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Free Chapters 1 & 2 of “Doc’s Codicil”

22 Sep

The first 1.5 chapters of “Doc’s Codicil” are available at http://www.garyfjones on the menu under “Books”

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Novel Coming in October

21 Apr

9781939371836Doc’s Codicil,” by Gary F. Jones, available in late October, 2015, from BQB Publishing.

When Wisconsin veterinarian Doc dies, his family and nephew learn that to inherit his fortune, they must decipher the cryptic codicil he added to his will–“Take Doofus squirrel-fishing”–and they can only do that by talking to Doc’s friends, reading the memoir Doc wrote of a Christmas season decades earlier, searching through Doc’s correspondence, and discovering the clues around them.
“Doc’s Codicil” is a story within a story. As the heirs read Doc’s book, they learn of a Christmas season, 27 years ago, in which Doofus goaded Doc into action on his dreams and bragged about his own project, a Christmas nativity pageant in New Orleans that, unbeknownst to Doc and Doofus, Doc’s sister and brother in law were also working on. In writing his memoir, Doc realized he’d missed important lessons about life, lessons he wanted to impart to his adult children. He knew they wouldn’t listen to him, so he invented the riddle of Doofus and squirrel fishing to teach them what he had missed.

Can’t Take A Joke

13 Mar

My wife talked me into taking the family camping over the 4th of July weekend many years ago. I was raised on a farm and saw no reason to spend a weekend roughing it when I did that every day, but we borrowed a tent from a neighbor and found a campsite at a park 120 miles from home.

The next morning I tried to start an alcohol stove to make hot chocolate for our three-year-old daughter—she had a temper until she’d had her morning hot chocolate. After many tries, I still hadn’t managed to light the stove. Maybe it was out of fuel?

I put my hand over it to be sure there wasn’t a flame (you often can’t see an alcohol flame in daylight). Satisfied that there wasn’t a flame, I poured alcohol into the stove from a one-gallon can. One of our boys said, “Daddy, look at the pretty fire.”

Flame raced up the stream of alcohol. I saw it enter the can, which exploded in my hands a fraction of a second later. All I can remember is thinking, “drop and roll.” I tried it, but that doesn’t work well when you’re covered with a highly flammable liquid. Someone finally tossed a blanket over me and smothered the fire. My polyester pants were melted to my skin—at least in places where there was anything left of them or my skin.

I tried to think of jokes, stories, songs—anything to keep the pain at bay, but it shouldered aside all attempts to think. It was like a two-year-old on a tantrum in my mind, refusing to let me focus on anything but it. It continued like that for 45 minutes while I waited for the ambulance and the 45 minute ride to the hospital.

I was finally given morphine IV, and a lot of it, at the hospital, where they cleaned my burns and decided whether I’d have to go to the state burn center or could go back to the hospital in our hometown. The burns covered fifteen percent of my body, which was right at the cut-off point for mandatory referral to the burn center. I was sent to my hometown hospital, as it was a highly regarded regional medical center.
Two hours later, the ambulance delivered me to the ER of St. Joseph’s Hospital in my hometown. The surgeon on call that day spoke English as a second language. He was a colorectal surgeon who specialized in removal of rectal tumors–go figure. But he was the one on call.

For the next several days, he entered my hospital room, examined my bandaged legs, looked over my hospital chart, bowed gravely, and left without saying a word. To try to get him to say something, I finally said, “I know you’re a colorectal surgeon, and that it was a dumb stunt that put me in here, but does this mean you guys think I’m a flaming ass?”

He never came into my room again, although I could see his hands on the back of his resident as he pushed the poor guy into room every morning.

Mistakes

6 Mar

I told my boys when they were in college that they didn’t have to worry about
making mistakes in life. It happens, and I’d gotten more things wrong than they
ever would. A few years later, I told them I hadn’t meant to imply that it was a
contest.

On Sex

2 Mar

On a winter evening some years ago, my wife Cheryl met me at the door when I came home from work. “Don’t blow your stack about it. There wasn’t much damage,” she said.

With three teen-age boys, I’d heard this before and knew that “not much damage” is an ambiguous and misleading term when the speaker is not the one who writes the checks.

