Centered by a Miracle
Editor's note: The following excerpt is from "Centered by a Miracle: A True Story of Friendship, Football, and Life" by Steve Rom and Rod Payne.
This is a story of a writer in need, a man who is vulnerable, a man who can't afford anything but the most genuine sorts of emotions and the most loyal sorts of connections.
And, more than anything, this is a story about friendship. Not a casual friendship, not a beer-and-a-ballgame friendship, not a once-in-a-while friendship, but a become-who-you-are, achieve-your-best-self friendship. A friendship that saves a life. A friendship that renews faith. A friendship to cherish and be grateful for.
This is the story of Steve Rom, the writer, who is in the hospital, and Rod Payne, the athlete, who is by his side.
"What you do speaks so well, you don't have to say a word."
I've been in the hospital a couple of days, I think; I don't really know. The morphine my doctors have been giving me for the pain has kicked in, zapping my short-term memory. The days blend together.
I can't think about anything, really, other than the disconcerting news I heard a couple of days ago -- or however many days it's been.
The news arrived just after nightfall on December 26, 2001. It was delivered to me quickly, coldly, by an emergency room doctor I had just met.
"We examined your blood," he said, giving no sign of the wrecking ball headed my way, "and we think it might be leukemia."
Before hearing those words, I had fully expected this gray-haired man in a white coat to tell me to go home and sleep it off -- "it" being the severe flu-like symptoms I'd been experiencing the previous three days. Instead, he was telling me to say good-bye to the life I had known -- the one I had worked so hard for, the one back in Michigan.
The news still hasn't sunk in yet.
After all I've been through as a kid?
When I was nine years old, I had a tumor removed from my spine. Seventy-five weeks of chemotherapy and full-body radiation followed before the doctors deemed me cured. It was a tough road, one that wasn't made any easier by being the only fourth-grader in my elementary school with no hair -- kids can be cruel -- but at least it came to an end.
I wonder how far this detour will take me off my life's path. I'm just 29 and on my way to becoming a successful, respected journalist. I don't know what's going to happen to me now.
All I know about leukemia -- doctors are calling it ALL, or acute lymphoblastic leukemia -- is what I learned from a story I wrote more than a year ago about a boy who had it. He had a different type of leukemia, but I'm guessing they're all in the same league: PDBD, or potentially deadly blood diseases.
Anders Nieters was a 14-year-old cyclist -- 15, actually, but his father, Jim, had lost track because Anders' many months of treatments had blended together, kind of like my days now.
For Jim, counting birthday candles quickly gave way to blood counts, pill counts, and counting the rare days his only son was out of the hospital. Full days -- 24 hours. Ambulance rides in the middle of the night didn't count.
While I think about Anders, and wonder how he's doing today, I watch a pair of nurses walk into my room. One comes over to my bed and, without saying a word, lifts my arm up by the wrist. She starts reading the information on my hospital ID band to the other nurse, who's standing across the room, staring at the label on a bag of blood she's cradling like a newborn baby. A moment later, the nurses repeat the process. This time the one carrying the blood reads aloud while the other stares at my wristband.
The more they ignore me, the more helpless I feel.
"Why do you keep reading my name?" I blurt out.
After a pause -- as if they are shocked I even have a voice -- the one holding my wrist responds. Without removing her eyes from my ID band, she says calmly, as if she's telling me the time, "Because you can die if you get the wrong blood."
Is that all? I can die if I get the wrong blood. What do you mean I can die if I get the wrong blood? Is she serious? How can she say something like that and be so nonchalant about it? I've never been more terrified in my life.
I'm having a blood transfusion -- a standard procedure, I'm told. But the sight of someone else's beet-red blood seeping into my veins is more than I can bear. Soon, I feel a horrible metallic taste, which nearly makes me sick. It reminds me of when I was a kid and swallowed my own blood, either on purpose or accident, and first had been introduced to that taste. Now it's different, because I can taste it throughout my entire body -- and it's not my blood.
The nurse who told me I could die checks the drip coming through the IV tube. She flicks it with her finger, then lifts the extra tubing off the floor, coils it like a garden hose, and sets it on my bed. A moment later, she and the other nurse walk out of the room, neither offering a time frame for when this madness will end. I am on edge throughout the transfusion, which lasts nearly three hours.
When it finally does end -- mercifully without incident -- I give thanks, the most thanks I've ever given.
The morphine keeps coming. So does the chemotherapy, which is so powerful it requires a nurse to wear blue rubber gloves, a white mask, and a yellow protective robe when administering it to me. Doctors dressed in the same attire (only their coats are blue) have been ordering this cocktail of drugs for me all day in hopes of ridding me of the diseased blood cells that have taken over my body and delivered me back here -- "here" being the same university research hospital I left two decades ago, vowing never to return again.
