Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Human Mortality: Peter Jennings, Bob Woodruff, Elizabeth Vargas, You, and Me

Ah, death, so feared, so upsetting of our best-laid plans, so repulsive and magnetic at the same time, so everywhere. Elizabeth Vargas and Bob Woodruff, above, of ABC World News Tonight are living in its giant shadow.

Major TV news networks give us nightly images of U.S. military vehicles pulverized by roadside bombs in Iraq and victims being carried away on covered stretchers. Almost by habit, and using language identical to that used many times before, television reporters tell us how many died in the attack and how many were wounded.

Try as they may, however, TV reporters cannot easily distinguish one attack from the other nor convey fully that these are human beings being killed and maimed. It becomes, forgive me, almost routine – until it happens to somebody with a face we know.

At ABC's World News Tonight, inconceivably, it happened to a colleague, Bob Woodruff. Then the full horror of a roadside bomb hits home. Just six months after losing Peter Jennings, it's anchor for more than two decades, to lung cancer, ABC World News Tonight has had his co-successor seriously wounded in action on the front lines of news.

It happened on a Sunday and the news immediately led on ABC. On Monday, the lead story in The New York Times -- that is, the front-page right column, considered the world's most important of the day -- was about Bob Woodruff and the attack. Along with a cameraman, Doug Vogt, a Canadian living in France, he was embedded with the U.S. Army's 4th Infantry Division.

The two were riding in an Iraqi, Soviet-made, lightly armored personnel carrier. It was the lead vehicle in a joint American-Iraqi convoy. Wanting to see everything and to have an unobstructed view for filming, the two men stood partially exposed in an open rear hatch. They wore body armor, ballistic glasses, and helmets.

It wasn't enough. The powerful blast sent shrapnel tearing into each man's head and upper body. The blast was followed by small arms fire from several directions. Bob asked, "Am I alive?" and then screamed in pain. Wounded and bleeding, Bob and Doug were taken by helicopter to the fortified Green Zone.

There both underwent lengthy emergency surgery. With shrapnel in his head and neck and with broken bones, Bob was in more serious condition than Doug.

I was away for a long weekend without access to TV or a computer, so I learned about the news in Monday's Times. I was shocked.

This was not a "normal" roadside bombing in Iraq. It had a victim whose face I knew. I devoured every word, discussed it at length with my wife, and went online to find out everything I could.

Bob is shown here about thirty minutes before the attack. On the road, Bob and Doug switched from a heavily-armored American Humvee to the lightly-armored Iraqi vehicle, which left them more exposed.

As I write this, two weeks after the attack, Doug Vogt is up walking and talking, but Bob Woodruff lies in a medically-induced coma at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland while doctors treat serious shrapnel wounds to his head and neck.

To relieve pressure on Bob's brain from swelling, surgeons removed part of his skull. He is expected to survive. However, no one can say when or if he will be able to return to his co-anchor spot alongside Elizabeth Vargas.

Doctors are careful not to say it, but Bob could have suffered brain damage with a possibility of impaired cognition and speech -- which could make his return impossible. Aware of the seriousness of her co-anchor's condition, Ms. Vargas has struggled to keep her composure while reporting on her colleagues' medical progress.

But her emotions finally got to her. At the end of a broadcast the other night, she turned away from the camera sobbing. As a viewer, I feel the same way. I'm still in mourning for Peter Jennings. For me, it is personal with Bob Woodruff as it was and is for Peter Jennings (even after nearly six months).

I can only imagine how Elizabeth Vargas feels. For months while Peter Jennings lay dying, she had to sign off the broadcast saying "for Peter Jennings," and now she has to do a "for Bob Woodruff. And ABC World News Tonight, reeling from having two news stars yanked by fate from its anchor's chair within a year, has much to ponder about life and human mortality.

The ordeal of ABC World News Tonight is a terrible reminder that disease and death stalk us all, and that celebrities like Peter Jennings and Bob Woodruff are also mortal. For 22 years, I watched Peter Jennings on ABC News every night and literally for hour upon hour during every major news event. I was with him at the fall of the Berlin Wall, the first Iraq war, every presidential convention and election, 9/11, the second Iraq war, and every celebrity death.

And like the good newsman that he was, he soared above it all. With every celebrity death that Peter Jennings announced on TV was an implict understanding that this could never happen to him. All those images of him, pictured here, over so many years had made him immortal in my eyes and in the eyes of many millions worldwide. This was so comforting, so permanent.

