This is a two-part story about my long-time friend Dan Lauck. My friend suffers from Parkinson’s disease. That will be the first part of this story. Some might remember Dan as a former Topeka Capital-Journal sports writer. That will be the second part of the story.
The reason for this totally bland and direct introduction is that I am completely incapable of writing anything that could possibly describe the torment this disease has inflicted on Dan and his family. As brutal as was my mother’s four-year decline to death due to Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s has its own demons that are vile and disgusting.
Parkinson’s disease is a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system that often impairs the sufferer’s motor skills, speech, and other functions. In a body that no longer allows Dan to do his job or function as he should there still is a mind and heart working away at a feverish pace against the villains that seek to destroy him.
In the midst of Dan’s battle to lead a life filled with love for his wife and children, Dan has chosen to fight. He has allowed doctors to take extraordinary steps to help him fight the tremors that made simple tasks into monsters that often take all day.
I have been privileged to receive a series of e-mails from Dan’s wife, Meg. In those e-mails she has detailed just how dramatic and invasive these steps have been. I can’t improve on the words she wrote simply because they come completely from her giant heart.
With Dan’s permission, the main text of those e-mails are linked at the end of these stories. Take what you wish from them. Before you do, consider reading on because the second story is needed so you will know a bit about the man that truly loves the craft of writing and makes knowing him something special.
Many a great wordsmith has detailed the events that I have been honored to cover over the years.
Some were fabulous at writing a game story under intense deadline pressure. Not only would all the key details be there, there also was a unique insight or flair to their words that often made an event seem even more exciting than it might have deserved. In your mind’s eye, you could almost picture being there. Watching these writers work back in the old days of portable typewriters was a show in itself. Keys were hammered into the paper at a machine-gun staccato with one eye locked on the page and the other peering at a clock winding ever closer to deadline.
Others I’ve known did more than paint pictures – they directed motion pictures. Their deeply thought out features were truly eloquent. They brought rich detail and deep emotions to the forefront with their words. These lengthy stories were a journey to new knowledge and understanding of major people and events. Those stories were something you sat down in the comfort of an easy chair to read. The words flowed smoothly from print to mind. You weren’t reading. You were savoring.
Dan Lauck remains a true wordsmith. He could beat out a game story and make it sing, but his true love were the feature stories filled with depth and richness. We both were young and in our early days at the Topeka Capital-Journal. Covering the prep scene for the paper was only the start of Lauck’s long career. Dan always looked for ways to stretch himself and found an early outlet by subjecting himself to a world of abuse, embarrassment and humor by taking part in a variety of sports and writing first-hand reports.
One of the easier first-person stories Lauck penned came when he climbed under a small fence and through the shrubs to play the Par-3 hole at Topeka Country Club that runs west along 29th street. I followed Lauck’s par efforts with my cameras, and then we both high-tailed it back to our car. The resulting story and photographs caused quite the stir in the golf community and resulted in a high fence being built immediately at the club to block any further traffickers in stolen country club moments.
I always knew Dan’s time in Topeka would be short, and it was. At Newsday on Long Island, Lauck continued to refine his skills while covering the biggest sports stories in the country. All the while, Lauck also had an eye on the world outside of sports and went on to write news features for the esteemed Washington Post.
However, Dan’s biggest career change was a move to television as a producer for CBS Sports, specifically for their weekend sports anthology show. Lauck was looking well ahead of the earth’s curve. Somehow, even in the 70’s, he knew that television’s power was someday going to usurp the printed word. That wasn’t readily obvious at the time, but Dan gave CBS everything he had and his pieces were, as usual, beautifully written. He might not have been the talent on the screen, but he put the words in their mouths. Those words rolled smoothly off the tongue just as they had jumped from the printed page.
For one of those pieces, still photographs were needed. I was called upon to cover Muhammed Ali’s last fight, the “Drama in the Bahama” in 1981. What a trip of excess for someone used to pinching pennies on newspaper assignments. I was flown first class from my home in Phoenix to the Bahamas and given a suite for my stay. Limousines whisked us everywhere.
One stop was Ali’s condo where he showed off his love of magic tricks and sleight of hand. However, due to his Muslim religious beliefs, Ali had to go back through every trick and show us the hidden move that made each one work. Ali was one of the most dynamic and dramatic figures in sports history. To be in the man’s presence even at his advanced boxing age is a thrill never to be forgotten, and I owe that to Dan.
The fight itself was anything but dynamic. Ali no longer floated and his punches exhibited none of the sting he once poetically proclaimed. Trevor Berbick easily won the decision. In a decrepit locker room in an antiquated baseball stadium in Nassau, Ali slumped in a chair after the fight. Rolls of fat bunched at Ali’s waist. Actor John Travolta kneeled at Ali’s feet begging, “Champ, champ you can’t retire.”
