Stories along the way: I Have to Try.

Today is the memorial service for Anne P. Lanier, MD, MPH in Anchorage, Alaska. She was 77 years and died from a stroke suffered during the Gold Nugget Triathalon. No ordinary woman, she thrived on challenges including making her way in the mostly “good old boys” Public Health Service in the 1970’s. In Alaska, she foresaw the coming cancer crisis among the Alaska Native people, and established a registry to track data to better prevent and treat cancer. She was ahead of her time and as Dr. Greg Marino said, “her death is the end of an era”. Dr. Steve Alberts who came from the Mayo Clinic for her service said “Its so hard to try to put her accomplishments in a single paragraph,” as he contributed to her obituary. Retired colleague Jim Williams sent a message, “I was so surprised, I expected her to live to be 100.” We all did, especially her three children.

I met Anne when I worked at a remote hospital in Dillingham, AK. When I moved to Seward to work at the Alaska SeaLife Center, we kept in touch. I provided her with whimsical anecdotes about life at the Center, and she providing financial support. Knowing that I missed working with the Alaska Native People, she, along with Dr. Greg Marino and Dr. Kevin Stange finally wooed me back to Anchorage to develop a cancer program with the promise I could develop, along with it, a statewide palliative care program…my passion. At the time, Dr. Lanier, retired from the Public Health Service, headed up the Office of Native Health Research and it was staffed mostly with women researchers who knew of her dedication and willingly gave up other more lucrative career paths and uncertain funding to work with her. I spent the final 10 years of my career at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium (ANTHC). We also had some fun “not work” times together.

This past week, Emily Read and Ellen Provost, former colleagues, and I talked and texted ourselves through the shock of Anne’s death and planned to meet at the memorial service. Since I am retired, this is the only chance to celebrate Anne’s life with friends and colleagues and her family that I know from her stories. I planned to drive 4 hours to Anchorage on Saturday morning and back the same day or next morning. I no longer have a condo in Anchorage.

As body challenges arose two days before the service, Jim decided to take me. Then that plan became a challenge. I had spent too much time working in the uneven gardens, not using my poles enough, and my thrice surgeried knee complained….loudly. Rosa the stoma and the colostomy raised more protests and worst of all, the nerves in my lower body, as a result of the removal of the sacral hemangioma , poked my lower body at the most unpredictable times causing me to yelp or wince in pain….often. The more anxious I got, the more my 2 times Traumatic Brain Injury and 1 brain tumored head with it’s one sided hearing, kept telling me, “DON’T GO.” Even my bicycle -accidented facial muscles started twitching.

It’s Saturday morning. The service is at 2 pm. I simply can’t risk it. I feel vulnerable. It’s time to be sensible. I let Ellen and Emily know I won’t be there. Perhaps I’ll spend the beautiful day down at the cabin on the water thinking about Anne. But it doesn’t feel right. Am I being too conservative? Would it be foolhardy to try to get there? How do I balance needing to go to be among many people who loved and worked with Anne with not over- challenging my body?

A memory pops into my head. When Jim and I were in Seattle for his cancer treatment and I was recovering from major back surgery at Mayo Clinic, and learning to manage lower trunk paralysis, a problem appeared a week before we planned to head back to Alaska. I called the UW appointment line and a bright young voice answered. I explained the problem. “One appointment came open,” she said. “Today in 20 minutes.” “I can’t,” I said having just transitioned from a walker to a cane. “Yes you can,” she said with the courage of the young. “You can arrive 10 minutes late. Hang up now and get a cab. You can do this!” And I did it.

After trying three times to manage an online flight reservation system, I finally book a flight to arrive in Anchorage at 2:02 just after the service starts. A 20-minute flight is manageable. The four-hour drive is not. I can turn back at any time. I have a safety net.

I text Emily and ask her to save a seat in the back. I am nervous about the church being full and I would have to stand for the whole service.

“I’m flying,” I tell Jim who is ready to support me. I get ready for the 1:30 flight, about 25 minute drive from home: I take cannibus oil and Alleve; change my colostomy bag and put on my hernia belt; put on support stockings in case my ornery right lower leg decides to swell, add unattractive wide-heeled sandals for better balance; put on Depends; add a heavy pad and self-cath—I don’t know when a bathroom will be available. I pack extra supplies of everything in a large handbag including my knee brace. Life is not simple any more.

Waving goodbye to Jim down at the lake, I ask the street name to the Kenai airport. “Second light,” he calls. “I love you,” we say to each other. We say it often because we don’t know how much time we have together. Cancer and tumors and six decades make us aware of how fast our limited time flies by.

It’s a beautiful day and I’m on my way. This feels right. Suddenly fog surrounds me and stays as I near the airport. Will the flight take off? On the road to the airport, a new mother moose and her gangly-legged calves walk across the road.

I park the Mini and head into the terminal to check in. Note to non-Alaskans. Small planes, small airports in smaller cities and no TSA mean quicker trips…if all goes (rarely) according to schedules. Only one flight went out today because of the fog. I head to the restroom, I have time to cath one more time and limit fluids. Of course, stress makes me want to drink more water.

Time to board the Dash B-100 for the short flight. We walk outside, and up the stairs into the plane. The robust flight attendant dressed in black, including a logo miniskirt is efficient. We leave early and arrive early. Hopefully if I can get a taxi, I’ll arrive in time for the service. I calm myself with contingency plans. If the pain worsens I can find a hotel and fly home. Or I can go to the ER. But I have to try. If I don’t try, to me it means I give up more of my mobility freedom. “You can do this,” the words of the UW student echoes in my head.

Happily the plane arrives on the same level as ground transportation. I walk as quickly as I can, my cane clacking along the tile. I try to be careful–it is so easy for me to tumble. I reach the taxi stand with its brooding drivers lounging on their cabs. It’s a minivan for me and my handbag. I provide directions and since it is a short distance from the airport I give the driver a little extra as we pull up to the door. He thanks me and grumbles that he was in line for 90 minutes at the airport.

I made it. No.. …. I MADE IT!!

In the lobby, I gratefully chat with friends and acquaintances and move to the seat with Emily as the service gets ready to start. It’s unplanned, but our row is all my former colleagues at ANTHC. Gratefully, one woman hands out tissue as the service begins. The church is full of people that have worked and loved Dr. Anne Lanier as colleagues, friends and family. It is one of the most beautiful services I have attended and good to share grief with others. From her new place, I know Anne loved it.

I tried and made it. Everyone would have understood if I didn’t. But not me. I don’t like the phrase “It is what it is.” It should be “It is what you make it.” The young UW woman will never know how she inspired me.

Photo: Emily Read, Anne Lanier, Christine DeCourtney off work.


Stories along the way: I Have to Try.

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