Sixteen months of Storms, Part 13

Jon Altman

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As I said, the research nurse at MD Anderson had said that Lynette needed to be back at her November 13 “baseline” of self-care and mobility in order to participate in the clinical trial. Lynette was receiving daily Physical and Occupational Therapy. Her speech difficulties had (mostly) resolved, i.e. she could make sentences and communicate, but the reality was that she was NOT getting better at mobility and self-care. She was now pretty much bedfast and not able to do what Occupational Therapists call “Activities of Daily Living.” For the first time since her diagnosis about fourteen months earlier, I began to ask myself if it was time to “stop” efforts to slow the cancer’s progression down. I was aware that another Mississippi United Methodist clergy with cancer, Jim Biedenharn, was by then on hospice service. I contacted his wife, Clare Richardson Biedenharn, also a Mississippi Conference clergy and healthcare chaplain, to ask how they had come to make the decision to “stop” curative treatment. Clare basically went through a brief history of their clinical journey. I actually don’t remember that she even said what was the final trigger. It just was clear that she “knew” when it was time to stop. At this particular point (Tuesday, December 5) I didn’t “know.” Most of Lynette’s care at St. Dominic’s was under the direction of the St. Dominic’s hospitalists. It was somewhat odd that they were treating a cancer patient, but her oncologists (who had staff privileges at UMMC, but not at St. Dominic’s) were not readily available. Eventually, Jackson Oncology WAS consulted. I spoke with THOSE doctors about where things stood and gave them the names of her UMMC oncologists. One thing that was clear was that we needed updated scans to see where things stood with Lynette’s cancer progression. Her last UMMC scans had been in mid-September and her last MD Anderson scans had been in late October/early November. Friday morning, December 8 dawned with an inch, plus of snow on the ground in central Mississippi. Though this likely seems inconsequential to people from Northern climes, it’s a crisis in central Mississippi. The “snow removal plan” is “wait for it to melt.” I couldn’t do that, though. I needed to get from Harrisville to St. Dominic’s, a distance of some 15, plus, miles. I got there and didn’t slide. Lynette was scheduled for her scans that morning.I saw her off, and waited. About noon, she returned from the scan. As she was being transferred back to the bed, her oxygen saturation levels (“sats”) dropped into the 70s. She was quite distressed, in air hunger. As the nurses went through their protocol to try to help bring her “sats” back up, they asked me “If this does not work, do you want us to put her on a ventilator?” It was the “final exam” question for which I’d been studying for more than twenty years, without knowing it. All I could do was shake my head “No” and sob. I knew the answer. I knew what Lynette would want. I knew that “life” on a ventilator is no “life” at all.

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Clergy Appreciation 4

Clergy Appreciation Month 4: There is, of course, just one clergy who lived with me for 35 years, gave birth to our two children, and was partner with me in raising them. Lynette was able to sit for an interview with Joe Reiff in the summer of 2017, while undergoing radiation and chemotherapy. Her story, with her perspective on it, will be told in Joe’s upcoming book. From my perspective, she experienced all the “hard things” she anticipated about being a clergywoman in Mississippi. She would share her hurt and anger with me, and a few others. What she didn’t do was turn that hurt and anger into hatred or harm to those who were its source. She loved the people to whom she was appointed, even when they didn’t love her back. In her last month, I was amazed at the number of people from past appointments who stepped up to care for her and express the love they didn’t always show when she was their pastor. I may not be as forgiving on her behalf as she was, but she certainly continues to challenge me.

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Clergy Appreciation 3

Clergy Appreciation Month 3: Lynette had not had an appointment during my first year, but made the decision to pursue ordination and an appointment during that year. We were appointed to an unusual “Inner City Parish” appointment in Meridian, along with Gene Martino. W.D. Pigott, pastor of Poplar Springs Drive UMC in Meridian, invited Lynette, Gene, and me to join a “Preaching Peers” group in the Meridian District. The other participants were Joe Ranager, Mike Hicks, Vicki Loflin Johnson and her then-husband Bert Gary. We worked through the Fred Craddock “Preaching” videos. We also recorded and listened to one another’s sermons and gave feedback. This was quite helpful in growing my competence as a preacher AND in experiencing a community of support and challenge as a pastor. Mike HicksVicki Loflin JohnsonJoe Ranager