When he did not cover the funeral of Pope Paul VI, when in fact he was nowhere to be seen at such a major world news event, I immediately felt that something was terribly wrong. Then one night in April, 2005, at the end of the news, in a hoarse voice punctuated by little coughs, he gave us the news himself. Lung cancer.

Shocked to the core, I hung on his every word. He said he had been weak after 9/11 and had taken up smoking again after quitting many years before. He said that he now joined 10 million other cancer survivors and that he would have good days and bad days and that his voice wouldn't be this bad on his good days.

He said he would be starting chemotherapy. Forcing a smile, he wondered if he should ask the doctor when his hair would fall out. He spoke as if this bit of news wasn't, in the overall scope of things, anything out of the ordinary and that he would just carry on as always; he'd just do so as a lung cancer survivor, that's all.

But for once, Peter Jennings could not be above it all. The lung cancer was not some other celebrity's; it was his. Lung cancer is one of the most deadly cancers. The choice of chemotherapy over immediate surgery was the tip-off that he had advanced, inoperable lung cancer. I for one saw a dead man talking on TV that night and I suspect his doctors did as well.

Peter Jennings never returned to the air. After that last appearance, he continued coming into the ABC office, diving into the news as he always did. And then he went into seclusion. A man who had spent his life digging out news became the object of a news blackout. Week after week, I heard not a word. It hurt.

It was as if a member of the family had disappeared into thin air. The urbane air, the soothing voice, the ever so underplayed bemused look was as much a part of our living room as family photos and keepsakes. I wrote an e-mail to a website devoted to discussing Peter Jennings in which I begged him to tell us how he was doing.

Nothing, except for a few messages from him posted on the ABC web site thanking people for their support and prayers. But on his illness, treatment, and feelings there was only silence. The next thing I heard was the formal announcement of his death, saying that he had died with his wife and family at his bedside.

A public figure had chosen a private death. Of course, that was his right and must be respected. But I can't help wondering what Peter Jennings thought about his own impending death and what he would say to the rest of us as we all face our own. What could he have taught us?

We'll never know.

Even if Peter Jennings had spoken to us, we still would be left to deal with death as individuals. The truth is, we deal with it miserably and the three biggest failings are: Individually and collectively, we refuse to take steps to keep healthy and prolong our lives; have a propensity to die unexpectedly and in unforeseen ways; and when death does come, we can't cope with it.

In all three areas, Peter Jennings, sadly, followed the script to a T. He smoked, stopped, but knowing better ( having hosted a special ABC special on smoking), he took up smoking again. If ever there was an unexpected death, it was that of TV-immortalized Peter Jennings. For him to die of lung cancer was not only unforeseen but unimaginable.

However, there is some small consolation for Peter's family and his millions of viewers: his memory will live on. The block in Manhattan where ABC News is located and where he lived and used to walk to work has been renamed Peter Jennings Way. Though a man of the world, this was his neighborhood. This was the center of his life. And now it has his name.

In private, Peter Jenning's death may have been like his life: triumphant. I hope it was. In public, however, he coped with death by denying it.

In this respect, Peter Jenning acted just like the rest of us. We don't think about death until it literally strangles us or runs us down in the street or, as with Bob Woodruff, puts a bomb in our path.

I have a modest suggestion: Maybe the time to prepare for death is when we are healthy, happy, and enjoying all that life has to offer. That describes my life today and yet here I am writing about dying -- and I will get to my own death at the end of this post.

What can we learn from the death of Peter Jennings and the cruel twist of fate that has befallen Bob Woodruff'? In other words, what do we intend to do about our coming death?

The choices are many, ranging from do-nothing fatalism to busily making plans to live forever.

Ray Kurzweil, shown here, is a 57 year-old inventor who plans to live forever. Author of "Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever," he says that by continuously "fixing everything that goes wrong," it is possible to live indefinitely.

What makes it possible, he says, is the great increase in life expectancy coupled with ever faster and ever revolutionary progress in medicine and technology.

He points out that life expectancy in 1800 was 37. Today in the U.S. it is approaching 80 and will surpass that in a few years, he says. He predicts that in 20 years diseases like Alzheimer's will be rendered harmless by introducing nanobots in the brain to untangle tangles and dislodge amyloid deposits. His goal is to live long enough to take advantage of this new medical technology.

