Flashbulb Memories

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the Long Branch Arts Council announced in February that they were seeking submissions from New Jersey poets of all ages to write about their personal experiences or impressions focusing on the events of this “superstorm” and its aftermath. Those submissions will become part of an anthology entitled “Poetic Voices In Response To Hurricane Sandy.”

Since I’ve had what I consider to be a somewhat unique “Sandy” experience, I figured I’d submit my story to them, and also share it here with you. Plus, all that writing won’t go to waste should the powers that be at the Arts Council decide that my submission is not up to their standards…

THE KENNEDY ASSASSINATION (1963) is a prime example, although you’d probably have to be pushing 60 to have a specific recollection of that one. For those like me, who’ve been around for only a half-century or so, the Challenger space shuttle disaster (1986) certainly qualifies, as does the death of John Lennon (1980) and most recently, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Over the course of anyone’s lifetime there are events such as these, events of such significance that it becomes possible to recall precisely where you were and what you were doing at that very instant.

Psychologists call these vivid recollections “flashbulb memories” because, like a camera’s flashbulb going off, they briefly illuminate and capture a moment that is typically both surprising and consequential. These unique recollections can be extremely detailed, highly accurate, and also very difficult to forget.

For me—and doubtless for all residents of the Jersey Shore—it’s hard to imagine anything more difficult to forget than Superstorm Sandy. Due to circumstances unique and somewhat beyond my control, I’ve managed to amass an entire album of these flashbulb memories from the events of that time—in spite of the fact that those recollections have little to do with the storm itself, or with its aftermath.

Then again, you might say they have everything to do with it.

ON OCTOBER 29, 2012, as Sandy made landfall along the southern N.J. coast, I was not doing what every other Bradley Beach resident—including my wife Donna and our two cats—had been advised to do, which was to grab some valuables and a change of clothes and head for higher ground.

I’d like to say that this was due simply to a can-do spirit and a steely determination on my part to damn the torpedoes and ride out the storm—sans heat, electricity and high-speed Internet. But that’s as far from the truth as I was from our condo at the time, so the decision to stay or to go was out of my hands.

What is true is that pretty much everything else was out of my hands as well, and on that morning I was an hour or so away from the Jersey shore, having spent the last few months riding out a storm of an entirely different nature, and preparing anxiously for the worst it had to offer.

Specifically, I was staring out the window of the bone marrow transplant unit of New Brunswick, N.J.’s Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, awaiting the arrival of a shipment of HLA-matched stem cells provided by a most gracious, generous and compatible donor from the state of California. I had been diagnosed with an acute myeloblastic leukemia earlier that year, a type of cancer that can be temporarily controlled but not cured via the multiple rounds of chemotherapy I had undergone over the summer.

So for me, a transplant of stem cells from a compatible donor was the only option for long-term survival. My doctors, having determined this even prior to my first admission and chemotherapy treatments that July, had already begun a donor search. My two sisters were unfortunately ruled out early on, much to our collective disappointment.

EVENTUALLY TWO POTENTIAL DONORS were identified; the first disqualified due to an incompatibility in blood makeup but the second found to be fully compatible. Once this donor had been cleared, I immediately underwent further chemotherapy in order to obliterate every trace of my own bone marrow, along with the majority of my immune system.

This process, known as myeloablation, would allow the donor’s stem cells to be transplanted into my body without being rejected as they otherwise would have been. If the transplant “took” successfully, the donor’s stem cells would create new hematopoeic (blood-producing) and cancer-free bone marrow, as well as an entirely new immune system to replace what was left of my own.

As with so many things in life, timing is everything. The myeloablative chemotherapy I underwent in preparation for the transplant left me not only without a functioning immune system, but also without the ability to generate blood on my own. I’ll leave it to your imagination to ponder the long-term prospects for an individual allowed to remain in such a state, but suffice to say there is a fairly narrow window within which to initiate the transplant; i.e. the donor’s stem cells, which have a relatively brief “shelf life,” need to arrive on schedule before they—or the recipient—expire.

Yet for transplants like these, the timing is typically not an area of great concern, given that a cross-country flight can be accomplished in the space of an afternoon and that stem cells intended specifically for transplant remain viable for a period of at least a few days. But let us consult our flashbulb memories of that time and recollect that at that very moment the entire East Coast was being hammered by a “superstorm” and that power was out for millions, airports were closed to arriving and departing flights, and gas stations were either shut down or open but without any gas to pump.

