Whirlwind week. I wanted to give everyone an update, and hopefully, some relief after I was admitted to Robert Wood Johnson Hospital in Hamilton last week.
I’m sure some of you heard the news in an article via The Daily Beast that touched on the prior restraint fight I’ve been involved with in New Jersey regarding my reporting on a 5-year-old kindergarten student in Trenton who was found with drugs twice at school in two months.
It had been shaping into a whopper of a fight featuring the state Attorney General, The Trentonian and me, and had attracted the glare of the national and local media and the Society of Professional Journalists.
My focus had been squarely on that until last week, when I got sucker-punched with another cancer diagnosis.
Since then, I have been put on a cocktail of drugs and have been run through a battery of tests – blood scans, CAT scans, MRIs, endoscopy and colonoscopy – to figure out exactly what is wrong with me.
I had been coughing up blood for about two or three weeks, but thought it was an innocuous bout of pneumonia. I tried to put it out of my mind and to dismiss the symptoms.
But I had some weird, inexplicable sense of foreboding when earlier this month I stumbled on a link to former boss Matt DeRienzo’s blog post about former Digital First Media colleague, journalism professor and human inspiration extraordinaire Steve Buttry’s heart-numbing battle with pancreatic cancer, his third major cancer diagnosis.
Me and Steve have only met a couple of times in person, the first when I arrived at the North Adams Transcript as a wunderkind sports reporter who moved across the country from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to set a personal-best of getting fired from that job in 18 days.
I remember Steve put on a little seminar for us one day at the now-defunct downtown office. He was rattling off and reading from several great newspaper ledes.
We had a young staff, and Steve knew how to connect with his audience, so he whipped out his line about the string-bikini lede.
If I recall correctly, he described it as titillating and just long enough to cover what needs to be covered.
Steve’s prognosis kicked me in the stomach. I’ve been reading about him kicking cancer’s ass for awhile. So the mortality of his situation really bitch-slapped me in the face.
And then on Wednesday, while working my normal court beat at The Trentonian, I felt run down and clammy while walking with a colleague, Anna Merriman, from the Times of Trenton, to the Courthouse Cafe.
I got winded and crumpled down on the curb for a few minutes before getting to the restaurant. Anna pulled her SUV around outside, brought me to my car, and a friend took me later in the day to RWJ’s emergency room.
I had been admitted there, where I received treatment in February 2015, right before I turned 26, for my first bout with testicular cancer.
Last year, I had an orchiectomy to remove a mass the size of softball from my right testicle. I went back for a follow-up and was told by the medical experts at RWJ the testicular cancer was localized and hadn’t spread.
At the time, I was advised I didn’t need chemotherapy but had to follow up with an oncologist in an abundance of caution.
I felt confident it RWJ’s care, and because I lost insurance coverage after turning 26 in March last year, didn’t make it to the oncologist, much to the chagrin of my mother.
She begged, cajoled and nagged me to go back but I’m stubborn.
I remembered thinking how I should have listened to her as that absolute sense of morose and panic overcame me when I gingerly walked back into RWJ’s ER last week.
The bad news rolled in Wednesday night. The cancer was back.
It looks like we’ve scheduled a rematch about 20 months later, venued at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia, where I am being treated by a team of experts, led by nationally renowned medical oncologist Dr. Kevin Kelly, who prior to joining on here spent 15 years at Memorial-Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York.
Kelly is a top-flight cancer researcher with light brown tufts of hair combed neatly to the side, regal spectacles and a disarming smile that put me at ease.
Safe to say, he and his team know what they’re doing here.
I took notes as I listened to Dr. Kelly dive deep into his almanac of cancer knowledge. I told him about my fears — that I had read up on the killer cancers and felt I exhibited some of those symptoms.
My big concern was pancreatic cancer, the death knell.
Dr. Kelly told me to stop worrying.
“Just be the patient,” he said.
This patient could learn a little bit about patience.
I feel privileged to be at Jefferson and understand I am only receiving such stellar care because of the connections I’ve made over the last two years working the court beat in Trenton, where I’ve gotten to know a lot of people in the legal community.
They’ve been some of my biggest supporters here, with my family some 2,000 miles away in New Mexico. I’ve had judges and lawyers reach out to me.
My dad flew up immediately from Albuquerque to be with me while my mom takes care of my sisters back home before flying out later.
I can’t thank enough Mercer County public defender Caroline Turner. She has been my work mom over here.
The “Madam of Misdirection,” as I dubbed her in one of my old stories, came down with a bit of patented poison-ivy advocacy when she came to visit me at RWJ last week.
Before becoming a lawyer, Turner spent time as a nurse overseas. She didn’t feel like I was getting the adequate treatment at RWJ.
She leaped into action, crawling up the ass of the unassuming radiologist, Dr. David C. Feldstein.
Feldstein hadn’t done anything wrong. This was the first time he had the chance to see me after doing a biopsy of my abdomen earlier that morning.
He was actually the brightest and most forthright of all my doctors at RWJ, treating me with immense fairness and respect.
Feldstein took the steam-kettled Brit Turner in stride. He immediately made a phone call to a buddy at Jefferson who knew Dr. Kelly.
Without Turner’s British fire and brimstone, and without Feldstein’s help in securing a referral, I doubt I’d be over here.
For the first time in my life, on Saturday night, this son of a firefighter rode in the back of an ambulance on the way over to Jefferson.
I talked with the paramedics about fire consolidation in Hamilton, a topic my colleague Sulaiman Abdur-Rahman has been extensively chronicling.
I spent the rest of the hourlong ride reading the journalistic gravitas of Jeffrey Toobin, author of The Run of his Life, the inspiration behind the O.J. Simpson series on FX.
The last few days, thankfully, have been full of visits from friends who have steeled me.
Three of my former colleagues from the University of New Mexico student newspaper, the Daily Lobo, traveled great distances to see me on Sunday night.
Our former writing coach, J.A. Montalbano, had heard about my predicament from another former friend and newspaperman, Chris Quintana.
Montalbano called at the perfect time, right before everyone was getting ready to leave.
It was a shot from the past, and a look at how far we had all come, thousands of miles away from the comforts of Marron Hall, where we used to burn the candle at both ends throughout our college careers, often skipping classes to put out papers.
It was a special moment I won’t forget and one I plan to delve into deeper, and hopefully, more poetically when the words come to me in another post.
For now, I’m trying not to sweat the cabin fever up in hospital room, waiting for the real battle to start.
My main nurse, Andreas, is a fucking boss. Love the dude to death.
Earlier today, I took this photo with my cancer team (unfortunately, Dr. Kelly isn’t depicted).
— Isaac Avilucea (@IsaacAvilucea) December 20, 2016
If any of you have read my Twitter bio, you know I’m a proud Squad member with a flair for adding new words to the lexicon.
I’ve taken to calling the brave men and women who will help wage and win this battle the #SquancologyTeam.
Follow our future exploits here. I’ll chime in when I can.