the room. I knew he was dead. Somehow, I quickly connected the dots about a hemorrhage. I have heard the word, but I never really thought about it. I didn’t have to think about it because I knew his cancerous right lung just exploded before my eyes. His fragile lung ripped from the pressure of the growing tumor and the strain of the chemotherapy and radiation. Every drop of blood in his body erupted from his lung and then his mouth within just a couple of seconds.
As shocking as this experience was, it made me furious and curious. I began reading everything about cigarettes and the tobacco industry that was available in the early 1990s. Now I understand what a beast my father fought. It is the deadliest and most addictive product on the planet. Meanwhile, governments are standing back and fanning the flames. Every pack sold enriches the government.
My father and other dead smokers never knew that they were smoking ammonia, formaldehyde, arsenic and other additives that make cigarettes more powerful, more addictive and more deadly. These people never realized that nicotine is more addictive than heroin. They never realized that politicians and regulators have an incentive to look the other way, while this carnage continues—killing one person on the planet every second. These people never knew that tobacco companies target the uneducated, the poor and other naive and voiceless population segments. You don’t have to make such uninformed decisions about tobacco.