I first experienced numbness and weakness on my right side in March 2015, then intermittently thereafter. In May 2015, an MRI revealed minor disk bulges and spinal stenosis in my lower back. Both of these conditions are considered very common in people my age even without back problems, so the doctors recommended that I do more hamstring stretching and core strengthening. I faithfully carried out this directive, as these are things I was already doing as a matter of course for my entire adult life. However, the condition progressively worsened and became chronic over the summer and fall, and into the winter. Simple tasks like driving a car, putting on socks and shoes, or walking were more and more challenging. I was an expert skier, yet during a week up at Lake Tahoe after the 2016 New Year, I couldn’t stay upright on a bunny slope. My right leg just kind of wandered to the right, unable to hold an edge.
Exasperated by the lack of improvement, I visited a Kaiser Permanente spine clinic the next week for a reevaluation. After a series of tests, Kaiser spine specialist Dr. Chan concluded that my right leg weakness was not caused by a spine orstructural problem, and referred me to Kaiser’s neurology department. Kaiser neurologist Dr. Lavery performed some similar tests before confirming that my right side problems were probably caused by a nerve condition and not a lumbar disk problem as we had suspected for months. He immediately ordered an MRI brain scan test. The idea was that if the brain scan turned up negative, we would turn our attention to a nerve conduction study to determine the root cause of the weakness in the nerves on my right side. I tried not to dwell on why I was even getting a brain scan, trudging immediately into the MRI Center in the basement of Kaiser’svenerable Morse Avenue hospital in north Sacramento. My wife had delivered both our children at Kaiser Morse over 30 years ago. It was an old and cramped facility even back then.
If you’ve never had an MRI, you’re lucky. If you’re at all claustrophobic, you may need a tranquilizer before having one. You’re inserted into a heavy metal, casket-like contraption, then subjected to loud vibrations and ear-splitting clanging sounds for a period of 30-40 minutes. I managed to live 61 years before having one. Now I was undergoing a second in the space of one year. But the images it produces are fairly amazing - high definition pictures of multiple layers of your inner body from various directions.
On January 20, 2016, my wife Catherine and I met with Kaiser neurosurgeon Dr. Adam Griffith to discuss the results of the MRI brain scan performed the day before. The bad news was cruelly but vividly displayed on the computer monitor in his examination room: a tumor the size of a small orange invading the top left side of my skull, squeezing my brain into an unnaturally compressed state, interfering with motor activities on my right side, especially my lower leg. The good news was that the tumor - called a meningioma - was benign and very slow growing. Dr. Griffith recommended surgery to remove it as soon as possible.
The brain tumor came on the heels of a tough 18-month period. On July 5, 2014, just a few weeks after a promising Primary Election in which I qualified for the General Election runoff for California State Assembly, I was taking a few days offfrom the campaign grind with my family up near Lake Tahoe. I was trimming one of the large Jeffrey pine trees in front of my cabin in Truckee when I leaned too far and too forcefully trying to finish cutting off a dead branch. The extension laddersuddenly twisted and fell, sending me sprawling 15 feet to the ground, fracturing my pelvis and tailbone among other things. After two months of excruciating pain and rehab, I was able to start walking precincts again (limping more accurately) by Labor Day, but it wasn’t enough to resuscitate my foundering campaign. I don't know if the result would have been different without the accident, but I ended up losing two critical months of campaigning. Many people, especially labor and corporate donors, stopped believing I could win, which became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead of closing a manageable five percent gap from the June primary, I ended up losing by 17 percent in the November general.
In early December 2014, my fifth and final term in office as a Sacramento City Councilmember came to an end. No other Council member in Sacramento history had ever been elected to five consecutive four-year terms on the Council. In addition, my 20-year tenure was one of the longest tenures on the Council dating back to the Gold Rush in 1849. When reminded of this record, I didn’t know whether to take pride in my longevity and persistence or to gloss over it, reflecting that many of my fellowcitizens now considered incumbency and political experience a liability.
I resolved to dedicate the following year to relax, travel, ski, and play golf and tennis. I would also visit my far-flung brothers and sisters, spend a couple of months in Mexico learning Spanish, and stay away from time-consuming, contentious and mind-numbing public meetings. Most important, I would take the time to help plan and thoroughly enjoy my daughter’s wedding at the historic Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento on Labor Day weekend. It was the first time in 40 years that I didn’t have a strict schedule, a job or serious responsibilities. I had nothing but time, or so I thought. Fortunately, I was able to do all these things last year, despite my worsening leg condition, and despite having to undergo surgery to remove a melanoma in my chest the week after Thanksgiving.
The surgery to remove the brain tumor took place on February 17, 2016, at Kaiser’s state-of-the-art Vacaville hospital, 30 miles west of Sacramento. Subsequent brain scans have confirmed that Dr. Griffith successfully removed the entire tumor and that no radiation is necessary. My rehab nine months post-surgery is coming along slowly but steadily. I am able to walk now, though with a decided limp, and I can even hike a bit and play golf. In fact, because my golf game was so bad before, you can hardly tell the difference pre- and post-surgery, other than I move more slowly, have less endurance, and hit the ball a little shorter but straighter.
In my youth, I had three other near death experiences. When I was seven, I was hit by a speeding motorcycle while playing street ball and was knocked 50 feet down the road, yet I suffered only a concussion. In 1972, during my freshman year spring break, I rolled my parents’ yellow Plymouth Duster on Route 66 in the desert near Prescott, Arizona. I had a very clear memory of that accident as if it were in slow motion, along with a vision that life is too precious to waste even a moment. This outlook definitely affected my outlook on life for many years, including the decisionto spend my Junior Year in France, which is where I met my wife Catherine. But over time, the routines and travails of daily life tend to dull such a lucid vision, and one tends to take things for granted.
Then in 1981, two years after I finished law school and relocated from San Diego to Sacramento, routine lung x-rays during a general physical exam revealed dark spots on my lungs. This news scared the bejesus out of me, but the spots turned out to be the harmless remnants of an early childhood immune disease called sarcoidosis and required no further treatment. Nevertheless, I quit smoking that day, and Catherine and I decided it was time to have a baby. The rest as they say is history. Within a year, Catherine gave birth to our first child Nicole, followed three years later by our son Adam.
I remember my Dad telling me after my accident in the Arizona desert that I must be destined for greatness because God spared me that spring day in 1972. I don't know about that, but if it is true, I hope God still has some great things planned for me. This latest health scare has given me a short pause to reflect on what I have accomplished during my time on Earth, and more important what is left to accomplish during my remaining time, however long that may be. So I was moved to write this a memoir to record as much as I could recall of the true adventures of a life well lived, and a new chapter just beginning.
Once I wrote the memoir this summer, I discovered the wonders of editing and formatting a book, self publishing, creating a webpage and using my Facebook business or "like" page in addition to my regular Facebook personal page, Twitter, LinkedIn, and other social media. Luckily, my former City Hall intern, Danielle Williams, helped me out. I was not accustomed to using so much technology without help from my City Hall or political campaign staff. Of course, I had to start with dozens of photos which make formatting problematic. Next time, I'll stick to text with fewer photos.
Now I'm dipping my toes even further into the cyberworld of blogging. I'm not sure how often I'll be posting blogs, but I plan to use this forum to sound off on issues of the day, or maybe even of yesterday or tomorrow. And I'm already working on a second book. So stay tuned...