Being a scientist, Kurzweil is methodical in keeping himself in excellent health. He keeps track of everything he eats, counts calories, takes several supplements, exercises, and tests himself regularly. He has brought his cholesterol down from 280 to 130.

At age 57, he says tests put his biological age at 41. He says that in the last 17 years he has aged just two years biologically. At age 60, he expects to have a biological age of 38.

Other people, conceding that they are likely to die, are hoping to rise from the dead. They are making arrangements with cryogenics centers to have their bodies frozen until science figures out a way to bring them back to life.

Some of them are drawing up legal papers leaving their wealth not to the kids but to themselves, so when they do come back from the dead they'll have the means to enjoy life forever.

Normally death comes unannounced. Even if it is expected, it still tends to come as a surprise. Some of us get unequivical advance notice. Peter Jennings was one. He had to know that his lung cancer was going to kill him and not take very long to do it.

How he made use of this time, I don't know. Well, I like to think. It is possible to live more fully in a short time at the end of life than in an entire life.

Eugene O'Kelly was 53 and chief executive of the big accounting firm KPMG when he was told that he had inoperable brain cancer. A wealthy, successful, hard-driving businessman, he was determined to turn his death into one last success. He would talk directly to healthy people and tell them to heed Jonathan Swift: "May you live every day of your life."

Given just a few months to live, he drew up "to-do" lists just as he always did when he had to pull off something big. A successful death was certainly something big. High on his "to-do" list was saying goodbye in person and privately to about a thousand people. In doing so, he sometimes asked a friend or acquaintance to take a leisurely walk together. For all, it was a last such walk; but for many, it was also the first.

He wrote a book, "Chasing Daylight: How My Forthcoming Death Transformed My Life." In it, he expressed his delight in discovering the world around him and new sensations of connecting to nature and living for the moment instead of drawing up five and ten-year plans.

In simple and clear language, he voiced universal truths. The book is successful and so was, on September 10, his death.

Mr. O'Kelly found great comfort and inspiration in his religious faith. Many other people of faith don't try to manage death the way he did. They take death as a given that will come in God's good time. For them, following His word in life is not only the best preparation for death but the only way. Death may be sorrowful and marked by sombre church ritual, but it is also celebrated as a passage to the hereafter, a joyful reuniting with God, and eternal happiness.

Me, I'm with Sherwin Nuland (see previous post). I'd like to stay out of the way of his Six Horsemen of Death to say age 120 and then go to sleep. But don't get me wrong. If it doesn't happen, and it probably won't, I'm okay with it. I'm a couple of years away from 70 and that's already a lot older than many people get to be. Probably half the people in the daily obituaries are younger than I am.

If I drop dead after I post this, people would say, "Oh, George died. But you know, he had a long good life. He played tennis to the last day of his life. He was lucky."

They would be right. Getting to this age has been a fabulous ride and a great privilege. I'm ready to go. And thank God, not being a celebrity, I won't have to die like Peter Jennings or fight for life like Bob Woodruff, with the whole world watching.

But don't misunderstand. I didn't say I want to go. I hope to stay vertical and viable for another 50 years. I say this fully aware that living that long can truly be a fate worse than death. It would mean outliving my dear wife. It would mean outliving my four younger siblings. It might even mean outliving my own children, a parent's ultimate horror.

So you can see why it is okay with me if I don't make it to age 120. When I said I was ready, I meant ready emotionally but also practically. I have made plans. I have made preparations. Death is not going to sandbag me. If I die after posting this, I know exactly what will happen.

My wife Barbara will pick up the phone and call Umass Medical School where I talked with Donald Tipper (previous post). She will tell the secretary with the cadaver donation program that I have died and that the body may be picked up.

Now, the program has the option of not accepting a body if it is not in good shape or otherwise not appropriate as a teaching aid for medical students. If I may say so, if they picked up my body today, I would be in damn good shape. This morning I played singles tennis for and hour and a half and afterwards I spent an hour stretching and doing push-ups, working the abs, and other exercises to maintain muscle tone and keep my body core in line.