Flying on a private jet back to Miami, a photo studio had been paid to stay open all night to process film and make prints after my editing. A video crew threw each print onto a vacuum board and panned the lens over the images for use with a piece written by Dan and voiced by Pat O’Brien to air that afternoon. The story delved into the mystery that had become Ali. His own managers knew Ali’s career had come to an end, and they whispered their worries of slowed and slurred speech. Both were signs of the Parkinson’s disease that soon would knock “the Champ” for a loop from which no magic could rescue him. As I watched Dan direct all the aspects of the piece I didn’t realize the disease that was taking hold of the great Muhammed Ali would also take hold of someone close to me.
After that wonderful adventure, my time with Dan would dwindle. CBS backed away from their true journalism track, but Dan would not. His life and career were about to make some very dramatic changes. Dan gave up his print journalism career and settled first in San Antonio and then Houston to become a local award-winning television journalist.
In 1983, Dan married his wonderful wife Meg. In the midst of a raucous and celebrity-studded wedding that included some of the most esteemed sports writers in the country, a little-known photographer from Phoenix was included as a groomsman. As happens with growing families, changing jobs and distance, our contact with each other from that wonderful weekend waned until one fateful day.
In April 2007, word came to me that former Capital-Journal writer, sports editor and executive editor Pete Goering was having health issues. On a drive from Topeka to Lawrence, I called my friend to ask about his health. To my quiery, Pete simply replied, “I have lung cancer. The prognosis is not good.”
Bam! Like a blast from a shotgun. I pulled my car onto the turnpike shoulder. I had to stop. The emergency blinker clicked away at a pace that couldn’t come close to the pounding of my heart.
When I finally could drive again, I knew I had to call Dan in Houston. After the news of Pete was exchanged the second shotgun blast hit me. Bam! Dan revealed to me that he had Parkinson’s disease. At work now, in the quiet of my KU studio, my sorrow and prayers were fortunately private.
I have seen Dan twice since – neither in great circumstances. We both attended Pete Goering’s retirement party held at Washburn University. Later, we both attended Pete’s funeral. While Pete rests in peace with his valiant battle done, Dan fights on against an opponent that cannot be beaten.
Even now, Dan remains a true wordsmith. In a recent phone conversation the words still flowed even if they were halting at times. His memory was outstanding and his personal stories were still capable of touching the heart and stimulating the mind. The conversation reminded me that there are more battles to come for Dan. The fight will be long and painful for him and his family, but Dan will do both in ways worthy of a good story.
Refusing to close this story on a down note let me share a story about something that makes both of us happy – Coca Cola. My one great weakness is my love for an ice cold Coca Cola. However, compared to Dan, it would seem I barely touch the stuff.
For reasons that go beyond any earthly comprehension, insanity overwhelmed the Coca-Cola Company in 1985. A new formula of Coke was introduced. What proved to be a complete marketing disaster touched off complete panic in Dan. Dan is especially devoted to the small eight ounce glass bottles, which remain the best Coke available.
In a world gone mad, Dan chose to take action. Renting a commercial van, Dan drove from his home in Long Island to a source in another state. There he filled the van from floor to ceiling as well as every other conceivable opening with the small bottles of the true Coca-Cola.
Straining against the excessive weight, somewhere along an eastern freeway the van’s axels simply could take no more. The suspension collapsed and the van crashed to the pavement. With the cost of an insurance claim on the van and the cost of finding other transportation home with his stash of Coke, each bottle became a true luxury.
Yet, Dan had his Coke and outlasted the run of “New” Coke. In just three months the backlash against the new formula forced the company to bring back “Classic” Coke. Dan’s devotion to something he loved is one reason why I remain heartened about his ability to continue his fight against something – just maybe – worse than New Coke.
There you are, two stories, neither worthy of a true wordsmith like Dan. He would blow me away in the first few graphs. Yet, my hope is that you now know a bit more about my friend, a bit more about the ugliness that is Parkinson’s and might just feel compelled as I am to pop the top on an ice cold Coke, take a long draw and say, “God bless you, Dan.”
e-mails from Dan’s wife Meg on the Deep Brain Stimulation Surgery follow below.
May 18, 2010
Dear Family and friends,
Many of you may know already that Dan is undergoing Deep Brain Stimulation brain surgery for his Parkinson’s disease, but this may be news to many others. The surgery is scheduled for tomorrow morning (Tuesday). We check in at 5:30 am and he will be in surgery from 8:30am -12:30pm.
