- Steve Allen, Jayne Meadows, Dennis & Liz Chandler (Paramount Studios in Hollywood)
I dedicate the writing of this web page to Steve Allen and his wife Jayne Meadows. We met these precious people when we were interviewed by them for the 1990 National Leukemia Televent. (Dennis was the telethon’s only featured adult survivor that year!)
I never thought back then, that one day I’d have the wherewithal of time, mind and spirit to finally get to do what Steve said to do, “Write!” Especially to put into words our Journey Through Affliction, as we called Dennis’ battle with leukemia. Steve wanted Dennis to write a book and even offered to show him how. But Dennis shared, “I realize there are many things I have yet to do with my life and particularly through my music.” That’s when Steve said to Dennis, “God brought you back for a reason. I’d like to hear what music you will write now.” As for writing words, Steve turned to me and told me, “You do it. Write about this time.” I answered, “I wouldn’t know where to even begin.” Steve said, “Just start. You’ll be given the words.” Well, here’s a start.
Journey Through Affliction
by Liz Chandler
November 1987, Dennis had symptoms of fatigue, shortness of breath and for the first time in 10 years; he had stopped jogging his daily 6-mile run. His feeling so fatigued really frightened me. He was much too quiet and vague when I asked him how he felt. I found myself thinking that something was seriously wrong and I prayed, asking to be lead what to do next. Like an answered prayer, I heard Dennis wonder aloud, albeit in feeble voice; “What was the name of the doctor the Palmerios said was a good diagnostic doctor?” (They’re the dear folks who chose to sell their precious home to us the previous year and Dennis was referring to a conversation we had; in which they suggested if we ever needed a doctor, etc.) Here Dennis and I were thinking about the same thing at the same time. That was not unusual because ever since meeting Dennis in 1965, I often felt things didn’t just happen fortuitously for us. We were then in our eighteenth year of marriage, still happily tuned into one another (or so it seemed). But this time this moment of synchronicity had such somber overtones. Little did I know it would be the beginning of his long lengthy battle with leukemia. We are victorious now and as I look back from where I sit, so to speak, it makes me just marvel how God has His hand on us.
For example, like when I called to get an appointment with that doctor and there was no opening, I tried naming dropping our mutual friends, Bob & Bobbi Palmerio. That found favor with the doctor’s appointment secretary and she said she would try to squeeze us in at the end of that day (a Friday). Dr. C.W. Lee examined Dennis and drew blood from him to be sent to a lab. But, he said, he wouldn’t get results until Monday as the courier had already made his rounds (or so he thought). We went home to wait out the weekend (or so we thought.) Fortunately, a freakish snowstorm delayed that courier and they were able to include Dennis’ blood sample to be sent for testing.
Then the terrible news: Dennis had leukemia! The lab called Dr. Lee at home immediately upon analyzing Dennis’ blood work, instructing him to get his patient “to an emergency room as soon as possible!” It was then that Dr. Lee called me on the telephone to confer with oncologist Dr. Hoon Park, about what to do next. I was told not to tell Dennis it was leukemia! They were concerned about the complications of trauma added to his already fatigued condition. I remember praying, “Lord, make me an actress.” It was the most awful moment of my life and that’s what I remember. When I hung up, I didn’t think I was strong enough to play out the planned subterfuge but with the sheer grace of God, I did.
The scheme was that we wouldn’t tell Dennis it was cancer but that it was anemia. Anemia or not, Dennis felt going to the hospital that night wasn’t a priority since the next day was my birthday and he “didn’t want to ruin it by being in some hospital”. He refused to go.
That night was the most awful night of my life. I pretended to sleep but my crying jags made me physically sick and my restlessness disturbed Dennis. He asked why I was so upset and I answered that I couldn’t bear the thought of him being sick. He said he wasn’t sick just tired and it was probably nothing to be so concerned about. He became so fatigued, he finally fell into a deep sleep and I was able to smother the sounds of my crying with my pillow. As the long night grew into day, I knew Dennis had to be taken to the hospital as early as possible that morning. Dr. Park had told me, “Tell him it might be pernicious anemia so as to get him to go to the hospital. It would not be morally or ethically responsible to delay further”. The doctors were concerned that any trauma could cause bleeding in the blood/ brain barrier, I think is the way they put it.