For a dead guy, I would be in terrific shape and I think they would take me. I would start a whole new useful life helping medical students learn about the human body by working with the real thing. They will cut, separate, feel, pull, push around, hold up, weigh, measure, and pass around various parts of me. They'll identify, name, evaluate, analyze, question, discuss, take notes. No living person could dream of getting so much attention.

I'm sure they will admire my beautiful set of fake knees. Maybe I'll get an appreciative look or a giggle from a pretty young medical student or two. The majority of medical students today are female. Just because I am dead doesn't mean I won't enjoy being felt up all over by female hands.

Oh, dear. What if ... What if ... Wouldn't that be a gas?

If I strike out romatically, there's always comedy. Death can certainly use a little lightening up. Maybe the medical students could play funniest pose with the cadaver. Maybe they could prop me up somewhere, say in the closet of a cute, unsuspecting medical student, and have her open her closet door to find a dead guy, yours truly, leering at her.

When they are finished with me, the students will hold a respectful ceremony at which they will say how much they appreciate the essential role I played in their anatomy studies. They'll try not to let on how much fun they had with me. But probably the winner of the funniest pose with the cadaver will not be able to keep a straight face.

By this time, some of my body parts may have made it out the back door to companies who specialize in supplying human muscle, bone, tendon, and skin for transplant, therapies, and research. Once only whole organs were in demand for transplant, but now a whole tissue-processing industry has grown up. These companies purchase all kinds of human "product" for resale to hospitals, doctors' groups, and biotech firms.

The family of Alistair Cooke, pictured below, the genteel British broadcaster who explained America to his countrymen before dying of lung cancer last year at 95, knows all about this traffic in human remains. Family members learned that his body was surgically plundered before cremation. A Florida firm, Regeneration Technologies and a New Jersey company, Tutogen Medical, both human-tissue processors, bought parts of Mr. Cooke's bones from Biomedical Tissue Services of Fort Lee, New Jersey, according to his daughter and law enforcement officials.

Mr. Cooke's daughter, Susan Cooke Kittredge, speaking for the family, said: "Alistair Cooke's family is shocked and saddened by the news that following his death, parts of his body were illegally sold for transplant." She went on to say that her father's remains had been "violated," and the family was appalled that "people in need would have received his body parts, considering his age and the fact that he was ill when he died."

The trade in human tissues is brisk and the money involved is big. Based on information from California Transplant Services Inc., Cryolife Inc, and UCLA, the Associated Press reports that hospitals are paying the following going rates: Cornea: $1,900 to $3,000; skin: $1,000 per square foot; bone: $3,800 for a femur; patella tendon: $3,000 to $4,500. Alistair Cooke's bones, probably to be used for dental and orthopedic implants, are said to have gone for $7,000.

Hmmmmm. I'm doing some figuring. Wow! I'm worth a bundle dead!

Actually, I like the idea of my body parts going to help other people. People who knew me when I was alive – oops, forgot, I'm still alive – know that I hate waste. Why let perfectly good body parts go to waste?

I have nothing against enterprising people buying and selling my body parts, either. May their enterprise be well rewarded. May many people in great medical need be helped. But given the big bucks involved, may I get in on the action. After all, who is the primary producer here? Without me, there would be no product.

So I'm thinking of making a deal with the medical school to sell everything, every last scrap of tissue, and we split the proceeds fifty-fifty. Instead of shady, back-door dealing, everything would be done in the open on the up and up, with the proceeds strictly accounted for. The medical school takes its share and gives my wife Barbara a nice check. Another option is Ebay ...

Forgive the pun, I could make a killing!

After the money is counted and distributed, I'll be cremated and my ashes will go to be with the fishes of the beautiful lake where I swam so many years. I have asked my wife Barbara to attach a little brass plate to a common field stone and have it be engraved with my name, George Pollock III, date of birth, May 2, 1938, and date of death ________ and that's all. I have asked her to place the stone in the garden and to forget about it and go out and find a young boyfriend.

Of course, if I were President, a common field stone with a brass plate on it would not do. I would have to have a presidential library. A grossly expensive and superfluous library is the presidential version of reaching for immortality. President Clinton has a massive library in his home state of Arkansas. Bush II is now in the process of raising money for a second Bush library. Presidential libraries are built with private funds but then taxpayers have to pay for it's operation and upkeep until the end of time -- a bad deal for taxpayers.

I've asked Barbara to invite people over to the house and give them a terrific meal and a good time visiting. No funeral home. No casket. No cemetery plot. (I'm a touch claustrophobic.)

