Saturday, March 10, 2012

Guys' Weekend

Everyone who has worn a uniform has those fiends.  You shared the same wins, losses, doubts and fears together as you sweat and climbed the same mountains.  Everyone who had worn a uniform knows about those true friends; bonded for life regardless of what happens next.  When I was diagnosed with MS in 1999 absolutely everything in my life changed in an instant.  Everything, this is except my friends.  This is a story about three men who changed my life by committing that my MS changed nothing.

I met Bo, Ho and Dougie all on the same day.  June 28, 1989.  R-Day; reception day for the incoming class of 1993 at the United States Military Academy.  West Point may be a prime mark of military success for young men and women, but on June 28, 1989 it was a spastic day for at least four boys.  Coming from very different backgrounds from across the country, we were now expected to conform to one crisp standard.  Together & with the rest of our new platoon we made it through R-Day.

That first day carried on through that first week, month and finally the end of our first year.  We stumbled through, carrying each other and being carried.  Plebe year at West Point.  We were seasoned; no longer wide eyed and naïve.  At least that is how we saw ourselves in the world.  We refined that crisp standard.  We trained together, studied together, and tested each other.  All the time supporting each other, physically and mentally, in the ways that you would expect brothers to support each other:
·         By challenging each other to push on faster & longer, regardless of our desires to quit. 
·         By never letting up and never allowing each other to take the easier way out. 
·         By finding the humor and sarcasm in everything and trivializing our fears before those fears could ever take hold. 

That first year carried on through 22 more (and counting).  Separately, we have all travelled our own paths and are now in very different points of our middle-aged lives, again spread across the country.  Each of us has been individually defined by our careers, assignments, deployments, transitions, marriages, divorces, children, families, and unique life events in general.  Together, we are defined in much the same way as we have been since that June 28.  Every step of the way is marked by some story we’ve told a thousand times already. 

We talk as often as we can.  Sometimes more, sometimes less than we would prefer.  Every year, though, we gather.  Guys’ Weekend.  Our excuse to put aside our worries and concerns about life and enjoy time with each other.

Bo, Ho and Dougie know all about my disease and the ongoing litany of issues, hospitalizations and medications.  Sometimes we talk about it, usually because I am taking the opportunity to vent a bit.  But on Guys’ Weekend, I put all that aside in favor of the random banter, beer drinking, cigar smoking, good time crisp standard that we all maintain!  Not quite the same STRATC young men we were, but we can hold our own.

What’s so special about Guys’ Weekend?  For me, it’s the only group where I don’t have MS.  Sure, they know I have the disease.  They know about (and see) all of my issues and treatments.  For me, they don’t see that.  Bo, Ho and Dougie treat me exactly the same way as they always have, as one of them.  No more and no less.  Most important, no different than ever.  I can honestly say, besides these three men there is no one else whom I can say that about.  For someone with MS, being treated like everyone else can be the greatest feeling in the world.

I let Bo into my MS world this summer.  He rode with us in this year’s BikeMS fundraiser here in Oregon.  This is the world where I am Kevin: team captain of Team Amulet and one of the faces of MS.  For me, the angst preceding the weekend on my part was unwarranted.  He happily rode and celebrated with us, all the time surrounded by sites and stories of MS.  In the end, regardless of what he saw or heard I was still KB.  Nothing changed.

I’m headed off for Guys’ Weekend next week.  I’ll never thank Bo, Ho and Dougie for what they do (rather, for what they don’t do).  Nor do I have to.  They would just shrug it off anyway.  Maybe even poke fun at me for a while, then crack open another beer, then poke fun at me again.  Jackasses.


Kevin Byrne - Portland, OR

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Welcome Home

After I was diagnosed in September ’99, I remained stationed at Camp Eagle (Korea).  I was grounded from flying but still in command of D/1-6, an Air Cav maintenance troop.  Stability provided comfort as I tried to adjust to my MS.  The Army was my family and I was not ready for more changes.  Further health complications in late June changed that; in a few short weeks I was back in the US for my MEB (Medical Evaluation Board) and outprocessing.  My diagnose-to-retirement from the Army was a whirlwind of events and changes.  With those changes came a flurry of emotions, mostly fear of the unknown.

