For some uncanny reason, whether it was the Philadelphia Phillies $330 million contract inked with Bryce Harper — making him the highest paid player in baseball history — or the ill-conceived comment, “It’s all about the Benjamins” by Minnesota House of Representatives Ilhan Omar, the subject of wealth began ruminating in the dusty attic of my mind.
Curiously, the subject returned the following day when an old college friend, aware of my battle with cancer, requested my nomination of a mutual friend, for one of Cincinnati’s Cancer Family Care’s annual Unsung Hero awards. The thoughts interceded and left me thinking, who are the wealthiest? Who indeed among us can divine the differences between cost and value?
And so, my first thanks this day was extended to the Cancer Family Care people for providing me with this opportunity to offer up my deep gratitude to my unsung hero, Barry Bronson.
First meeting in 1967 at a small liberal arts school in Lexington, Kentucky, we forged a brotherhood that has lasted to this day, nowhere more illustrative and emblematic than my recent four-year battle with cancer.
In early 2015, I was diagnosed with prostate cancer and underwent a prostatectomy shortly thereafter at the Stanford Cancer Center. Unfortunately, the cancer had metastasized to my hip, rendering it castration resistant bone cancer. Thus began a four-year, ongoing battle with this scourge, which affects the vast majority of my gender.
Throughout those years, Barry, who lives more than 2,000 miles away had remained steadfastly in touch, calling weekly to buck me up and even, miraculously, in October of 2017, getting tickets for Bruce Springsteen on Broadway, flying me there and putting me up at a theatre district hotel, which included a personal meeting with Bruce and his wife Patti after the show.
All that said, an even greater testament to this compassionate person I’m blessed to call a brother: during the past year, my PSA numbers had dramatically more than doubled over a one month span. Looking for new treatment regimens, I sought out the advice of Dr. Bryan Melhauff, a well-known urologist at the Oregon Urology Institute in Springfield, Oregon. Among his other attributes, Dr. Melhauff is widely renowned for his knowledge of the Provenge immune system stimulations treatment. Dr. Melhauff explained the treatment, which commenced with insertion of a catheter into my internal jugular vein. Then, over a period of 4-6 weeks, removing a significant amount of blood, then separating out a portion of my immune cells, along with some platelets and a small number of my red blood cells. The machine then returns the rest of the cells and blood to my body. That process (leukapheresis) takes about 3-4 hours.
The extracted sample is then sent to a laboratory in Georgia where the Provenge drug is introduced to it, then returned for re-introduction to my body three days later. That procedure would occur every week for approximately one month, at which time the catheter would be removed.
Dr. Melhauff said I was an excellent candidate for the Provenge treatment. Except for one thing — a cost of approximately $93,000 for the entire treatment would not be covered by my insurance. Incredibly, I would be eligible for those costs to be covered, but not on the West Coast, due to the Noridian Corporation, which distributes many of the western state’s Medicare funds, refusing to pay for both simultaneously.
Dr. Melhauff then told me that he could refer me to a state like Kentucky where my Medicare would cover both treatments.
Which is where Barry Bronson entered the scenario. Retired due to my Stage IV disease and living on fixed income, I didn’t have the funds to travel to Kentucky, much less travel twice a week — actually three times on the first and last weeks — for insertion and removal of the catheter. Adding to this near impossible logistical difficulty, the surgical catheter insertion and extraction took place at the Norton Hospital in Louisville, the extraction process took place at another location, the American Red Cross, also in Louisville, while the four-hour infusion procedure took place at the First Urology Infusion Center in Jefferson, Indiana.
After talking about the incredible frustration and seemingly insurmountable obstacles that were obviously going to prevent me from receiving the Provenge treatment, Barry, with his characteristic, low key, “no sweat, Bro” demeanor, called back a day later to say, “Tell Dr. Melhauff to use his connection to refer you back here.”
And so, on the first week of March 2018, Barry flew me back to the place we’d first met, Lexington, Kentucky. Then for the following four weeks, he drove me to Louisville and Indiana for my numerous appointments — many, because of the distance between the cities, commencing at 5 a.m. Given the accompanying chills, fatigue, sweats, nausea and vomiting, he cooked for me, took me to church and drove me whenever the occasion necessitated, never failing to bring light and even humor to what was a somewhat depressing time.
Plain and simple, without this loving, compassionate human being that I’m blessed to call brother, I would never have been able to receive the immunology treatment I’d traveled 2,000 miles to receive, which had to contribute to a significant drop in my PSA numbers, as well as a much needed injection of hope. And for that reason, it was my honor to nominate him for their “Unsung Hero” Award.
A dear friend, Steve Perk, recently died from pancreatic cancer. One of the finest jurists I ever had the privilege to appear in front of, as well as the best shortstop the Orange County DA’s office ever fielded, the praise at his service was beyond effusive and justifiably so. As with many funerals or celebrations of our loved one’s lives after their departures, the accolades and expressions of respect, friendship and love are extended in abundance at those occasions. All too often, especially for us guys, not before.
Which leads me to one of the points I’m circuitously attempting to make — basically that we shouldn’t have to wait until our friends and loved ones exit this veil or are asked point-blank to express our appreciation and love.
Which brings me back full circle to this question of wealth and which of us is truly enriched. The other morning, as I was wrapping up my morning dog walk with Jake, I saw a pickup truck parked on the beach opposite Battery Point Lighthouse. Upon a closer look, I saw a middle-aged woman, dressed in foul weather gear and fishing boots. She was down at the water’s edge, sifting through the vast amounts of driftwood that had recently washed up, picking up pieces that appeared to equal the weight on her smallish frame and carrying them up to her truck bed, a full 30-40 yards away. I bid her good morning and asked her what she was doing. She replied with a warm smile that she had a friend named Gary, who was stricken with a bad case of gout and was bringing him firewood for his wood stove. Telling her I needed the exercise, I asked if I could help her, which in turn got me a quick schooling of all of the different kinds of wood — alder, pine, madrone, redwood and more — and which pieces were best for burning. This was obviously a labor of love for the woman I came to know as Sue E., which coincided with a definition of wealth I first saw in my mother, a slight, soft-spoken Iowa farm girl, whose greatest joy derived from selfless deeds done for others, namely acts of altruism and good deeds done for their own sake, with no expectation of recompense or even acknowledgment.
And now, to this moment, having just returned from a Sutter Coast blood draw, which had been requested an hour before as a precedent to an oncology appointment set for tomorrow morning.
I was welcomed by a middle-aged, long-haired man, who was to perform my blood draw. Sporting a wide grin, he asked how my day had been, actually seeming to care, while introducing himself as Dennis M. Openly friendly, even in the last 20 minutes of his shift, we chatted as I told him I had small veins that rolled, that he’d be lucky if he nailed it on the first stick, then him telling me he’d had lots of practice in the service, as he proceeded to do just that on the first try.
As we spoke, Dennis’ beaming smile ever-present, I learned that he’d been a field medic in the Marines. He proudly spoke of being with Alpha Company during the liberation of Kuwait. He spoke warmly with great pride, of the privilege it was for him to “care for his brothers in the Corp” and how much he enjoyed bringing whatever skill he had now to caring for our community.
Some people measure wealth in dollars, some in their possessions, while others in votes or trophies. At this moment, I’d have to nominate Sue and Dennis as the richest people in Del Norte.
I think my Mom would agree.
Jon Alexander lives in Crescent City.