BOB ARONSON: Bob’s New Heart — ‘A Single Death Is A Tragedy, A Million Deaths Is A Statistic’

About Bob Aronson …

A former journalist, governor’s press secretary, communications consultant and sun seeker, Bob Aronson smoked for 37 years. He quit the habit nearly 30 years ago after developing COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). A failing heart, probably caused by smoking, resulted in his receiving a heart transplant in 2007. In June 2018, he was diagnosed with stage four metastatic lung cancer, likely caused by his smoking combined with a compromised immune system due to his need for anti-rejection drugs to protect his transplanted heart. He is currently being treated at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla.,where he lives with his wife, Robin, and their dogs, Reilly and Ziggy.

This blog is Bob’s first on the Fish. We’re happy to have him aboard. 

* * * * *

When I was diagnosed with stage four metastatic lung cancer, I pledged to launch a series of articles on tobacco, cancer and related health issues. They won’t be in-depth, but I hope they will be thought-provoking.

For this first entry, I have turned to history for yet another lesson. The headlined quote about deaths comes from Josef Stalin, the brutal Russian dictator who became one of the world’s greatest mass murderers, said to be responsible for the deaths of up to 25 million people, a staggering number that overwhelms even Hitler’s brutality.

Chinese leader Mao Zedong was an even more prolific killer. History records that his “Great Leap Forward” movement killed 45 million of his own people in just four years. Again, though, the numbers are so great they are meaningless statistics. The human mind can visualize 10, 20 or even 100 bodies, but 45 million dead bodies? Hardly, so the number has little or no visual effect.

The deaths caused by Stalin and Mao pale, though, when compared to the numbers piled up by the likes of Pierre Lorillard, Richard Joshua Reynolds, Phillip Morris and others whose tobacco companies are collectively responsible for the deaths of up to a 100 million people in the 20th century. That toll, according to the World Health Organization, is on track to kill over 1 billion people in the 21st century.

Unlike Stalin, Hitler, Mao and others the tobacco killers buying smokes had a murder for money scheme. They persuaded their victims to purchase the poison that killed them. When I smoked, cigarettes were fairly inexpensive. Still, I calculate averaging 35 cents a pack and smoking three to four packs a day; I paid R. J. Reynolds some $20,000 to kill me. “Winston’s taste good like a cigarette should,” worked on me. Today at $6 or more a pack, tobacco profits are even higher.

The first few millions of deaths were not aware that the tobacco leaves wrapped in special paper and sold in fancy boxes posed a danger. But, ironically, it made no difference. They bought the soon-to-be-dubbed “cancer sticks in record numbers even when hundreds of health agencies provided proof of their poisonous properties.

Every death was money in the bank.

A 100 million, dead. A billion dead. Who can even begin to comprehend that number of bodies? No one! And the tobacco companies counted on it. I’m sure I’ll be tossed into the statistical “forgotten” heap, too, but maybe one or two of my blogs and those of my “Statistical” colleagues will survive to indicate that we were human beings, that we had some value and deserved better. We are not statistics. We are not digital data points; we are people who lived, loved and added value to our communities. You cannot silence us by diminishing our importance. Your ashtray of statistics will continue to be exposed as a murderous cover-up, as our chorus of protests overwhelms your statistical graves.

Better, more talented writers than I have tried and failed to get the message across that “tobacco kills.” And while we’ve had some success, people still smoke and “tobacco company profits are soaring. That great big, ugly tobacco leaf still kills a half million Americans every year. That’s more than alcohol, car accidents, AIDS, illegal drugs (including opioids), murders and suicides, combined. Yikes!

I am so incensed by the thought of that many Americans dying from tobacco use; I feel compelled to try again to offer an example of the carnage. The Airbus A-380 that can carry 555 or more passengers is the largest airplane in the world. If two of them crashed every day for a year, and human bodies and body parts covered the crash sites, the toll would equal the number killed by tobacco in a year, and the media would be filled with gory pictures of the crash sites. Politicians voices would dominate the airwaves demanding investigations, newspapers would publish lengthy reports, airline executives would be arrested and jailed, and Airbus would cease to exist.

Still, an equal number of people die from smoking and there is no outrage, there are no protests or investigations and no one, not a single tobacco executive, is behind bars.

Why? Why is my death less important because of the way I died? Why am I a statistic and the others are real people whose pictures dominate the front pages of the world? Why is that?

It’s because Stalin’s hypothesis is true. I and others like me are cast into that pile of unbelievable, unimaginable statistics because we die quietly without fanfare and gory lung cancer  pictures. We died not in fiery crashes but rather coughing, and in pain, one at a time rather than in large groups.

Let’s beam us back to today for a moment. Is there anyone in the developed world who is not aware that smoking cigarettes is deadly? Anyone? We obediently hand over $6 or more daily for a package of 20 neatly wrapped rolls of tobacco. Each sports a “filter” on one end to make the product “safer,” filters that are deadlier than the poisons they hide, filters that help block only the biggest tar particles while letting through the smaller bits that can travel deeper into your lungs.

“The design of cigarette filters allows smokers to inhale more smoke and to think that the smoke is safer because it is smoother,” says senior author Dr. Peter Shields from The Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center in Columbus. “This applies to all cigarettes, not just the ones that used to be called “lights” and “ultralights,” he says. The fact of the matter is cigarettes will kill you regardless of the brand or health claim.

Let’s make the picture even more human. We all remember the delightful TV show “ The Flintstones.” Jean Vander Pyl, who acted in the famous cartoon series, was also a cancer victim. His son, Michael O’Meara had later said:

“Everybody on the Flintstones smoked, and all of them ended up dying of smoking-related diseases. …That little cute laugh that Barney and Wilma did with their mouths closed? They came up with that because when they normally laughed, being smokers, they coughed.”