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Clergy Appreciation 2

Clergy Appreciation Month 2: In 1986, with a newly conferred Master of Divinity degree, I was appointed to a church in south central Mississippi with “great potential.” I was not yet fluent in “DS Speak,” so I didn’t know what that meant. I soon learned. That church was riven by interpersonal conflicts that LONG pre-dated my arrival, but which, nevertheless, became MY problems. The saving grace of that experience was that the pastor of the County Seat church, Tom Cupit, and a retired, but still “active,” pastor N.A. Dickson were in my corner. I soon became familiar with another pastor serving at the other end of the District, Tom Pace. They affirmed me, personally, and what I was trying to find my way through. Another retired pastor, Bernard Walton, who was my immediate predecessor in that appointment, also affirmed me and gave needed support and information. I also became acquainted with the other two “Probationary Members” (people ordained Deacons, but not yet Elders and not yet “Members in Full Connection.”) in the District. They were John Robert Hall and Rob Gill. I was also assigned a “mentor,” Bill Lowry, pastor of a large church two counties away. These folks helped keep my first year as a pastor under appointment from becoming my last. Kimberly PaceKen PaceRob GillJohn Robert Hall

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Clergy Appreciation

Clergy Appreciation Month: Following the lead of several others, I’m writing to acknowledge the clergy who have shaped me. I came to Millsaps as a “cradle roll” Baptist, expecting to become an English teacher. I signed up for a course called “Heritage” because it offered a path to completing core curriculum requirements in a shorter period of time. There, I encountered United Methodist Elder T.W. Lewis, whose explication of Paul’s letters left my “heart strangely warmed.” I shifted my vocational focus to ministry that first semester. I worked for Gerry Reiff in the library at Millsaps. Her husband, Lee Reiff, was the Chair of the Religion Department at Millsaps. The Reiffs modeled “Christian Hospitality” in so many ways. That first Christmas season, there was to be a service of Communion in the Chapel. I had grown up with the “closed table” model of Communion. I asked Dr. Reiff if I’d be welcome at Communion. He said “It’s God’s table, not ours.” A seed was planted toward becoming a United Methodist. Keith Tonkel was a regular speaker at Millsaps chapel services as well. He modeled a VERY different approach to preaching than I had heard before. He made his own painful experiences available for reflection on the life of faith. I also encountered the preaching of John Claypool, then the pastor of Northminster Baptist Church in Jackson. He modeled that same vulnerability in the pulpit, as well as offering a vision for how I could integrate what I was learning in religion classes at Millsaps with the Preaching Life. Don Fortenberry was the Chaplain at Millsaps. He also modeled hospitality and care, as well as seemingly infinite patience for dialogue with those whose theological/doctrinal commitments were more “rigid” than those I was coming to have. Don was also my guide into moving into the United Methodist Church, when it became clear that ministry in the Southern Baptist Convention would be impossible for me. Jack Woodward was a United Methodist Elder who served as Director of Financial Aid at Millsaps. He helped keep me there, especially my Senior year, when things were looking questionable.Bishop C.P. Minnick came to Mississippi in September of the year I had become United Methodist in January. He modeled “telling your truth,” combined with a self-deprecating sense of humor that I admired. Later, Bishop Ken Carder showed that same kind of leadership.Thomas LewisKenneth CarderDon FortenberryJoe Reiff

Alongside these United Methodist developments, I was actively involved at First Baptist Jackson, MS for the first two and a half years of my time at Millsaps. I walked downtown at least two times a week, for Sunday School and Morning Worship and to sing in the Revelation (High School and College) Choir and to sing at the evening service. Frank Pollard was a compelling preacher, who also spoke to my deepest soul most of the time. Larry Black was the music director for FBC Jackson and the director the Revelation Choir. Both men, though near the “pinnacle” of their occupations, seemed to be genuinely humble “servant leaders.” I was unaware early on of the political developments in the Southern BAptist Convention, but I now realize that the staff at FBC Jackson would have fit into the “Moderate/Liberal” camp, though they’d have never called themselves that. The first “conservative/fundamentalist” SBC President was elected in the summer of 1979. No ill was spoken of him or of the movement in any public forum at FBC Jackson, but it was becoming clear that I was on the likely “losing” side of the coming SBC developments.