The MEB world was a cold and lonely place.  I felt as if everyone there had one single purpose: to separate me from my family.  In two short months at Walter Reed my fate was decided and I was ‘separated from service’; I think of it as the ultimate divorce.  Before I left, I was handed a copy of my medical records.  The specialist told me “when you get where you are going, find the closest VA hospital.  Bring these.”

When I get where I am going?  What does that mean?
Find the closest VA hospital?  Then what?
Bring these?  And do what with them?

I ended up in Pittsburgh, PA.  I had a new job and a new home.  Now I needed to find a doctor.  Pittsburgh has a VA hospital so I figured I would go there first then try to figure out what’s next.  Dazed and confused, I found the room for inbound records.  In October 2000, I walked up to the desk as a 28-year old retiree and handed over my records.  That time was a blur; I don’t remember the names, faces or just about anything that happened that day.  That day, however, has one crystal clear image in my mind.  The gentleman behind the desk took my records.  He reviewed the coversheet, quickly scanned some pages then looked up at me.
“Welcome Home, Captain Byrne”

“Welcome Home.”  Those two words summed up that visit and every day since then.  My family at the VA has been in lockstep with me ever since.

The VA always remain discreet, never calls attention to itself, and never expects any thanks.  I’m ashamed to admit that I don’t remember most of the names, although everyone is sure to introduce themselves every time I come in.  I do remember the care and support.  I want to take this time to acknowledge some of the most amazing women and men I have ever met.  This includes, but is no way limited to:
·         The Gentleman at the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System records desk.  Your friendliness and help was the best thing that this frightened patient could have experienced.
·         The Pharmacy staffs at the VA Pittsburgh & NY Harbor Healthcare Systems.  You tailored my medication fulfillment around every oddball work and travel schedule I could come up with, never once telling me I was pushing my luck!
·         The Mental Health staff with the Wilmington (Delaware) VA Medical Center, because every MS patient will hit that wall.  You were there to keep me strong.
·         The Optometry, Ophthalmology, and Neurology staffs at the Wilmington VA Medical Center.  I walked in the front door one day in 2005 and told the nurse I couldn’t see out of one eye and the other was fading.  For the next 6 hours, I felt as if nothing else mattered to you.  I walked out on my own that day, arm in arm with my then-fiancé, on the road to recovery.
·         The MRI technicians at the Portland VA Medical Center.  Every time you stay late, come in after-hours, or tuck me in with a warm blanket, my anxiety disappears.
·         The nurses in the Nurse Infusion Clinic at the Portland VA Medical Center
Funny Story: while undergoing treatment last year, I felt a bit itchy and uncomfortable.  I walked up to the nurses’ station and said just that.  “I feel itchy” was actually full blown anaphylactic shock.  The nurse calmly said OK, asked me how my throat was and walked me back to my room.  For the next 3 hours, every nurse and aide on the floor was in and out treating me (and the 9 other patients who were there as well).  I walked out on my own that day, arm in arm with my now wife, on the road to recovery.
·         Mary, my Nurse Practitioner at the Portland VA Medical Center.  I’m not sure how many patients she has but during every visit and call I fell like the only patient in the VA Healthcare System who has their own personal caregiver!  I’m not sure I could have handled 2011’s rash of MS issues without Mary
·         Marsha, with Education at the VA Puget Sound Health Care System.  I’ve realized that writing down my stories is great therapy for me.  In 2010 I was referred to Marsha and she set me up with my own blog!  As I sit here typing my 16th entry I realize that I have lost count of the benefits I have gained and others have shared with me!

Thanks to these wonderful people, I realized that I never left my family after all.  They just stopped wearing fatigues. 

It’s great to be home with family!
Kevin Byrne - Portland, OR