Prologue: In the year 2000, I was given a gift.
Roughly a year earlier, I was diagnosed with a rare tumor located in my upper chest. After consulting with our family physician, my union chief medical officer, and my FAA doctor (and he with his FAA medical brain trust), it was decided that a resection was the preferred plan of action. The surgery went well (although a sternotomy is not a very pleasant thing), and a follow-on treatment regime was advised. It would consist of a course of daily radiation for six weeks, monthly chemotherapy for six months, and since the world-famous Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN was located a scant hour or so from my front door, I decided that they would have a new patient.
Thus, I began a several-month journey down the “long, dark tunnel” of cancer treatments. The ravages to my body were intense, but the love from my family and friends soothed the pain and anguish. The daily commute for the radiation bombardments allowed for hours of introspection behind the wheel of my Ford F-150. Would I heal in body and spirit enough to return to my life? Would I heal to the point of an FAA-sanctioned return to the sky? As luck (and prayer) would have it, I obviously did on both accounts and spent the next 20 years in low Earth orbit doing what I’ve always felt I was born to do. The disease sparked many written words during and after that “dark journey”.
Oh, and the gift? The combined gifts of scalpels, radiation, chemotherapy, the healing love of family, friends, and the good Lord… gifted me the rest of my life.
The following piece I penned in the Spring of 2000. I give you, “You Want Me To Do What?”
As I was sitting in the waiting room on the 12th floor of the Mayo Clinic Building a few weeks ago, awaiting an appointment with my oncologist (sounds really strange…MY oncologist), some vivid memories from my experience at the same facility, almost eighteen years earlier, started to seep in.
The date was September 28, 1983, and the preceding month or so of my life had been a HUGE swirl of good news/bad news happenings. I was in Rochester to attend a two-day “pre-employment” physical for Northwest Orient Airlines, which was the good news (unless I was rejected of course). The bad news was that the company I was currently working for as turbo-prop Metroliner Captain was on the brink of self-destruction. The 100 or so pilots employed by this small airline were embroiled in a very bitter battle with the company to vote a labor union on to the property. (the Air Line Pilots Association). For years, we had been dealing with some very serious work-rule and safety issues. I had actually been fired (and subsequently re-hired on the spot) for refusing to fly an aircraft I deemed unsafe. Life at work was pretty depressing, and the thought of “getting out” and working for a major airline was like a dream come true. First, however, I’d have to jump through the interview hurdles…and this little medical adventure was to be the final one.
In the four-week stretch leading up to this event, I had been through the preliminary interview screening and the simulator check-ride, and both of those went well. I showed up at the airport for the short flight to Rochester and found myself among a group of eleven other “pilot candidates” on their way to do exactly the same thing. Interestingly enough, not all pilot applicants at Northwest Orient were required to visit the Mayo Clinic, for some interviewees simply went across the street to the Minneapolis Airport Clinic for a two-hour exam. Why were we chosen to fly down to the Mayo Clinic and be probed and poked within an inch of our lives? Not a clue, just “lucky” I guess. The group of guys (and one young lady) chosen for this adventure, were in many ways (professionally) a mirror image of myself. We were all in our mid to late twenties, we had all been flying for several years, and were evenly mixed between ex-civilian and ex-military types. They all seem like a great bunch of folks and were (I’m sure) sharing the same emotions as myself concerning all of this.
So exactly what medical hurdles were we required to jump through at this Mayo Clinic “circus of the damned”? As it turned out, a plethora of medical hurdles, and in all manner of categories. Before we arrived, we were given explicit orders to “fast” for the twelve hours preceding the initial testing planned for the first morning. That day would begin with an extensive amount of blood work; hence the instructions regarding starving ourselves. The flight down was uneventful, and after checking in to the hotel, we decided to meet for dinner. We sat around the dining table and mixed small talk with rumors of what lay ahead, but mostly we verbally pondered our collective fates. Dinner was essentially non-existent due to our “fasting” orders, so we broke up our little party for a shared night of horrible sleep.
Shortly after our arrival at the massive Mayo complex the next morning (famished I might add), we were marched into a sterile room to await the “vampires nurses” coming for our blood. A short time later, they arrived and separated each of us from a few pints of our crimson life’s fluid. We were then handed our itineraries, broken into two-person teams, and sent down into the maze of underground tunnels and the ensuing craziness. The first appointment for my partner and me was to be with the folks who administered the dreaded treadmill test. I had heard through the pilot grapevine that the treadmill would almost certainly be part of this experience, so before this entire mess had begun weeks prior, I decided to be proactive and had hit the pre-dawn streets jogging. Not that I was in bad shape mind you, I just didn’t want to drop dead in the middle of the test. As I changed into my running attire, I began to wonder just what I had gotten myself into.
