Tributes & Stories


A (Missed) Week At The Beach

By CAPT Bill Killea '80, USNR

“I have the worst possible news for you.  You have a brain tumor.”  And with that, my Monday morning was not off to a great start.  It was July, 2007, and my wife Patti and I sat stunned in a nondescript room at Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore.  The next 100 hours were destined to be a fast-paced swirl of images, conversations, and memories, ultimately leading to a positive outcome, and underlining the enduring importance of love, family, friendships, and the bonds of USNA.  But to begin at the beginning…

In the spring of 2007, walking down a flight of stairs, I had the fleeting sensation of not knowing where to plant my right foot.  Didn’t think a whole lot of it, but when I mentioned it in passing to Patti the physical therapist, she immediately queried:  “One side or both sides?”  “Muscle or nerve?”  “Any pain?”  I really didn’t have an intelligent answer, and life moved on.  Our family was about to embark on our second international move in two years, and we had lots on our minds.  Our four children were not happy with Dad or Dad’s job, and we were scrambling to take care of a host of details, in the hope that we could enjoy a July week at Bethany Beach, Delaware with the families of my 33rd Company classmates Pete Stanford, his wife Laurie, their four children, along with 33rd Herd-mate Pat Lefler and his four, and my sister Anne, her husband Pat, and their two children.  We would complete our move from Madrid to Geneva upon our return to Europe in late July.

As spring became summer, my symptoms worsened, but I compensated.  Passed a physical with no problems.  The “where do I put my foot?” thing was getting a bit worse.  I was struggling a little with memory.  My international travel  and work schedules were intense, but I chalked any problems up to jet lag, fatigue, stress, “middle-aged moments”, or some combination thereof.  Rather than trying to comprehensively analyze the situation, my reminder to myself to maintain a good workout schedule while traveling probably underlines why I was a 2.7 political science major rather than a Trident Scholar.

On Friday, July 13th, I landed at Newark Airport after a miserable flight.  I had a bad headache.  On the flight, I had tried to write out checks to pay some bills, and had to struggle to make numbers reconcile, even with a calculator.  Everything seemed to be extra hard.  Patti and the kids met me at the airport, and were immediately concerned.  Patti asked whether we should go to the hospital, and I replied that I simply needed a good night’s sleep, which made perfect sense to me, since I’d had a healthy two hours the previous night.  We were scheduled to check into our house at the beach the following day.  Patti asked for help with the map, but I couldn’t make much sense out of it—hadn’t I been an NFO?  What was going on?

Refreshed with some Motrin and a normal night’s sleep, I felt better on Saturday.  Just before our final leg to the beach, I went to check e-mails, and couldn’t remember our Navy Federal log-in information.  We arrived at the realtor’s to pick up the keys, and our agent, trying to make conversation, asked me:  “So, where are you moving?”  I could not remember.  I knew we lived in Madrid, but I could not recall where we were heading later in the summer.  I recovered with:  “Oh, it’s a long story.”

The next 24 hours were a blur.  Lots of shopping and unpacking, and 14 kids becoming reacquainted.  On Sunday afternoon, my brother-in-law, Pat, asked Patti:  “Is Bill okay?  He doesn’t look right to me.”  Pat had seen me holding my arm awkwardly, as if I’d had a stroke.  From my viewpoint, I was “there”, but sort of checked out—almost as if watching a play or a movie, but slightly detached from events.  Pat’s question precipitated a sort of intervention—the adults and Patti huddled, and a tearful Patti told my classmates, friends, and family of her growing concerns.  Patti made the decision that she would take me to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore the first thing Monday morning.  We got on the road around 4:30 a.m.

We walked into the emergency room armed only with our stories and my expatriate health insurance card.  Patti wanted to make sure that the doctors and staff performed all the appropriate neurological tests, without appearing to overly control the process.  A little over two hours after arrival, following a CAT scan and an MRI, a neurologist chased a technician out of the room, closed the door, and delivered the news.  Well, they certainly don’t sugarcoat it here, do they?

Was I scared?  Not really.  I was sad and frustrated—it seemed that I would not see our children graduate from high school, embark on their own lives, and have children of their own.  The neurologist continued:  “Some of our patients elect to do nothing, and let nature take its course.  You can also choose to be discharged for a few days and discuss your options with your family, or obtain another opinion.”  Not me!  I asked for surgery, and if they could have done it in the next five minutes, that would have been just fine.  My tumor, by the way, was a large meningioma, on the left parietal lobe.  (High on the port side, in USN terms.)