What is Deep Brain Stimulation? It is a procedure done in three phases. They will do the first phase tomorrow, which is the brain surgery phase. Dr. Simpson will drill two holes in Dan’s brain and place deep brain stimulation electrodes (very thin wires) into each side of his brain. In two weeks, they will hook those electrodes up to a battery in his chest (an outpatient operation) and then two weeks later his neurologist will turn it on and tweak the electric current levels emitted from the 8 contact points. The electric current will mimic the dopamine by stimulating the brain in the same way dopamine stimulates the brain to send messages to the body. Parkinson’s is caused by a gradual loss of dopamine, so this is a very exciting operation that provides the same stimulus at a consistent level, which many of the medications are unable to do. It may take many visits to get the tweaking just right, but there are many benefits which should improve Dan’s quality of life:
1) dramatic reduction in his tremors
2) some reduction in the restless leg syndrome he struggles with
3) some reduction in rigidity
4) he will be able to take less medication which reduces his dyskinesia (involuntary movements) greatly
So when all goes well, it could improve his quality of life significantly.
We have a great neurosurgeon – he has done 1500 of these operations since 1998 and we are very confident with him. Also we are very confident with Dan’s neurologist, Dr. Furr-Stimming, who has been excellent. The tricky part is that Dan will have to be awake during the operation, since the electrodes come very close to the vocal area in the brain. They need him to be awake to speak and to make adjustments so his speech is not impaired as they find the target area to place the electrodes. He will also have to do simple manual dexterity exercises. They will numb his skull and he should not feel any pain, but it is a little daunting to have two holes drilled into one’s scalp. They will also have to shave his head, so that will be quite an adjustment afterwards.
All in all, we are very positive about this brilliant procedure that could change his life for the better. He is a good candidate, and despite all his cokes, he is in good condition for it. He will only have to stay in the hospital overnight.
I am sending this out to you with the hope that you will send your positive thoughts and prayers to Dan tomorrow morning between 8:00am and noon, central time. We value each of you so much and know that he will come through this with your support behind him…
May 21, 2010
Dear Family and Friends,
This update comes later than planned because Dan stayed in the hospital an extra day and night and we got home yesterday around dinnertime. The surgery went very well and Dan’s neurologist and the neurosurgeon were very pleased. They thought it had gone as well as possible, which was great news. His cat scan the next morning did not reveal any problems and that was very positive also.
During the operation, when they put in the electrodes and ran a test current through them, they were simulating what Dan will experience when the battery is put in his chest and turned on. They found that the tremors in his right arm were totally diminished, but that he still had mild tremors in his left arm. Even so, mild tremors will be so much easier to manage and so that is good news. Now we need to be patient, as two more phases need to take place before this is complete. In two weeks they will insert the rechargeable battery and then two weeks after that his neurologist will turn on the battery and start tweaking it. So it will not be until another month before he experiences the effectiveness of the whole procedure. But at least we got a sneak preview from what they saw during the operation.
Dan’s account of the frame being lowered and screwed into his head in four places is a bit harrowing. He felt no pain, but he could feel the attachment being made. The frame came down in four parts, so it had numerous layers that really closed him in and locked his head into position. He could move from the shoulders down, but not from the neck up. The drilling was a bit intense also, but quick. I had done some guided meditations with him to prepare him for these two stages and we worked on having him focus on his breathing so that his mind would zero in on the path of his breath and not on what was happening. I think it helped as we agreed that these two stages were not ones that could be powered through. By breathing, he kept his body oxygenated and kept his focus away from his mind and into his body. Even so, I am proud of his ability to get through these two stages. I was told that later during the operation he was able to make corny jokes, so clearly he was feeling more comfortable!
We stayed an extra night in the hospital because the day after the surgery was a little rough. Dan’s cognitive abilities were diminished and he had trouble finishing his sentences and continuing his train of thought. At first I was very alarmed, but sometime mid-day a thought struck me …he had this same reaction after his back surgery, where there was a lot more anesthesia involved. We just chalked it up to the anesthesia then, as his operation had nothing to do with his brain. I recalled that it took about two to three days for him to be 100% cognitively. There was only a little anesthesia in this operation at the end as they applied staples to the two holes, but I believe it had a significant effect. I decided to hold off any thoughts of this state being permanent and just wait to see what the next day would bring. Sure enough, yesterday (Thursday) his cognitive abilities had improved significantly and the doctors and I agreed that he would continue to improve back to the full 100%. So we are giving it time and each day Dan is getting sharper. That is the good news.
We are home now and the key is just for him to be able to rest. He can move around, answer calls, get on his computer and is doing well…but we might just hang out and watch some movies for a bit.