Two events precipitated my exit from both FBC Jackson and from the SBC. In January 1980 the Revelation choir joined the choir of a Mobile Baptist church for a joint “retreat/rehearsal” event at a Baptist Conference Center in Pass Christian. The preacher for that event was the youth/college minister at the Mobile church. He was an angry “hellfire and brimstone” preacher, who also worked a lot of homophobia into his sermons. There was a degree of “pushback” from the students, but none from the adult leaders. Later that month, Frank Pollard addressed “basic Christian beliefs.” They were pretty much the main claims of the Apostles and Nicene Creeds. I didn’t disbelieve any of those, but the phrase “You can’t be a Christian if you don’t believe this.” was used. This struck me wrong-excluding, rather than confessiing. I had been wrestling with the notion that I needed to make a different denominational commitment for a while, but it was as if a “switch” turned in my brain. It was now clear that I needed to go a different way. That week, I approached Don Fortenberry about what would be needed for me to pursue ministry in the UMC.

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Sixteen Months of Storms, Part 12

Horiana Grosu: As I mentioned, Lynette had been complaining of coughing and shortness of breath in September. The fluid on her lungs revealed by the October 31 chest CT seemed to give us a reason. We saw Dr. Horiana Grosu on November 2 as well. Dr. Grosu is illustrative of one of the things we liked best about MD Anderson and Houston. Houston is the most “diverse” city in the United States. During our early October visit, Lynette and I spent an afternoon at the Houston Zoo. In just a few minutes of sitting near the entrance we saw families of African Americans, Hispanic Americans, South Asians, Whites, and East Asians. Likewise, at MD Anderson, we encountered a Korean American Medical Oncologist, A Nigerian American research nurse, a Hispanic Social Worker, a scheduling specialist descended from slaves, a Jewish American neurosurgeon, two South Asian radiation oncologists and now a pulmonary specialist originally from South America. I strongly believe that our traditional openness to immigration from other countries is a strength of America. That such a diverse group of people came together to do what they could to keep Lynette alive supports my conviction. Dr. Grosu said that Lynette needed a thoracentesis. This is a procedure in which an instrument is inserted into the thorax to drain excess fluid. She also said we might need to insert a “drain” to allow for the regular draining of fluid. Again, since we didn’t know how long it would be before we’d be scheduled for the gamma knife surgery, I thought we might be able to have that drain inserted in Jackson.Dr. Grosu did the thoracentesis the afternoon of November 2. In a VERY uncharacteristic move, Lynette allowed me to begin driving home afterward.๐Ÿ™‚ Since we got such a late start, we drove only as far as Lake Charles, LA that night. Lynette’s Dream Group was to have an overnight retreat starting about 1:00 on Friday, November 3. We got back to Harrisville in time for me to get Lynette to the person from the group who would drive her to the retreat site. Lynette wanted to bring along a fan to help keep air circulating near her face. This was a “life hack” she came up with deal with her shortness of breath. As a long term plan, this “hack” would last for only about three weeks. Lynette completed the retreat.She did not participate in the horseback riding that was a significant part of the retreat program, but she was glad to be with “her people” for that time. Sarah brought her back to the Harrisville area and went with her to a Fall meal at Rexford UMC. I attended the wedding of Lindsey Windham and Robert Myers from the Harrisville congregation that Saturday afternoon.The next morning, Sunday, November 5 was Homecoming Sunday at Harrisville UMC. Sarah was one of the featured soloists at the service. As it turned out, that was the last worship service the four of us would attend together.That Sunday evening, I was the scheduled speaker for a Simpson County Cluster worship service at D’Lo United Methodist Church. That service was to begin at 5:00. The Millsaps Chamber Singers were to have a concert at St. Phillips Episcopal Church at 7:00. Sarah REALLY wanted her Mama and me to attend. We figured out that we would JUST make it, if I didn’t talk too long and if we did not stay for “fellowship.” That was acceptable to the Cluster folks.Of course, Lynette was the driver for our trip to northeast Jackson. She received WAY fewer speeding tickets than she “earned” during her life.๐Ÿ™‚ We made it before the concert began and Lynette (again) did not get a ticket. This was another of those (almost) “last” events, though none of us knew it.