The technician-lady began by attaching dozens of wires onto me, and then onto some macabre-looking machine. She then led me up onto the flat, belted monster and began her briefing as I started a slow walk. She was very explicit about informing her when I thought I had had enough. This was to be done through a series of numbers that I would provide when she asked how I was doing. For instance; 1 through 5 meant I was doing great, 6-7-8 meant I’m hanging in there, but working hard. If I gave her a 9 or 10, she would press the big red “stop” button and get my ass off the angry contraption before I actually DID drop-dead…seemed reasonable to me. As I started down my “mental path of Zen tranquility” for this trip to nowhere, an official-looking guy in a white lad-coat (toting the required clipboard) entered the room. He seemed fascinated that I was an aspiring airline pilot, and launched into a litany of questions about airplanes and flying in general, and the airlines in particular. It seems he was writing some sort of thesis on the subject, and he now had the perfect (read captive) victim to interview. The more I ran tethered to the machine, the more he asked questions, and the more out of breath I became. Finally, I cut him off at the knees with this breathless comment; “Hey buddy, can you see I’m trying to run a treadmill program here?”. He got the message loud and clear and disappeared shortly thereafter. I often wondered if his thesis included data concerning “cranky” airline pilot-wannabes jogging on treadmills. I continued pounding the belted track and was feeling pretty damned glad that I logged time on the pre-dawn streets of Fayetteville anticipating this abuse. I was working my ass off, but I was hanging in there.
At this point, the tech lady came back in to inquire how I was doing. “Oh, about a 5 or so.” She seemed pretty pleased with that answer. About ten minutes later, the same question, “hanging in there with a 7” …cool. Several more minutes passed, I hit her with an “oh, about an 8 or so”, and she looked like I had just screamed “MEDIC!”. She hit the big “that’s enough” button, and the beast began to wind down. I vehemently protested telling her that I could go longer and didn’t see the need to stop this torture (thinking of course, that the longer I went, the more I would be demonstrating just how “in shape” I was). She ignored me as she was pouring over the long sheet with all the black squiggly lines. Side note: As I dismounted (huffing and puffing), I nonchalantly asked how long my partner (the young lady candidate) had run on her treadmill test. Her comment stopped me in my tracks, “Oh her, well we don’t have enough data on females running the treadmill for an airline screening, so she didn’t have to do it.” What? You have to be kidding me! I walked out mumbling something about “Don’t you think it’s high time you start to build a database? She would be as good a place to start as any!” Glass ceiling? The term didn’t exist in 1983, and if it did, I’m not sure I would’ve bought into the idea right about then…
Meeting up with my partner (who looked quite rested and refreshed I might add), we headed off through the maze of hallways in search of the building housing the Eye Clinic. Next on the hit parade was the “uber important” eye exam. The airlines required your vision to be 20/20, and my eyes have always been measured at that value; well, that’s not exactly true. My far vision has always been great, even testing at better than 20/20…20/13 to be exact. This means that I can clearly see things at 20 feet that other people see at 13 feet. Accounting for those stronger than normal far-vision muscles, the near-vision ones have been a bit weak (enough to keep me from an Air Force ROTC scholarship). As she and I sat in the waiting room, those thoughts started to rattle around in my head and that gave birth to a tidal wave of anxiety. In those days, ocular corrections were not allowed by any airline, and legions of pilots were discounted from a career because of vision problems. I desperately did not want to become one of them. I had read that an influx of sugar into the bloodstream would actually increase your visual acuity for a short period of time, so I dashed out to grab a candy bar before my name was to be called. Lo and behold, when I came running back, they had called my name…and were a bit unhappy that I was absent. What’s worse; when asked where I had gone, my partner ratted me out and explained to them my entire plan! I could’ve spat nails about then… she and I were not “grooving” on the camaraderie thing. First, she skates on the treadmill torture, and now she throws me under the bus to the eye-doctor folks…not good. It was shaping up to be a long two days. On a good note, the sugar must’ve worked because I passed the vision test (including the near vision section) with flying colors.