People sprang into action.  Pete, Laurie, both Pat Lefler and my brother-in-law Pat Donovan, and my sister Anne were running the show at Bethany with the children.  My brother-in-law, who had lost his own father to brain cancer, took on the task of telling the assembled kids.  Patti was a whirlwind of activity, wearing herself down as she coordinated doctor consultations, visits, and children’s arrangements.   My sister Kate and her husband Charlie drove up from Virginia, as did my nephew John.  Dale Lumme, a great friend and another companymate, came to visit and took charge of getting the word out to classmates.  My cousin John Zeller, who had worked at Johns Hopkins, made calls to the front office to make sure I was getting “command attention.”  Lots and lots of tests, from sophisticated MRIs to: “Count backwards by 7’s from 100.”  I could not get to 93.  Or: “Name as many animals as you can in one minute.”  Better, but not a scholarship winner.  I had ten plastic discs affixed to my skull for navigation during surgery.  I met my surgeon, Dr. Jon Weingart, who seemed pretty upbeat, saying:  “You know what—this thing is pretty defined, and it’s in a good place.  I think we can get it.”

Matthew is our youngest, and Tuesday was his 9th birthday.  We celebrated in a small waiting room down the corridor from my room—a rather somber occasion.  I spoke individually with our four children, Nathan, Abby, Meghan and Matt, and with Patti, trying to be upbeat, and trying not to scare anyone any more than they already were.  Pat Lefler asked me:  “Hey, if things don’t go well for you tomorrow, can I have your stereo?”  It was the right moment for some Naval Aviation humor.

That evening, I had an extraordinary experience.   My hospital roommate was a homeless man who was awaiting surgery for a spinal tumor, and who was also addicted to heroin.  I had overheard him tell a hospital counselor that he could never remember ever having been happy in his entire life.  That night, he spoke to me for the first time.  He told me how lucky I was to have a wife who loved me, four beautiful children, and so many friends and family visiting that the nurses had given up on enforcing visiting hours.  For me, it was reminiscent of It’s A Wonderful Life, except it seemed that I was in the movie.  I knew that whatever happened, the next day was going to turn out okay.

Wednesday morning, Patti and Dale saw me off around 7:20 in the morning.  I remember looking at the clock in the operating room and chatting with the anesthesiologist, and that was it.  About four hours later, I woke up in the recovery room, with a raging thirst, but otherwise feeling really good.  Even coming out of anesthesia, I felt “on”—focused and sharp.  (Could have been the steroids they were feeding me, but I don’t want to spoil the story…)

The surgery had been textbook—Dr. Weingart told me that he was confident that he’d gotten everything, but pathology needed a week to be sure.  Back in my room, I was surprised with a visit from Pete Kilger, yet another 33rd companymate, whom I hadn’t seen in ages—he’d been at USNA for a Blue & Gold conference, and drove up to see me.  Seeing Pete, it was as if the years had melted away.  My firstie year roommate, Charlie Meyers called—trademark “Dr. Bogard” humor intact, jokingly telling me that his son, Charles Jr., a student at the University of Virginia: “Is no son of mine—why, he’s an engineering major, getting good grades, and he’s not playing football!!”

Friday morning, Dr. Weingart walked into my room and said:  “You don’t look too sick to me—why are you hanging around in the hospital?  This place is full of germs.”  And that was it—showered, clean-shaven, and with a ballcap on, I walked to the nurses station to say goodbye and thank you.  A busy charge nurse looked up from her paperwork and asked who I was there to visit, which brought great laughter and applause from the other nurses and staff—if you couldn’t see under the ballcap, you couldn’t tell.  About 100 hours after walking into Johns Hopkins, Patti and I walked out, looking forward to getting on with our lives.  In an extraordinary four days (“drive-through brain surgery”), we had experienced a really bad low, but some great highs.  Perhaps it sounds strange, but it was an incredibly positive experience.

There are important lessons here:

--  Listen when your friends and family are concerned about you.  Don’t rationalize or make excuses.  Patti’s instincts and medical knowledge saved my life.
-- If it’s serious, go with the best—driving direct to Johns Hopkins, without stopping at a local beach clinic focused on jellyfish stings, was a good move.
-- Family, friends and classmates are everything.  And health.  Little else matters.  You probably already knew that.  I was fortunate enough to experience this truth in a very personal and intimate way, and I hope I am a better person for having done so.