Thankfully Bill Gorse, a dear friend of the family whom I had called, pretended to drop by for my birthday. It was he who convinced Dennis to get checked out by saying “Oh, do it for Liz and give her a little peace of mind for her birthday.” He continued the ruse by even offering to drive, saying he could tell we both were tired and that it was a long ride to East Cleveland. Besides, he told Dennis, he’d blocked out time for a catch up visit with him, too. It worked and we went to the hospital. Dr. Park directed us to take him to Meridia Huron. He said, “that if Dennis makes it thru this night; and if he makes it thru the necessary aggressive chemos treatments, he will need a lot of bed care. This teaching hospital can provide the kind of care that will be needed.”
In the waiting room of the emergency room, Bill, an engaging conversationalist, was able to distract Dennis with chitchat. I stole away to telephone for help from another emotionally strong stalwart, Ben Schechter. Besides being close friends, (literally for he, his wife Holly and dear sons Benji and Harry were our next door neighbors for 13 years), he was also our dentist. It was my thinking that with Ben being a doctor, Dennis wouldn’t think twice if he serendipitously “ran into us” at the hospital. I needed him to help keep Dennis there. He kept wanting to leave, saying he didn’t think we should bother emergency room staff for a case of anemia.
It was agonizing; waiting to be processed. Then one of the clerks was handed a telephone message slip from the doctor. It had only one word written beside the patient’s name and Dennis, who has a habit from his bank teller days of being able to read upside, almost saw it! The word? leukemia. But just then Ben walked in, acting surprised to see us. Fortunately, that worker picked up on what was going down; including my jaw dropping. The moment of panic passed as she pretended to nonchalantly discard the message slip. She promptly processed us.
After emergency doctors drew Dennis’ blood sample, they told him he’d feel less fatigued if they transfused him right away. The three of us were told to stay with him and to keep him calm. Dennis was preoccupied chatting with Ben, who successfully avoided playing doctor and answering his many questions about anemia. Dennis received several transfusions. He did feel better and that’s thanks, in no small part, to Bill being there along with the good Dr. Schechter. Gentle Ben put Dennis at ease about the hospital setting, possible upcoming scenarios, etc. setting him up for what was to come.
Once stabilized, he was told the truth that it was not anemia but leukemia. It took awhile to sink in that he might not make it thru the night. Cavalier in nature, Dennis always seemed to face tough times with great emotional strength. But, facing mortality was something else. He turned to me in a flood of emotions and said, “Oh, I never got do my music!” In that instant, I felt some of the same sick-missed-opportunity feeling he was expressing, but I also felt bewildered.
I felt I had missed signals about how important music was to Dennis. I thought I could not have been more caring about his playing. Even Dennis’ fellow band members, when once asked if all the spouses were supportive of music, said, “No, but Liz’s one to know enough to chase Dennis out of the house to go play somewhere. That’s where a musician’s most happiest; making music for people.” But, his exclamation about not doing his own music really troubled me. It’s hard to describe the feeling but it was way beyond any hit-in-the-solar-plexus feeling. I was truly sick at heart. With the gravity of the situation, all I could think was Dennis’ state of physical health. I told him, we’d work on his state of psychological health when he got over this first hurdle. Then I told myself that, to paraphrase Scarlet O’Hara, I’d “think about it tomorrow”.
Fortunately, he made it through the night. The next morning we met the oncologist who had schemed with Dr. Lee and me over the telephone how to handle Dennis’ situation. I’ll never forget Dr. Hoon Park coming into the hospital room, reading the chart and exclaiming incredulously, “Oh, you should have been dead… with a 1.47!” (red blood count)
Other mind-boggling numbers? His hemo: 5.1 vs. normal 14 to 15, his hemato: 16% vs. normal: 45-55%, his differential count: 20% vs. 13%, his platelets: 39,000 vs. normal 150,000 to 500,000, and his white blood count: 1,940 vs. normal 5,000 to 10,000!