Given that, it doesn’t take a Ph.D. (with all due respect to the brilliant and capable Roger Strair, M.D. and Ph.D.—and my oncologist at RWJ) to realize that it was going to require nothing less than a Herculean effort to deliver anything—much less a package of living human cells with a relatively brief expiration date—from southern California to New Brunswick, N.J. under those conditions.

WHICH BRINGS US back to the morning of October 29, 2012. From my perspective, there were actually two storms wreaking havoc—one outside the window of my hospital room, and one inside of, well, me. As the hospital was fully equipped to weather an external storm of even Sandy’s magnitude, their generators had kicked in within minutes of the first power outage, and I found myself lacking little in creature comforts compared to the millions around me without heat, hot water, electricity, gasoline—or in some cases, even a place to live. For me, experiencing the effects of Sandy was akin to watching a documentary on the event—the chaos wrought by the storm all passed quietly outside my window as if on a movie screen, with little effect on my daily routine.

At the same time, however, I—and I assumed the hospital personnel as well—were at least somewhat concerned about the prospects for a timely delivery of my prospective stem cells to the bone marrow transplant unit. As was my wife, who, being the more pragmatic member of our family, had already concluded in my absence that a friend’s offer of temporary housing in their conveniently-untenanted apartment in Middlesex County was without question the most sensible option for her and for our cats, a decision with which I agreed wholeheartedly.

Although the apartment complex was subject to the same power outage affecting the area around the hospital, it was quiet, safe, and at least somewhat warmer and drier than most of the homes on the Bradley Beach oceanfront. One crisis averted, but as Sandy’s impact on the local infrastructure continued to worsen over the next few days, I grew more apprehensive about the timely arrival of the stem cells. If the nurses and specialists with whom I had daily contact were equally as concerned, however, they did little to betray those feelings and were quick to reassure me that they would indeed arrive, if not precisely on schedule, at least within the window of opportunity for a successful transplant.

Which they eventually did, via a re-routing of the aircraft carrying the shipment to Buffalo, N.Y.—the nearest airport open for business—followed by the odyssey of an extremely dedicated and resourceful courier who managed to deliver the cells from upstate New York to the hospital a mere one day behind schedule, in spite of closed roads, downed trees, non-functioning traffic lights and a limited selection of gas stations along the way. The transplant, delayed by exactly one and one half days, took place on Halloween—perhaps a fitting coincidence given the amount of bloodletting involved on both my and my donor’s parts in preparation for my eventual resurrection.

WHILE SANDY REMAINS the common thread uniting our collective recollections of late 2012, I feel reasonably confident in stating that my own “flashbulb memories” of that time—when contrasted with the majority of Jersey shore residents—are as different as they could possibly be.

And precisely the same.

7 Comments

  1. Gil —

    I finally read this posting this morning. You are a prime candidate for a Moth Story Slam AND a Story Corps piece.

    Remarkable! You, your ongoing story, your storytelling!

    Bob

  2. Regina Whitmer

    13 April 2014 at 10:02 am

    Agreed … Memoir and submission to NPR StoryCorps or The Moth or something that will get your story the exposure it deserves. Well done, sir!

  3. elaine kilcullen

    27 March 2014 at 5:15 pm

    Gil, As i’ve told you many times in many ways, i love the way your mind works. i love the fact that you are able to be at once
    clinical, cynical, factual and humorous in your delivery. Not just in the telling of this story, which we all know, and are now forced to cringe over again :), but the way you are able to use that giant technical brain of yours and simplify the language so that any idiot (i.e. ME) can understand how to navigate around a hardware, software, or even logic issue. As the others have suggested, writing a memoir should be in your future. and not just about this, your most challenging chapter, but about the other events in your life.

  4. Carolyn Schultz

    26 March 2014 at 9:00 pm

    Beautifully written. Agree with earlier post suggesting that a book of these stories should be written and I also was on the edge of my seat. Know I am repeating myself, but really believe you should write a memoir about this journey in your life. You speak so candidly, and so openly and honestly. By allowing others to see you in this way, the reader can’t help but to look at him/herslf too.

  5. Gil even though I knew the outcome, I was sitting at the edge of my seat. Incredible story beautifully written. Ditto to Martha….Story Core at NPR should get this.
    Marion

  6. Patrick Lyons

    26 March 2014 at 4:48 pm

    Gil
    I’m almost moved to tears after reading your stories. I think there should be a book of these stories, seriously. I’ve helped a number of individuals publish theirs, but none of them were as worthy of circulation as would be yours. Call me.
    Pat

  7. amzing story – “told” exquisitely. Not only will the Arts Council appreciate it, I should think!. but also the marvelous Story Corps program that I think is on NPR. This Story is for sharing, that’s for sure. Thanks!
    Martha

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