I want to thank all of you for your thoughts and prayers. I honestly could feel them coming from all over as I sat vigil in the waiting room. I know it really made a difference and I am so grateful to all of you. It was also nice to return home to read many of your kind e-mails this morning. Dan is very grateful also and sends his thanks to each of you through me…
…So that is our news. It was an intense few days, but we are happy to be home and grateful that it all turned out so well and that this stage, the most difficult of the three is over. Thank you again for being there for us in so many ways.
May 31. 2010
I just wanted you to know that tomorrow morning Dan goes in for the second phase of the Deep Brain Stimulation procedure. Tomorrow Dr. Simpson will insert a battery, much like the size of a pacemaker, in his upper right chest. He will then connect the two electrodes he implanted two weeks ago to the battery, running the wires from the right side of his head down the inside of his neck to the battery in his chest. They will be hooked up, but the battery will not be turned on until June 14th.
This is usually an outpatient procedure and not nearly as complex as the first phase. Dan will also be under general anesthesia the whole time, so that removes the concerns we had about being awake for the first round. The concern we have at this stage is that Dan had a very strong reaction to the minimal anesthesia he received when they put the staples in to close the two holes in his scalp. It has taken the full two weeks to regain his cognitive abilities. We are just hoping that he won’t have such an extreme reaction again, sending him back to his post surgery state, so that the next two weeks won’t be as challenging for both of us.
We hope to speak with the anesthesiologist tomorrow morning to see if he can be given something different and to make sure he/she is aware of the level of Dan’s reaction…
…Apparently, as we get older, it takes longer for anesthesia to fully clear one’s system. But we may just have to go through another two weeks of adjusting to his reaction. At least we will expect it this time and it won’t be such a surprise, and we have some tools to deal with it – such as putting patience, grace and kindness as our top priorities during the recovery stage. Sounds obvious, but that can get lost in the shuffle. We also hope that his body will receive the battery, as this is a larger “alien” unit.
… Thank you for your continued prayers and positive thoughts. They continue to remind us how lucky we are to have such great family and friends lifting us up with such heartfelt support.
June 1, 2010
Dear Family and Friends,
We arrived early this morning for phase 2 of Dan’s Deep Brain Stimulation procedure where Dr. Simpson inserted the rechargeable battery and hooked up the two electrodes already implanted in his brain. Dan had the same anesthesiologist as we had two weeks ago for the first phase, so we told her all about Dan’s reaction to the anesthesia that I thought he had received at the end of his first operation as they were closing up the two holes. She told us that she had never given him any anesthesia two weeks ago, only topical!
We were very surprised, since our whole theory of Dan’s cognitive issues we thought was related to a reaction to anesthesia. She said that it was actually “post operative cognitive dysfunction”, which can happen after surgery, especially brain surgery. The good news was that then we did not worry at all about Dan going under general anesthesia for this phase, so that was a big relief.
Today was a breeze compared with two weeks ago. He was out by 10:30am and we were home by 2:00pm. Dan did not have any severe reaction to the anesthesia, which was great! He is in some pain on the left side from his head and neck down to his chest, as that is where they went in to attach the electrodes to the battery, but that is to be expected for the next week or so and pain medication is controlling it.
So all went well and we are very grateful that the hardest parts are over. We are looking forward to seeing the results in two weeks.
I know I keep thanking everyone, but we are both so moved by everyone’s support, prayers and concern.
All the best,
Meg and Dan
June 14, 2010
Dear Family and Friends,
Today Dan and I went in for the programming of the battery they put in his chest two weeks ago. It was very interesting to see how changing the voltage, the amplitude and the pulse rate for each of the four contact points on the right and left side electrodes affected Dan. First we all watched his arms. The right arm was pretty easy to get to a quite point, but he still had to make sure that he did not experience other side effects, the most common being: tingling, numbness in certain areas, a tightening of his jaw, light headedness, tightening in his chest, or feeling that speaking was difficult. It’s amazing how one small adjustment could produce a direct effect and then another change could erase it. His neurologist, Dr. Furr-Stimming, noted every change and came up with the best combination for his right side.
The left side proved to be more challenging and took a great deal of time. Dan had to concentrate very hard to report each affect, so she could alter one of the variables slightly for each of the contact points. It took a long time to find the right combination for the tremor on his left side to subside, but she found settings that work for now. He still has some tremor, which we prepared ourselves for. It was a little anti-climactic because we could not help wanting his left arm to go completely still and because he was so sleepy at the time that it was difficult to feel excited about it.
He will continue to stay on his medication to see what the result is with these settings AND his medication. It will take some time for us to see all the benefits, but we hope this next week they will be revealed as he goes through his days. All in all, we know this will be an improvement; we just have to continue to have patience before we know the full range of the results.
Thank you again for all your support and prayers. They have fortified us in many ways and our hearts have expanded with the kindness from each of you.
Meg and Dan