No headstone. No church service. No big bills for anybody to pay, just the cost of a good meal for people who want to stop by – something I would be cooking for if I were living. For the living, the only ones who count when death comes, no hassles, good food, conversation and, yes, laughs.

Though dead, I would still be there in spirit. I would be thanking everybody for coming. I would be circulating and making small talk: Isn't the food great? I would try to make everybody understand that I really wanted to be there but that it was impossible -- a previous commitment I just couldn't get out of, though God knows I tried.

As for an afterlife, I'd be all over it -- if I can get in. You see, I'm a sinner. Before you get too excited about hearing my confession of all manner of malevolence and debauchery, let me point out that the Indo-European root for the word "sin" is "to be."

So, with a nod to Descarte: I am, therefore I sin.

Still, I have dreams of being embraced by God and reunited with family and old friends, then to loll around Heaven in perfect happiness for eternity. I am a Catholic who went to a Catholic elementary school and a Catholic College. I was taught that to make it to Heaven I had to love God, go to church on Sunday, and follow His teachings.

I have indeed always tried to follow His teachings, including those of Christ's Sermon on the Mount. I have always felt that there is no higher standard of behavior toward our fellow human beings than the Sermon on the Mount.

To be honest, however, I have not been very good about going to church on Sunday; in fact, I have stopped going. I have found it hard to love a God I can't see. The dogmatic, patriarchal, and authoritarian side of the Church leaves me cold. But I really don't think that these sins are so bad that I should be damned to burn in hell forever.

Now I shall address God directly. (With the middle man cut out, I go directly to the top.) God, I have always been taught that You are a loving and forgiving God, so I ask Your forgiveness now. I ask You to admit this sinner to Your Heavenly Kingdom.

If You take me in, it shows that You are truly a loving and forgiving God. I promise that no one will love You more or be a more regular churchgoer or sing Your praises more passionately. Yes, I know that this is conditional love and it is not very Christian, but I ask You to forgive me for this failing, too.

The main reason I don't want a church service has nothing to do with faith or religion. The issue is control. It's my death and I want it the way I want it. I don't want a priest who does not know me taking charge or talking about me from the pulpit. He could only say the usual that is said at every funeral mass and I don't want that.

On the other hand, my wife Barbara wants a funeral mass and if I'm still here, I'll make sure she gets one. Not only that, I'll be in the front row singing and praying and crying and taking part fully, a sinner begging God to take my sweet wife into Heaven where she belongs. And if I know her, once she goes through the pearly gates, she'll find a way to bring me up from the fires below.

God, I miss Peter Jennings.

And just when I get attached to Bob Woodruff and Elizabeth Vargas as a team, Bob gets blown up in Iraq. And now I think about him every day, one minute handsome, healthy, smart (a lawyer and speaker of Mandarin), a family man (wife and four children), a man of the whole world with a long and surely brilliant future ahead of him; and the next minute slumped broken and bloodied on an Iraqi vehicle with shrapnel in his head, neck, and upper body and now lying in a coma in a Maryland naval hospital.

Poor, broken-hearted Elizabeth Vargas, young, healthy, alive, beautiful, smart, mother of a toddler, she gives the news on ABC every weekday night and gets the words out; she even even manages to put on a smile.

But she is a different woman now. Disease, violence, and death in all its, horror, cruelty, and exquisite bad timing have barged into her life and probably changed her forever.

She must think: First Peter Jennings, then in August her own husband -- hit in the temple by a would-be carjacker's bullet, luckily surviving when the bullet did not penetrate his skull --and now Bob Woodroof.
What is going to happen next?

So long and keep moving.

P.S. ABC has just announced that Elizabeth Vargas, 43, is pregnant. The next big event for her may be -- new life. The President of ABC News, David Westin, called the news "life-affirming." The news also helps put the account above in perspective, doesn't it?

NOTE: My novel, State Kid: Hero of Literacy is now available on Amazon and for the Nook.

Billy Stone was a foster child.

He ran away from abuse.

He went to juvenile prison.

He went up from there.

And he did it his way.

With the power of the written word. 