“Trevor was driving your car home from high school,” Cheryl explained, “and the car went into a skid on that slippery corner coming down the hill. The car slid into a snowbank—no one was hurt and no damage was done.”

An outcome that unremarkable didn’t sound normal for my family, but I could take that. I’m resilient. I didn’t even bother to look at the car, just picked up the newspaper and made myself comfortable in my recliner. Tyler, our youngest son, came into the room as I was reading the comics.

“Hey, dad! Did you hear about Trevor’s accident?” he asked. “I was riding home from school with him when he spun out. Man, if it hadn’t been for that fire hydrant he hit, we’d still be plowing down-hill across lawns.”

I put on a coat and checked my car—bumper dented, fender crinkled, headlight broken—and prayed there was no damage to the fire hydrant. This outcome was normal for my family.

I’d been reading scientific papers that considered the cost-benefit analysis of sexual reproduction in evolutionary terms. After all, why should complex animals have developed something as expensive in time and energy as sexual reproduction when so many life forms just split into two?

It had been posited that sexual reproduction provides greater genetic diversity and improved resistance to parasites and diseases, an opportunity for more rapid evolution, better protection against damaging mutations, or all of the above.(1-4) The leading benefits seem to be staying ahead of parasites and pathogens and cleaning up harmful mutations in the genome.

The data looked compelling, but nowhere, and I mean absolutely nowhere, in the papers was there any mention of the cost of auto body repairs. The omission was inexplicable, for although the scientists working in this field probably didn’t know my kids, at least some of them must have known other teenage boys.

1. Zimmer, C. On the origin of sexual reproduction. Science, 2009;324(5932):1254-1256
.
2. Jokela J, Dybdahl MF, Lively CM. The maintenance of sex, clonal dynamics, and host-parasite coevolution in a mixed population of sexual and asexual snails. Am Naturalist 2009;174 Suppl 1:S43-53.
3. Morran LT, OG Shmidt, IA Gidarden, et. al. Running with the Red Queen: Host parasite coevolution selects for biparental sex. Science, 2011;333:216-218.
4. Hussin JG, Alan Hodgkinson A, Idaghdour Y, et al. Recombination affects accumulation of damaging and disease-associated mutations in human populations. Nature Genetics, 2015; DOI: 10.1038/ng.3216

How to Write a Christmas Letter

28 Feb

I know it isn’t the season, but there’s nothing like planning ahead. The following, from 2010, is an example of the drivel I’ve churned out for the last thirty-five years.

Merry Christmas to all. We made it most of the way through the year in good health and hope the same is true for you.

I took the week of Thanksgiving off to help Cheryl with the house and dinner. That Tuesday a toothache sent her to the dentist. He put in a new crown – they do it in one day now.

She’d banned all candy from the house, but I had a stash of peanut brittle in the basement. While she was gone, I did what I could to help by watching old movies and eating peanut brittle (I’m not allowed to clean without supervision ever since I got the butter stuck in the vacuum cleaner).

A filling popped out during the movie and the tooth cracked. I was able to get an appointment but had to wait for Cheryl to get home so I could use her car. Mine wouldn’t start and was towed to the shop as she got home.

The dentist told me his practice was built on peanut brittle—even thought it would be a good name for the boat he ordered while my crown ‘cured’. As I described this fiasco to a co-worker last week, I bit into a prune that still had parts of the pit and broke a front tooth.

Today, Cheryl gave me a choice of shoveling the driveway, Christmas shopping, or writing this damned letter. I didn’t hear ‘nap’ in the list, which seemed like an egregious oversight, so I asked her to repeat it. She told me to hop to it and do them all by supper. She’s been through this before.

First on my list was an anniversary card for our small engine repair shop. Hallmark doesn’t make one; I checked. The shop agreed to mount a tire on a wheel for our snow blower two years ago. They couldn’t find the right-sized tire and the shop moved in January. In June, when I tracked them down, they told me the tire had arrived and would be mounted tomorrow. There have been six tomorrows, four “we’ll drop it by next week,” three “we’ll drop by and put it on tonight,” and two Decembers.