The end of the first day could not have come soon enough, and I seemed to be holding my own in this crazy medical merry-go-round. They had indeed spent the day probing, poking, and peering into any and all bodily orifices. They had taken readings and measurements that would’ve made Dr. Frankenstein proud, and as I was attempting to leave, they hit me with a kick to the proverbial family jewels. Following the last appointment, a nurse called me into her office and calmly informed me that my blood numbers were “way out of whack”. She said that either there was “something very wrong with me” (and actually asked me if I had suffered a massive heart attack recently!), or their machine calibrations were incorrect and needed some attention. She left me dumbfounded with this, “We think it’s the machine, but you never know. Go ahead and fast again this evening and tonight, and we’ll redo it tomorrow.” Wonderful! I’m either dying (and don’t know it), or their machine needs to be tweaked, and I’m not dying. To say that I enjoyed less than a wonderfully restful slumber that night would have been a huge understatement. Side note; all of my prospective future classmates had normal blood numbers, had no need to continue to fast, and enjoyed a steak dinner while I sat staring at an empty plate.
Day two promised to be another very long day, for it would be spent shuttling between the doctors and/or technicians that inhabited the “rubber rooms” floor …you know, the Psych Ward. Yep, we were to spend the entire day being sized up in terms of our collective sanities. Of course, my day started a bit differently than the rest of the “lab monkeys”, for I had an appointment at the “vampire nurse’s” office. I spent the previous night watching my dreams of an airline career float away, and was pretty damned anxious as I waited for the results of their latest attack with the needles. Within a few minutes I found out two things; I had not recently suffered a major heart attack, which was great news (but not surprising), and, as it turned out, their machine calibration was indeed wonky, and required some attention. After that lovely news, I hurried to catch up with my classmates, but in the meantime, I had a phone call to make.
A friend, who had interviewed at Northwest Orient a few months prior, had briefed me concerning some of the tests that I would be taking during the day spent with the “nut doctors” (his reference, not mine). He relayed to me some of the questions he was bombarded with, and I was truly grateful that he had given me a peek into their plan of attack. I had written down the questions he recalled, researched the answers as best as I could, but one question remained unanswered….and it was nagging at my psyche. This doosie was the culprit, ” Who wrote Faust?” I was having a difficult time finding the answer to this one (not surprisingly none of my pilot friends seemed to know…lol), so I decided to call the Rochester Public Library for help ( Al Gore had yet to invent the Internet, so I was left with the “old school” way of gaining knowledge). Much to my relief, the nice lady on the other end of the phone put me on hold for a few minutes and returned with the answer. I was all set… I guess I would show them now, right? I didn’t think of this as cheating per se, just being as “prepared” as I could possibly be (after all, if you didn’t show up prepared, that’s your own fault…right?). There’s an old adage in aviation, “if you’re not cheating, you’re not trying”. I was certainly “trying” my hardest, and hoping for the best.
Armed with my newfound “prepared” brain, I proceeded to the first office housing the army of doctors tasked with determining my level of; A) intelligence, and B) sanity. First up to bat was a devilish little gem known as the MMPI, or “Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Indexer” (whatever the hell that means), and I was told it was concocted some years earlier to test prison convicts (seemed appropriate for our little group I guess). I recall that it was a “true/false” type exercise, which left exactly no leeway on any of the questions. Most of them seemed blatantly obvious with regards to the “correct” answer, but when discussing it afterward, we all had the same thought… “Exactly what were they looking for from us?” At the hotel room that evening, I wrote down as many as I could remember, and here are a few samples: “Someone is following me.” (how did they know?), “When I’m on a tall skyscraper, I often feel like jumping off.” (no way in hell, I’m afraid of heights), “I should burn in hell for my sins.” (well, maybe not burn in hell for them.), and my favorite question of all time: “Peculiar odors escape from my body frequently.” (it happens to them too?) IMHO, it’s pretty easy to see a pattern here…for the key seemed to be to not overthink the answer. I marked each of them rather quickly and went on to the next one.