Amazon E-Books by George Pollock

 "State Kid: Hero of Literacy" is fiction based on his  real-life experiences  growing up in foster homes; "Last Laughs," is the true story of how five foster kids (he and four younger siblings) found their way in life and each other. "Killers: Surprises in a Maximum Security Prison," is the story of his being locked up for 23 hours with killers in a maximum security prison;  "I, Cadaver" is about his postmortem adventures and mischief in the anatomy lab at UMass Medical School. “A Beautiful Story” demonstrates the art and process of creative writing as a 16-year-old boy goes all out to write a story that literally saves his life;  "A Long, Happy, Healthy Life,"  is about how to live the title every day; and "Unlove Story," Writing anonymously as "Elvis," a husband, dumped after 38 years of marriage, lets it all out on love, marriage, life, everything. A guy doing this? It's unheard of.
   For the Nook:

A Beautiful Story
A Long, Happy, Healthy Life
I, Cadaver
State Kid
Unlove Story

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Sunday, February 05, 2006

The Six Horsemen of Death: How They Stand Between You and Super Old Age

Believe it or not, Patient's Progress is not about the life cycle of the snowman. However, we did get another nine inches of snow yesterday and I was out building yet another snowman, my fourth of the winter. You should see him. He's the biggest, strongest and happiest yet and he is my newest and bestest friend.

No, this serial story is about living a long, healthy, and happy life and my snowmen, as much as I love them, are but fantastical little tastes of foolishness and joy along the way. Regularly doing childish, fun things like building a snowman kills those little stress goblins dead. And it may just be that with each snowman, I'll live a tad longer because of the snowman's gift of a smile and a chance to take a break from from old age.

Still, you can build snowmen until your back breaks and smile until your face hurts and it won't change the most shocking fact of life: death. There, in a story celebrating health and long life I have said the D word. I would much rather say “snowman.” A snowman is more fun than death.

Yet, one way or another, we must all come to terms with death. We must reach beyond the abstract death of the philosophical tome; the religious death of the church; the grieving death within families and among friends; the technological death of the hospital, the hushed-up death of the funeral parlor; the mass-denial death of society; and, especially, the oppressive death of fear and horror.

We must contemplate, understand, and embrace our own end. Death is natural, necessary, and a normal part of our cycle of life. Instead of keeping the poor despised and feared ghoul in the shadows, who, after all, only has a thankless job to do, we can bring him out into the open and get to know him better. There are many ways that this can be done, all of them human and life-affirming.

This is not to say that death is our friend. After all, it is the end of earthly life and for a living, breathing, moving creature, it is catastrophic finality. It may or may not be the end of consciousness, whatever that is. Consciousness is perhaps the greatest mystery of all. It certainly will take us away from earthly family, friends, love, large and little pleasures, and snowmen.

And, as much as we don't want to believe it or think about it, death is often painful, horrific, and tragic. In his fine book, “How We Die,” Sherwin Nuland, who has witnessed thousands of deaths as a physician, writes that the process is frequently drawn out, painful, ugly, and terrifying to the dying person.

Nuland, who prefers not to use “Dr.” as a writer, shows us that it is physically not easy to die. The body's immune system fiercely resists the process of death. When the first line of defense is breached, a second line is thrown into the battle.

When the second line fails, a third line rushes to the front, and then a fourth and a fifth, until the body has no troops left. Death frequently is a long, desperate fight to the last immunological soldier and for most of us the final struggle takes place in a hospital or nursing home.

According to Nuland, about 85% of people are finally overrun by what he calls the Six Horsemen of Death: atherosclerosis, hypertension, type II diabetes, obesity, dementia, and cancer. All weaken resistance to infection, opening the way for hordes of bacteria and all manner of microbes.

Nuland himself would like to avoid the Six Horsemen and die of old age. By that, he means having major organs wear out and shut down, ideally more or less simultaneously, and in one's sleep, and while one is still living fully. Feeling tired, one simply goes to bed and falls into life's deepest sleep.

Sounds good to me. At age 120 or so, having replaced all parts that can be replaced and with my brain mostly wasted away, I'll round up my last surviving brain neurons and vacate the premises shouting, “Come on in you gluttonous little carnivorous bastards and eat up because I'm – outta here!”

Unfortunately, both attaining this advanced age and having enough brain function left at age 120 to summon the microbian hordes are highly, highly unlikely, according to a tennis opponent this week who speaks with some authority. He is Donald Tipper, a longtime professor at Umass Memorial Medical School in Worcester and founder of its Department of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology.