They aren’t open on weekends, a machine answers the phone, and apparently it’s against the mechanic’s religion to return calls. He’s been studiously observant about that.

Cheryl dropped by the shop three times a day for a week. With each visit, she stood at the counter, chatted with other customers, and asked to talk to the owner. She was quiet and polite. When the owner became angry and loud during her last visit, she calmly asked if there would be a storage charge for the wheel. If so, could we get a reduced rate for the second year? He wasn’t amused, but she said the other customers loved it.

I thought I’d take care of the Christmas shopping by giving the kids and Cheryl electric knife-sharpeners–true one-stop shopping. None of the stores at the mall carried them. At Sears, a clerk asked me what kind of knives I wanted to sharpen.

I told him I make it a practice to only sharpen dull knives. I don’t mean to sound inflexible, but I have my standards. His expression indicated he wasn’t sure whether I was a simpleton or trying to turn his day into a Monty Python skit. He considered my answer and said the store didn’t carry sharpeners; however, he knew of a store in a city 200 miles away that did. He thought I could get there before it closed if I left immediately. He even escorted me to the door to help me get a fast start.

200 miles is a long drive. I came home and took a nap instead, which had been my original plan before Cheryl decided I should be ambitious. We hope your plans for 2011 are as successful.

Merry Christmas,

Small Stuff

19 Nov

Names are changed for family privacy.

Sweating The Small Stuff

As I was leaving the house to make a trip to the grocery store last spring, my wife Mary grumbled, “I wish Josh would tell me when he’s planning on staying overnight with friends.”

Josh, our 33-year-old son had been living with us for the last nine months. Wow, I thought. Talk about sweating the small stuff. In my car, I savored the thought as relief washed over me.

The previous summer, I’d come in from working on the garden the day after Memorial Day and undressed to take a shower. Mary told me that Julie, our daughter, had called earlier in the afternoon. She wanted to talk to me and wouldn’t tell her mother what it was about. That’s never a good sign.

I called Julie, and she told me that Josh and Beth, his girlfriend, were in her living room. Josh was having difficulty breathing. X-rays at the student infirmary indicated he had fluid around both lungs and around his heart and had a mass in his chest. The doctors said he should go to a hospital for a CAT Scan to refine the diagnosis. He was told to wait until after 5:00 and go to an ER. Josh’s medical insurance was through the university, but it had lapsed because the school year had ended. He needed complex and expensive treatment, and an ER couldn’t legally turn him away.

As I hung up, Mary asked me what the problem was. I told her about the fluid around Josh’s lungs, but decided not to mention the mass in his chest. No reason for both of us to be scared. I showered and we drove the 50 miles to Julie’s house, Mary talking about Josh’s presumed pneumonia, me desperately trying to think of an infectious disease that could cause a mass and fluid in the chest.

It was late afternoon when we arrived. Josh was pale and everyone was quiet. It was obvious we had to take him back to the hospital and worry about the money later. Josh had the CAT Scan and was admitted for surgical drainage of the fluid on his right lung and biopsy of the mass the next morning, as a thoracic surgeon wasn’t available until then. An Oncologist told us that Josh probably had a B-cell leukemia, a subset of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. We shouldn’t worry, as the five-year survival rate for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma was over 85%. Josh spent the night in the hospital on oxygen, his breathing so labored we worried whether he could make it until morning for the surgery.

The surgeon drained 1,700 mL of fluid (almost half a gallon) from Josh’s right lung and biopsied the mass. Much improved, Josh was sent home the next day to wait for the pathologist’s report. The following Monday, Beth called to tell us that Josh was back in the hospital. He was having difficulty breathing again and felt pain and pressure in his chest. Chest x-rays found that the amount of fluid around his heart had greatly increased. The fluid was making it difficult for the heart to beat normally and was also affecting his breathing. A cardiologist would have to examine Josh before the fluid was drained, and the surgery would have to be done by a cardiac surgeon. Neither were available until the next day. The pathologist had also requested a larger piece of tissue for examination, as the original biopsy sample hadn’t been large enough to make a diagnosis. Josh was again hospitalized overnight and put on oxygen until the morning.