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Sixteen Months of Storms, Part 11

Gamma knife: A gamma knife delivers a focused dose of radiation to a precise spot on the brain. A neursurgeon places a “halo” on the patient that helps guide the radiation oncologist in “aiming” the “knife.” (If there are any neurosurgeons and/or radiation oncologists reading this, please forgive this “layman’s” explanation). On Thursday, November 2, 2017, Lynette and I visited with a neurosurgeon and a radiation oncologist at MD Anderson to have the procedure explained and to give consent for the procedure. It was also explained that “gamma knife time” was in high demand. There would be a wait of at least a couple of weeks before the procedure could be scheduled. I knew that UMMC also had a gamma knife and thought it was possible we could have THAT procedure in Jackson.

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Sixteen Months of Storms, Part 10

Back to the clinical story: Lynette was scheduled for a CT and for an MRI of the head on Tuesday, October 31. She had had an MRI of the head in July of 2017. She didn’t like it. The procedure involves being “buckled in” to a device that holds your head still. This is necessary for “good pictures,” but Lynette is hardly the only person who finds this quite anxiety producing. This was a time when “Mother’s Little Helper” (valium) was actually necessary. I was confined to the waiting room and couldn’t provide the in person support I would have liked to.She weathered those two diagnostic procedures. The next day we had labs, an eye exam, an echocardiogram, and a visit with Dr. Lim scheduled. For reasons we didn’t ever quite understand, her visit with the ophthalmologist was VERY much delayed. I believe that one patient took up a large amount of time and Lynette, along with all the OTHER patients scheduled for that morning had to wait a LARGE amount of time. Eventually, we had to contact Dr. Lim’s office to tell her how badly delayed we were and why. We made it over to Dr. Lim’s office and had to go back to the ophthalmologist later. The echocardiogram was delayed also.Lynette signed the consent for being in the clinical trial when we arrived at Dr. Lim’s. We found out two things that would turn out to be VERY significant to the next six weeks. The head MRI had shown a small lesion on Lynette’s brain. Her brain had been clear in July, so this was new. The treatment of choice for this sort of lesion is radiosurgery done by gamma knife. Referrals to a neurosurgeon and a radiation oncologist were made. Also, the chest CT had shown that there was fluid accumulating near Lynette’s lungs. A referral to a pulmonary doctor was also made. It was explained to us that these two matters (which were presented as “hiccups”) would need to be resolved before we could begin the study medicine. Though we had planned to leave for home on the morning of Thursday, November 2, we stayed to see these additional doctors.

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Sixteen Months of Storms, Part 9

A couple of notes about the “home front” while we were going to Houston. Lynette’ sister Guyanne Little Hargrove, the people of Rexford United Methodist Church, and the attendees at the south Rankin/Simpson County Charge Conference on October 29 shared generous gifts with us to help with lodging and meal expenses we had in Houston. The people of Harrisville United Methodist Church helped with meals for Luke while we were out of town as well. Luke, as some of you may remember, has an autism spectrum disorder. He has not ever spent the night by himself. We didn’t think that his coming with us to Houston was a good idea at all. Lynette’s sisters, Guyanne and Linda Little, stayed with Luke at our house in Harrisville while we were traveling. That helped our peace of mind tremendously and let us concentrate on Lynette and her medical needs exclusively while we were in Houston.

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Sixteen Months of Storms Part 8

o, we returned from MD Anderson on Thursday, October 4, 2017 with questions. We had a copy of the research protocol. Lynette had appointments with her UMMC doctors on October 19. We wanted to be sure that this was indeed our ONLY option for further treatment. All treatments have risks and toxicity, but this one had particular risks to Lynette’s heart and eyes, along with other potential side effects. We also had to wrap our minds around spending that much time in Houston over the next few months. Lynette’s doctors affirmed that this research protocol was in fact the last line of available treatment. As I recall, we still went back and forth, trying to balance Lynette’s desire for “time with my family,” with our goal of attending Sarah’s graduation together. Lynette finally made the decision to go ahead and complete evaluation for the trial, which would involve a CT and and MRI of her head. She was especially anxious about getting through the MRI of her head, as that is quite loud and involved lying still for an extended period of time. In addition to those scans, Lynette would also need an eye exam and echocardiogram. We made arrangements with MD Anderson to return and begin those evaluations on October 31, 2017.

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