He is currently researching vaccines against prion disease because he wants to and giving an annual lecture at the Medical School because he wants to. The Medical School gives him free lab space and he has a $50,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health. He has no specific teaching or work requirements.

I lift an eyebrow.

"They owe me," he says. He is 70 years old, lean, and athletic. Originally from England, he speaks with a pronounced British accent even after spending his adult life working in the U.S., more than 30 years at Umass Memorial.

As a tennis player, he can run off games with hard and deep groundstrokes from both sides. He hits the ball hard and well. He's competitive but does not need to win at all costs. "I just don't want to embarrass myself," he says.

Our match is hard fought and a terrific workout for us both. In singles, every ball is yours and you have to cover the whole court instead of half, as in doubles. For the record, I won but that was not the point for either one of us.We both had a great time and enjoyed ourselves. Of course, no matter how hard you want it not to be so, winning always feels better than losing.

After tennis, I went to see Tipper at Umass Memorial Hospital. His office and lab are in a secure area because scientists like Tipper work with potentially dangerous pathogens. So I must be escorted onto the floor and have the door locked behind me.

In his office, I mention that I have been reading about Alexander Fleming and exactly how he came to discover penicillin in 1928. "It was pure accident," I said. "He went out leaving a plateful of bacteria on the kitchen table. When he came back, mold had grown and created a bacteria-free zone on the plate. He saw that mold could kill bacteria."

"Yes, it was bad hygiene but good science," Tipper said. Then he brightens."You know, I was the one who proved his discovery."

"Really? I didn't know that."

That is not surprising because Tipper rarely talks about himself or his work. He is surprised that I am interested in what he is doing and quite willing to talk about his work. He is willing even after I tell him that "probably no one will ever read what I'm writing and that I'm only doing it because I want to."

"I understand perfectly," he said. "Yes, in 1965 I published a paper in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that indicated the mode of action of penicillin."

"How it works."

"Yes." He plucked what looked like a little metal work of art from his bookshelf and held it up. "This is penicillin. This is what it's molecular structure looks like."

After exactly 13 minutes, -- he had told me that he had to do something in 13 minutes -- we left his office and went down the hall and into a room where he retrieved a petri dish of bacteria from a wall-sized cooler set at 34 degress. "It has to be exactly 34 degrees," he said.

We went back to his lab where I watched him conduct an experiment, above, as part of his effort to find an effective vaccine against prion disease. Prions are infectious particles that cause fatal brain disease in animals and include scrapie, mad cow disease, and chronic wasting disease.

The infectious particles have the same amino acid composition as ordinary, natural proteins of the body. The prions turn deadly when they change shape or "misfold" and aggregate in toxic, killing clumps. These rogue prions invade brain tissues and force normal proteins to assume their shape and deadly work.

The result is dementia, loss of control of limbs, and death. The version of prion disease that affects humans usually occurs spontaneously and only rarely as a result of eating contaminated meat. There is no cure for prion disease.

But researchers like Tipper hope that by finding a vaccine against prion disease in animals, the way could be opened for its use in humans. A prion vaccine for humans is considered "theoretical."

Yet scientists must push forward. Tipper mixed and matched test-tubes of organisms and chemicals, introducing variables, trying to improve upon his "control" vaccine, the vaccine currently performing best when injected in infected mice. He is looking for the vaccine to elicit a strong immunological response.

He takes petri dishes of the current experiment and returns them to the big cooler at exactly 34 degrees. "Tomorrow we'll have a whole new batch of bacteria," he said.

This experiment would fail as does almost every experiment that he performs. That is the way of science: fail and keep failing until you succeed and then replicate. If Tipper eventually succeeds, he says there may be applicability to treatment for Alzheimers, a disease afflicting 4.5 million Americans.

When I ask him about longevity and what it takes to live to 120, he replies with a question: why would anybody want to? He says that I might be able to do it physically with a super-disciplined regimen of diet, exercise, health care and hitting the longevity lotto but I would most likely not have a functioning brain.

"You would be technically alive but you wouldn't be you," he said.

He gives me a little discourse on the brain and how the cells of our body function. Cells contain various proteins that perform different tasks ranging from garbage disposal to repairs of damage from misfolded proteins to communication.

The system works well, Tipper says, except for cells that have to live for a long time. These cells are the ones that show the growth of the misfolded protein that do the damage.