I begin to stare, forlorn, through the window of my 10th-floor hospital room at the city I grew up in. It's a dark, cloudy day in Los Angeles, which reminds me even more of the unpleasant memories that reside here. I tried so hard to escape this city.
I thought I had escaped a few years earlier, when I became a student at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. It was the fall of 1998. I've done well since the move, graduating for one (for a long time I thought that only happened to other people). I also found a new and exciting career as a sports journalist. That was another huge plus, considering the pair of short-lived careers I had back in LA -- computer animator at Sony Pictures, and rock-and-roll bass player in Hollywood -- only inspired me to return to school. (Dreams, I found, die hard on Hollywood Boulevard.)
Everything looked so promising after the move to my new life in Michigan. Now it seems to be slipping away as quickly as the chemotherapy and liquid food dripping through my IV tubes.
Before I have a chance to recover from what that nurse told me before my transfusion, I'm blindsided by the sight of another pair of nurses entering my room.
Another transfusion? Sadly, yes. One is holding a bag of blood. The nurses are different. The results, however, are the same: they begin reading; I begin fretting.
I can die if I get the wrong blood. I can die if I get the wrong blood.
As the words ring out in my head, my vision suddenly goes askew. The nurse in charge of the blood bag no longer appears to be cradling a baby but rather a sidearm machine gun she's about to unload on me at close range.
And I can't stop thinking about those words.
"I can die if I get the wrong blood," I say to the nurses, and likely the entire wing of the oncology ward. "I had a transfusion yesterday. Nobody told me about another one. I don't need another one. Get my doctors in here. Now!"
Before long, the room is filled with people.
My family members look on in silence as doctors and nurses check my records, verify my patient ID number, my blood type, and that of the blood in the bag. My mom and grandmother are here, seated in chairs by the window. And my friend, Rod, is beside me, sitting atop a rickety, fold-up cot he's been sleeping on since arriving here shortly after that first transfusion.
Rod came out immediately after hearing the news. He flew in from Michigan, just like I did a couple weeks ago for what was supposed to be a short vacation home. I remember telling him the news, and I didn't have to be gentle with him like I did when I called my boss and girlfriend. Rod is no stranger to difficult news: he endured a dozen surgeries during a four-year NFL career.
Rod, who I've known just six months, already has a lot to do with that promising life I've been working so hard for. He's been like a mentor to me, sharing everything he knows about teamwork, discipline, dedication, pride -- everything he's learned in football.
For now, however, Rod appears no different than the rest of the people in my hospital room: sitting there as calm as can be.
How can they be so calm?
Don't they know I can die if I get the wrong blood?
"I don't need a blood transfusion. No one told me I was going to get another one. Get out of here with that blood!"
I've created such a stir in my agitated state that nobody is at ease. As I continue my rant, I wonder when this sabotage will end and when somebody will tell me something or include me in what's going on.
Suddenly, Rod leaps to his feet, his 6-foot-4, 300-pound frame now revealed in earnest.
"Everyone, clear the room," he says in a deep, bellowing voice, pointing to the door. "I need to talk to him. Alone!" Everyone looks stunned, but no one moves. After taking a good look at Rod, however, and sensing his tension, they quickly scurry out. As the last person leaves, slowly closing the door from behind, I glance over at Rod. He's staring at me with daggers in his eyes, like a football coach about to berate a player for making a stupid move on the field.
"What's wrong with you?" he asks. "You have to trust what these doctors and nurses are doing. They're here to help you."
I don't answer. I just swallow and take a breath for the first time since glancing over.
"More importantly," Rod says, "you have to have faith in God. He is the only one in control of all this."
Rod pauses, then leans in closer.
"You have to get your head on straight!"
As his words hang in the air, Rod settles back into his cot. The lecture is over -- for now.
Everyone returns to the room, proceeding slowly, cautiously, afraid to stir the easily roused giant. As they file back in, I pick a spot on the wall and don't take my eyes off it. And when the nurses begin reading the information on my ID band, I say nothing.
For the next three-plus hours, as the blood slowly disappears into my veins, I am oblivious to what's going on around me. With my eyes peering at the wall, I think about what Rod has told me and the reason why he's here.
Rod's not here for his health. He's here for mine.
They burst into my room at the top of every hour to record my weight, blood pressure, and temperature, or to change out my empty IV bags. I have three bags now, each connected to a machine the size of a shoebox that pumps their liquids. The liquids are siphoned into a clear tube leading into a vein just below my right elbow.
The machines -- I will soon have six of them, I've been told -- are all attached to a pole on wheels. In the short time Rod's been here, he's twice wheeled my IV pole to the bathroom when I felt nausea or diarrhea coming on. The first time he accompanied me I was happy to have his assistance; he always waits outside till I'm done, no matter how long it takes. Yet I can't help but feel like an invalid. I've been doing things on my own for too long not to feel that way, I guess.