Mary and I held each other and cried when we got home. We both feared Josh might not make it through the night, and I suspected something else wasn’t right. I’m a veterinarian with a PhD in microbiology, 19 years of experience in rural practice and nearly 20 years of experience in research, frequently working closely with pathologists. I’d learned that when a pathologist requests more tissue, it often means that the presumptive, or initial, diagnosis was wrong. In this case, almost everything other than B-cell Hodgkin’s Lymphoma would be worse.

We were told that the hospital schedule was tight and the surgery might not take place until several hours after the cardiologist saw Josh. Josh had to wait until 10:00 a.m. before a cardiologist was available. By that time, I was again near tears as I watched Josh in pain and struggling to breathe. The cardiologist arrived and spent less than 5 minutes examining him. Schedules were changed and Josh was being prepped for surgery ten minutes later.

The surgeon removed 800 mL of fluid from around Josh’s heart and placed a tube in the pericardium (the sac around the heart) that drained to a vial kept in a pocket of Josh’s hospital gown. He also collected an entire lymph node for the pathologist. Josh was hospitalized for four days, the drain was removed, and he was sent home. An Oncologist talked to us again, and again stressed that the most likely cause of the mass was an easily treated form of leukemia.

Josh was feeling well, although removal of the drain had been painful. He was discharged from the hospital, and we drove back to his apartment. He packed a suitcase and moved in with us until the pathologist could examine the new tissue sample. The following Friday, we drove back to the Oncologist’s office to hear what the pathologist had found and what the course of treatment would be.

Josh and I were called into the doctor’s office shortly before noon, and a few minutes later the doctor entered, carrying the pathologist’s report. He said hello, but for several minutes sat quietly reading the report and reviewing Josh’s records on his computer screen. This seemed odd, as there had been ample time for him to review both before our visit. The doctor seemed to be delaying talking to us, as though he didn’t know how to begin.

At last he turned to Josh. “You, ahh … I’m sorry to say the diagnosis has changed.” He turned back to his computer screen and shuffled through the report on his desk. He avoided eye contact when he turned to speak to Josh again. “The pathologist found that you have a rare and aggressive form of leukemia. Results of treatment ….” The doctor looked at the paperwork again. “Results aren’t as satisfactory for this type of non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. You have A.L.L., or Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. I’ll be happy to treat you here, but ….” The doctor finally looked Josh in the eye. “Since your family lives in Omaha, you can also go to the University hospital there. They are very good and are world leaders in research on A.L.L.”

We discussed Josh’s options with the doctor and learned that the first chemotherapy treatment would sterilize him. He could bank sperm, but that would require delaying treatment for a week, and he doubted whether Josh could afford that delay. It was apparent the doctor felt uneasy treating A.L.L. and preferred that Josh go to the University of Nebraska (UNMC) hospital. The doctor had already discussed his case with the UNMC Oncologist who specialized in A.L.L., and they were holding a room for him on the seventh floor, the floor reserved for cancer patients. We drove back to Omaha and Josh was checked into the UNMC hospital at 3:00 p.m. Preliminary medication to protect him from the effects of chemotherapy began immediately, and the first chemotherapy treatment was started at 2:00 a.m. on Saturday morning.

Josh spent one or two weeks of every month in the hospital, from July to January. I have never seen a kid as sick as he was after each treatment. Several times Mary and I weren’t sure whether he would survive the chemotherapy. He developed ulcers in his mouth that made eating and speaking painful after each course of treatment. Twice he developed septicemic bacterial infections from the ulcers because his immune system had been wiped out by the treatments. In the worst of those episodes, his temperature went from 100 degrees to 104 degrees in the hour between the time he was admitted to the hospital and when a room was ready for him. He became delirious the next afternoon as the infectious disease specialist was examining him. He was in and out of delirium for the next four days. I read to him when he was coherent because he didn’t have the strength to hold a standard paperback book by himself.

Josh was given wonderful medical care from the beginning of his illness. In January, tests showed that he was, at least for the moment, cancer free. Treatment was reduced to a monthly, low-dose of chemotherapy. In March, when Mary complained about Josh staying out late with friends, I realized what a treasure it is to be irritated by the small stuff again.