And finally, this. You can call it either irony or poetic justice but R.J. Reynolds Senior, the founder of the company that makes Winston, Camels and other tobacco brands, died of pancreatic cancer, which is tied to tobacco use.

R.J. Reynolds II, died of emphysema, which is caused by cigarette smoking.

And R.J. Reynolds III also died of emphysema.

Sometimes what goes around, really does come around.

Stay tuned.

LA VALLEUR COMMUNICATES: Musings by Barbara La Valleur — I Was ‘Mayo-ed’

It’s been an Epic week.

So there I was last Thursday in Wahpeton, N.D., at the Red Door Gallery preparing for my next photo exhibit, “A Photojournalist’s Retrospective” highlighting my work of the past 55 years. As I passed Chahinkapa Zoo on my way out of Wahpeton, my cell phone rang. It was Erin, a Mayo Clinic appointment secretary, to ask if I wanted to have my knee surgery next Monday instead of next October.  “Absolutely!” I answered with a silent “YES!” to myself and an “I love you!” to Erin as the bearer of wonderful news.

I was about to be “Mayo-ed.”

Six weeks earlier, I had been told my knee replacement surgery wouldn’t happen for months. But that didn’t stop me from being proactive. Every week, I called to ask if there had been any cancellations. There was no way I was going to wait until October with the knee pain I was experiencing.

Early Friday morning, I left La Farm near Ashby, Minn., where I’d been staying for the week because we were in the middle of re-siding our old farmhouse, to drive back to the Cities. Then my husband drove us to Rochester, Minn., for presurgical appointments (X-rays, blood draw, food and medicine updates) and five hours later, we were on our way back to Edina, Minn.

At my Friday appointments, we kept hearing about Epic, the new electronic health record system that was being launched that weekend. In the past, the clinic had been using a variety of disparate record-keeping systems. The new Epic System brought the various different record systems together, resulting not only in more efficient record-keeping but faster results speed up work for both patients and employees. There will be less duplication of testing and data entry.

At 5:15 a.m. Monday, we left Edina arriving at Methodist Hospital at 6:50 a.m. Epic was evident, up and running with nurses and other staff hovering perhaps a little longer over their computers looking for the appropriate slots to enter data.

My husband, Arnie Bigbee, worked in administration at Mayo for 32 years, retiring in 2007. He observed a lot of people in green vests who we learned are Epic “experts,” hundreds of help desk-type staff who have been working for months as Mayo transitions to the Epic System.

What was interesting about the experience is that despite a totally new, highly sophisticated computer record system, every Mayo employee kept their cool, apologizing to patients when they took a little longer than normal, expressing appreciation for patient’s patience. The work flowed.

My surgeon is one of the best for fixing knees, Michael J. Stuart, M.D., co-director for Sports Medicine Center in Rochester and Minneapolis and professor of Orthopedics at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine.

Before surgery, he “autographed” my left knee to make sure the work was done on the correct knee. I was wheeled in to surgery a few minutes before noon and was out by 2:30 p.m.

While I don’t remember a lot about the first few post-op hours, for the remainder of my stay through Wednesday afternoon, Mayo staff executed exceptional care living up to their worldwide reputation.

It’s been an Epic week, all right.

To all the wonderful Mayo nurses (and all nurses everywhere), Happy National Nurses Week, indeed, and thank you for being there.

LA VALLEUR COMMUNICATES: Musings by Barbara La Valleur — The Eyes Have It

OMG! “What a difference a day makes ♪♫♫♪♪♫♫♪,♪♫♫♪,” as the Dinah Washington song goes.

Went to Mayo Clinic on Wednesday and had cataract surgery on my left eye. It was a surprisingly easy procedure. The prep time actually took longer than the surgery.

I’m now officially a “Patient Lens Implant Identification Card” carrier. The brand name is AcrySof out of Fort Worth, Texas. My mother, a staunch Texan who never did quite loose that Southern drawl despite moving away as a teenager, would be happy to know I now have another Texas connection.

A few years ago when I had an eye exam and was informed I was getting cataracts in both eyes, I wondered allowed how I would know when it was time to have surgery. As a photojournalist, my eyes are my everything. The ophthalmologist assured me, “You’ll know.” I wasn’t so sure about that.

Fast-forward to the end of my nine-day Cuba trip earlier this year during, on which I took over 5,000 photos. I knew. No question. I made an appointment at my favorite health care facility when I got back. For that, I give thanks to my dear husband, Arnie Bigbee, a 32-year Mayo Clinic retiree, who provides us with outstanding health care insurance. Sure enough, time for surgery.

So Wednesday was the day. After about 40 minutes of prep time and 20 minutes of surgery, it was over. I was awake the entire time with slight sedation and numbing in and around my left eye, laying motionless in the reclined medial chair, while Dr. Sanjay Patel did his “magic.”

A corneal specialist and professor of ophthalmology at Mayo Clinic, Dr. Patel’s skilled hands inserted that 13-millemeter devise that looks like a contact lens with two tiny, curved appendages, into my eye.

The “light show” that I had during surgery was, in and of itself, fascinating; incredibly colorful.

After putting a patch over my eye, I was sent off to rest for the remainder of the day. Given the drive from Edina to Rochester, Minn., we opted to stay there overnight, especially given today’s 7:20 a.m. post-op exam.

Once the patch was off, I could not believe my eye(s)! It was like viewing a tropical jungle from my left eye and a dry dessert with my right eye.

The difference is best seen in the following two photos. The one on the left is how I “NOW” see out of my cataract-free eye. The one on the right (which I altered in my computer’s Photos program) is how the same view looks through my right eye.

I assured Dr. Patel he’d be seeing me again soon.