Once we're comfortable in our respective beds, Rod and I begin watching an old movie: "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner."
Rod hears it's good. Real good.
"It's the first popular film to feature a black and white relationship," Rod says. "Sidney Poitier is in it. He's a great actor."
"I know," I say. "I used to see his picture on the mural on the side of the building at Sony (where I worked)."
The irony of the film is not lost on us.
For some of my family members visiting me (in Los Angeles) -- a few coming from as far away as Minnesota -- seeing Rod here is like watching a scene out of "Guess Who's Coming to the Hospital Room." There's no ill will, of course. It's just that my family is not used to being around someone of Rod's size -- or color. Mom, who loves every creature on earth -- as long as they're deserving of it -- tells me, "I couldn't take my eyes off him when we picked him up at the airport. He's so big! I've never seen anyone like him before."
As Rod and I settle into the movie, we're interrupted from our rest by a disturbing sound: the screeching of my hospital room door slowly opening.
A man wearing a white coat and wielding a clipboard walks in. He's young, maybe in his 30s, and is wearing glasses. I don't recognize him as part of the "team" of doctors assigned to me: the oncologist, the intern, the fellow, the resident -- six in total.
"Hello," the man says. "I'm a fertility doctor."
I roll my eyes, taking inventory of the many "specialists" that have already paraded into my room.
One doctor a couple days ago, a Korean fellow, came in and said to me, "Hi, I'm Dr. So-And-So, I'm a radiologist." Then he broke down all the radiation treatments I'd be receiving in the next few weeks.
"You'll do great," he said, patting me on the shoulder. "This'll be easier than your first cancer because we won't have to do whole body radiation. Since it's just a blood disease, we can focus only on the head."
That was good news.
"Hello," another doctor said later that day. This man was old and gray. "I'm a neurologist."
I don't even know what that means.
"I'm a pathologist," another one boasted. Again, a complete mystery.
Now it seems I have a contortionist on my hands, given that this dark-haired man with spectacles suddenly morphs from a fertility doctor into a rabid football fan the moment he sees Rod.
"Do you play football?" the man asks after walking past my bed to Rod's cot.
I turn away, attempting to separate myself from the train wreck that will surely follow. I've witnessed people ask Rod at the most inopportune time whether he plays football. Even worse is the question that usually follows: "How much money did you make in the NFL?"
Rod immediately sits up in his cot.
"I used to play," he says without much enthusiasm.
"What team did you play for?" the dark-haired man inquires, his eyes beaming like a seven-year-old during his first visit to Disneyland.
"Baltimore Ravens," Rod says with even less enthusiasm.
The guy has to get it now. Rod is in no mood to talk about his football career.
"Is that a Super Bowl ring?" the man asks, gazing at the diamonds and multicolored stones on the large piece of jewelry resting on my nightstand.
If this were a normal, everyday situation, perhaps in a coffee shop or a sports bar, Rod would place the ring right in the fellow's hands, sharing with him the joy of holding such a special piece of jewelry. This is not one of those situations.
"What was it like to win the Super Bowl?" the man inquires, even though Rod has not yet answered the previous question. "When did you --?"
"Hey!" Rod barks, interrupting the guy mid-question. "The patient is there."
Rod, sitting straight up in his cot, points at me. Every vein in his arm appears ready to jump out of his skin. The visitor, I notice, is stone silent, his face as ghostly white as everything else in my antiseptic hospital room. He doesn't seem to be breathing. I'm having trouble myself.
Thankfully, the tension ends as the dark-haired man slowly contorts back into a doctor.
He drops his eyes to his clipboard and starts reading through his notes, likely refreshing his memory as to why he came into my room in the first place. Finally, he starts talking fertility.
Rod, still upright, looks on intently like a chaperone at a school dance.
"You should think about freezing a sample of your sperm before they begin poking away at you. That's what Lance Armstrong did."
The doctor is smiling. He's telling me my chances of having children someday (if I make it out of here, that is) will be compromised due to the large amounts of chemotherapy I'll be receiving -- and he's smiling?
"Too late," I tell him, adding that I've already been given enough chemotherapy and radiation in the past few days to kill a small elephant. And with all the radiation and chemo I had as a kid, the whole point is probably moot anyway. I'm likely as infertile as the day I was born.
"Oh," the man says, then drops his clipboard to his side and creeps out of the room.
Surprisingly, I'm not worried about how the hospital has devastated my chances of having a real family someday. I'm still thinking about the look on that fertility doctor's face -- it was priceless -- when Rod rebuked him for paying more attention to his football resume than to me.
To read more, check out "Centered by a Miracle: A True Story of Friendship, Football, and Life" by Steve Rom and Rod Payne.