"The neurons in our brain have to last our entire lives. Unlike the cells of the gut, which turn over in a week, the brain cells we have at maturity do not reproduce themselves. They have to last 60 years and longer. What happens is that over time proteins in brain cells become more and more likely to misfold and accumulate in a form that the garbage system can't help.

"We lose .2% of our brain cells every year. In a 100 years, we lose 20% of our brain cells. We can do without 20% of our brain cells. But the accumulation of damage to brain cells accelerates the decline of brain function. This is the same mechanism that takes place in Alzheimers. Before that, you lose critical aspects of your personality.

"I don't want to live to be 120. My brain will wear out long before then. And Alzheimers is the way it is likely to wear out. We are not selected for longterm. What makes a person a person is what dies off even if the rest of the body is alive and functioning. My father-in-law is 90 and he is really sharp. I enjoy talking to him. How long he will stay that way I don't know. I only know that his brain is the same one he's had for 70 years and it will wear out."

So much for my living to age 120 and still being me. Nothing like a good reality sandwich to bring a dreamer down to earth. Tipper is telling me that exercise and diet and common sense can take me a long way, but not to continued personhood at age 120, not with this brain. In a few months, my grey matter will be 68 years old, which is already pushing it.

So I guess I have to get serious about finding a way to not get Alzheimer's.
Now I must reread that article by Sue Halpern in The New Yorker (Dec. 12, 2005) about research physicians at Columbia University's Taub Institute for Research on Alzheimer's Disease and the Aging Brain and their search to uncover the biological origins of the disease. The search is led by Richard Mayeux, a neurologist and epidemiologist.

Because almost half of early-onset Alzheimer's (between 30 and 60) is genetic and late-onset Alzheimer's (60 and over) is genetically-influenced, Mayeux's team is trying to find the risk-factor genes. There are thought to be about a half a dozen of them that increase one's risk of dementia.

The first risk-factor gene to be conclusively identified is amyloid precursor protein or APP. It was discovered in 1991 by geneticists at the University of London and is associated, in mutated forms, with early-onset Alzheimer's. The mutations cause overproduction of beta-amyloid and, without exception, people carrying the mutations develop Alzheimer's disease.

When APP was discovered, Malraux at first thought it was the Alzheimer's gene. But simple math told him it was not. Out of millions of cases of Alzheimer's disease, APP mutations were estimated to occur in fewer than two hundred. Within a few years, however, three more risk-factor genes were found and confirmed, two for early-onset and one for late-onset Alzheimer's disease.

However, despite the efforts of research teams all over the world, no one has found a new Alzheimer's gene in more than a decade. Hundreds have been claimed but none have been replicated by other researchers. Mayeux says it is like knowing that someone has committed a crime somewhere without knowing where and you have to look for the culprit all over the universe.

While they're looking, I guess I better find out if I have the one late-onset Alzheimer's gene that has been discovered. It is ApoE4 and is found in a quarter of the population and is a variant of a gene that we all carry. Many with the gene never get Alzheimer's. Many who do get Alzheimer's don't carry the gene.

Still, I and other geezers at least have a known perp to check out if we want to avoid one of Sherwin Nuland's Six Horsemen of Death – dementia. Unlike the the other five, dementia becomes almost inevitable as one gets to be 100 and 110 and 120 simply because we grow no new brain cells and the old ones get older and gradually die.

So I guess I better find out if I have the ApoE4 gene, lurking within me intent on killing my brain. Don't tell the ACLU, but I'm going to treat the suspect as guilty until proven innocent.

This is a matter of life or death, after all.

So long and keep moving.

 E-Books by George Pollock

 "State Kid: Hero of Literacy" is fiction based on his  real-life experiences  growing up in foster homes; "Last Laughs," is the true story of how five foster kids (he and four younger siblings) found their way in life and each other. "Killers: Surprises in a Maximum Security Prison," is the story of his being locked up for 23 hours with killers in a maximum security prison;  "I, Cadaver" is about his postmortem adventures and mischief in the anatomy lab at UMass Medical School. “A Beautiful Story” demonstrates the art and process of creative writing as a 16-year-old boy goes all out to write a story good enough to get him into an exclusive college -- on full scholarship; and "A Long, Happy, Healthy Life," which is about how to live the title every day.