The second written exam they gave us was a monster, for whoever dreamt it up should (probably) indeed “burn in hell for their sins”. I don’t remember the clinical name of this test, but it seemed to go on forever. It was not a true/false type of affair at all, in fact, the answer sheet left you with five possible responses. They were: “I strongly disagree, I somewhat disagree, I have no opinion, I somewhat agree, and finally, I strongly agree”. The person administering the test gave us very specific instructions that, if at all possible, one should not answer with the “I have no opinion” choice. They offered that one must take their time, formulate an opinion, and mark it accordingly. Strangely enough, I can honestly remember but a single question from this exercise, and I think it demonstrates the subtle brand of torture we were all enjoying. In fact, if you didn’t find yourself massively over-thinking each question, then you probably did not fully understand what was happening. Here is the question (remember, you’re not allowed to have “no opinion”): “I admire the beauty of a rose as much as I admire the beauty of a finely crafted gun.” What? Let the over-thinking begin! “Well, let’s see here, if I answer in the negative, then I have no appreciation for beauty (flower or firearm), but if I answer in the affirmative…then I must be some gun-loving, kill em all and let God sort em out kind of freak”. Needless to say, this was a very long, very uncomfortable test involving an inordinate amount of head-scratching.
The last few tests that were thrown at us before the lunch break included a mountain of questions (far too many) about sex, both with and without a partner. If that wasn’t weird enough, they also gave us a test that featured questions filled with the following type of psychiatric nonsense, “You’re in a liferaft, your mother and father are overboard, and you can save only one…which one is it going to be?” After a couple of hours of this stuff, I was starting the think that the folks that dreamed up with these tests should be the ones locked away in a rubber room somewhere.
After lunch, we had the pleasure of conversing with two actual human beings for the next round of tests. The first person was a lady that showed us various “almost identical” pictures in which we had to tell her what was different in the second picture as compared to the first (“the stirrups on the horse’s saddle”, “the snow on the logs next to the cabin”, etc.), she then had us put together a collection of fairly simple puzzles. It all seemed fairly innocuous, and it was except for the fact that she was timing us with a stopwatch, and making frantic notations in a large notebook! To add to the fun, she had one whale of a head cold and had her beak buried into a snotty handkerchief the entire time. Through the hanky came the following refrain more than once while stuck with her in that little cubicle of horrors, “don’t take too long…. ahhhhchooooo!”. Lovely experience she was.
Human number two was a nice enough guy that sat me down in his cubicle and was “just going to ask you a few general information questions” (oh, so this was the “who wrote Faust?” guy). Alrighty, seems fair enough, go ahead “Mr. Know-it-all”, ask away. He began with “What’s the approximate distance from New York to Paris?” What? I thought he was going to ask something like; “When was the war of 1812?” (That one I knew) But nope, many of his questions were most assuredly not on the list my friend had shown me, so I was indeed left to my (unprepared it seemed) brain. Here are a few more of his “general information” questions; “Who was Louis Armstrong?”, “If you left Miami traveling to Caracas, what general direction would you be going?”, “What are the colors in the electromagnetic spectrum”, “What’s the approximate distance from Los Angeles to Tokyo?” (This guy must’ve been a navigator in an earlier life, for he loved the “approximate distance” questions). I was holding my own, feeling like my knowledge was pretty “general”, and then it happened… I hit pay-dirt! He paused a bit, then asked…” Who wrote Faust?” … I spewed the answer out post-haste…“Why Bob, that was, of course, Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe!” He suddenly stopped taking notes and looked up at me. The entire time he had been rapid-fire mugging me with the litany of questions, he had been furiously scribbling in a notebook…but now he just stopped and was staring at me. I froze and it finally hit me! “Oh, oh, I’m not supposed to know that one.” After a couple of seconds, he went back to his scribbling and kept up the barrage of questions. I walked out of that test thinking that I may have screwed the old pooch.
Finally, after what was turning into another very long day, we were to be interviewed by the numero uno, Ichiban, el hefe, “head” Psychiatrist (sorry, bad pun). We were to individually talk to him for a few minutes, and after a short break, were then to report to the main Mayo Clinic building for the meeting that would wrap up this entire bizarre two-day experience. I was escorted into his spacious office, and as I sat across the desk from him, I was fully expecting him to start grilling me with Freudian questions about why I hated my mother, etc.. As I fumbled through my answers, he was to then lean back in his big leather chair, stroke his goatee and mutter….” Hmmm, interesting”. Quite the contrary, I barely got a word in edgewise! He rambled on and on about how great it was to see more women getting involved in the airlines (he had just interviewed my female partner prior to me), etc., etc. I listened to him blather on and on, nodding in agreement the entire time, and fifteen minutes later walked out shaking my head. When my interviewee contemporaries that were waiting to see him asked how it went, and (most importantly) what they should say to him, I had only one piece of advice. “Tell him you like girl pilots.” As I walked toward the last interview, I was left thinking, “Wow, I hope that guy isn’t one of those 500 hundred dollar and hour guys. I’d be asking for a refund!”
So they had done their best to crack open my cranium, peek into my psyche, and come to a conclusion as to whether I could be trusted with the lives of hundreds of souls, zipping around 5 miles above Mother Earth at 450 miles an hour. All I knew is I had ONE LAST interview with the “Big Kahoona” type doctor (Dr. Carter…everyone at Northwest knew about “Doc Carter”), and then I could wrap up this craziness and get on with my life. I was beginning to wonder about this major airline stuff. Was it worth this kind of torture? All of this crazy, medical, “down the rabbit hole” type junk, and I don’t even know if I have the job yet! I navigated the maze of tunnels one last time, found the correct office, and checked in with the receptionist. A few minutes later, a stern-looking nurse called my name and coldly instructed me to follow her. I was not getting much of a warm and fuzzy feeling from her, in fact, I felt that she should be loudly proclaiming, “Dead man walking”! Several turns down long hallways later, she ushered me into the “inner sanctum” of Dr. Carter’s office. Again, he was known around the Northwest Orient circles as the guy that would “make or break you” in terms of an offer of employment. Apparently, if he didn’t give you the “thumbs up”, then it didn’t matter how healthy and/or sane you were, you weren’t going to work for Northwest. He was the guy that held all the cards, and quite frankly I was a bit nervous when I sat down in front of him. I was out of his office in under five minutes…. it went something like this.
I sat dead silent for four of those five minutes as he looked over my physical, and psychiatric test results…only then did he speak. “So, you want to work for Northwest?”, “Yes sir” I stammered. “How do you think you did on all of this?” My weak-ass reply was: “Well sir, I don’t really know, I guess you’re the guy that decides all that, right?” He shuffled back and forth through a ream of paperwork until he got to some graph he was looking for. Then he did something completely unexpected, he started chuckling and shaking his head. He said, “You pilots are all alike…. your K factor is way up the scale here.” (Having not one iota of an idea of what he was talking about, I just sat with a world-class “doe in the headlights” expression on my mug.) Next, he made the following prolific statement, “You guys are just like doctors. I’m not going to call you a bunch of liars…let me just say, you’re constantly trying to put your best foot forward…hehe.” With that, he smiled, shook my hand, and said that I could go.
I numbly walked through the waiting room, out the door, and down the hall toward the elevator thinking to myself, “What the hell just happened? He just called me a liar…but wait, he seemed to like it somehow…he compared pilots with doctors, so it can’t be all that bad…can it?” I was more confused than ever, and when asked by the other “candidates” how it went, I really didn’t know what to say. I guess after all, no matter what I told them, according to the esteemed Dr. Carter, I would be lying, right?
Till next time,
Addendum: All twelve of us that went through those two crazy days at the Mayo Clinic, found ourselves in class 11-14 roughly five weeks later. The date was 14th, November, the year of 1983, and it would change our lives forever. One person didn’t make it through the training and was let go, and that’s a bit of a sad story, for I was his “simulator partner” the night he was fired, and privy to the “why” and “how” of the event. To come through all that, and then not make the grade…wow. Mike was a very nice fellow, and I often wonder what happened to him…I hope he found what he was looking for. The young lady that was my partner through the Mayo Clinic madness, medically retired from the airline a few years ago, and I lost track of her.
Where are the rest of the “lab rats”? Most are wide-body Captains plying their trade over the world’s oceans, some (like me) have decided to slog it out on the domestic routes for a few more years, and a couple are working in the NWA Training Department as instructors (I worked a few years there myself as an instructor). We all became good friends during our infant days with the airline, and those friendships will last long after we have finished being what that “funny army” of Mayo Clinic doctors allowed us to become…
Epilog: As many of you know, after 37 years with the major airlines, I’ve recently retired from aviation, albeit still very active in the “virtual world” of flying machines. As the prologue mentions, I logged many more hours haunting the hallways and tunnels of the Mayo Clinic during my journey with cancer. The doctors, nurses, technicians, and everyone else I met during that journey left me speechless in their passion, dedication, and knowledge in the world of medicine. As I learned more about the specific malady that became part of my story, I found out that the survival rate (and length) wasn’t that great. With that said, the great folks at Mayo, the good Lord, and the love of my dear friends and family saved my life, and for that, I’ll be eternally grateful. The big jet-airliners I flew took me on a journey full of adventure and excitement that is truly beyond description. Seems that an elevated “K factor” isn’t a bad thing after all…thank you, Dr. Carter…
’till next time…