Thanksgiving Day ’87, another day I’ll never forget. It was 5 days since he had been admitted, stabilized with blood transfusions. Doctors anxiously awaited test results from his bone marrow to classify what type leukemia so chemotherapy treatments could be prepared. Type AML was diagnosed and it was determined treatment was to begin immediately that day, Thanksgiving Day or not. Chemos were blended and along with the turkey dinner Dennis ordered; he got his first chemo (and proceeded to lose his dinner, so to speak.)
For the next several weeks Dennis underwent chemo treatments. Then “Our Miracle” happened! While withstanding the rigors and ravages of the chemos and their many side effects, he was “spoken” to with theses words: “Go back, my son, your calling is on earth, not in Heaven!” and then again later with the words: “I am the Lord…you are my son…I will heal you completely…you believe in me!” Upon hearing this promise he exclaimed to everyone, “the next bone marrow will be clean of cancer cells. I know for I was made a promise.” Bone marrow was taken and tested: he was in remission. And 32 days after being admitted, Dennis was sent home. It was the night before Christmas Eve.
Home for the holidays, indeed. Months passed. Dennis was very slow to rebound from the first chemos. He rode the roller coaster of side effects. He craved certain foods only to be repulsed when he tasted them. (Thank God for the food supplement, Ensure. One nurse started to tell Dennis, “Some people react to the drink by…” but he cut her off saying, “that’s some people. I’m going to love it and please don’t tell me otherwise!” He did love it and it helped save his life.) As for the other side effects: Mouth-sores were managed with medication. Photo and hearing sensitivity were adjusted to. Hair loss was expected and accepted. Weight loss and the degree of physical change were not. Although we adjusted, others were frightened by his appearance. That took some adjusting to and we did: I shut the world out.
Germs can’t be shut out and infections prove to be of great danger to leukemia patients. One time, Dennis landed back in the hospital was because of his body’s lack of ability to fight off infections. His body also had difficulty controlling temperature. He’d have chills so we’d try heat. Then he’d have fevers so we’d try ice packs. And always, the night sweats. Until his body re-adjusted, we seem to be playing a version of musical chairs: musical beds.
Another time Dennis’ fever was particularly high and wouldn’t break, so he was re-admitted. Dennis sent me home for a little break but then the hospital called for me to come back. They wanted me to be there before they administered a certain antibiotic. I was told they preferred family to be there, since this antibiotic sometimes is known to give cardiac problems! Later I learned it was called amphaterrecin, an old reliable antibiotic that fell out of favor because of its roughness. Nurses have nicknamed it “ampha-terrible” but it is known “to do the trick” and it did, thank God. (The nurses told me that night he had a record fever, 106.1!)
I think that was the night of the BIG shake. Shakes were his body’s reaction to transfusions of blood platelets. After some of them, he’d joke about rock’n'rollin’ through it. But, not so funny one time when we witnessed him being packed in ice again and nurses readied a machine for a “code blue”. Then just as he shook so much he seemed to be ready to levitate off the bed, he calmly told us all not to worry and to remember he was made a promise to be healed.
Another harried rush to the emergency room (for transfusions) was when his blood wouldn’t clot properly. That night, divine discernment again led me. This time it was to come home to find him bleeding profusely. To explain, Dennis insisted he was well enough to be left alone and that I should go to where his dear friend B.B.King was performing. The blues legend, who offered to serve as a father figure to Dennis always preferred to visit with us, in person. For the past twenty years, he would always send for us to come to where he was touring and/or performing. Well, he happened to be at the Front Row Theatre where we knew everyone and so Dennis said it “would be an easy in, an easy out” and to just “Go!” Reluctantly, I left. After visiting B.B. at the Front Row, backstage manager and driver Jim Kendzierski pulled up the limo and all of a sudden WE HAD THIS TERRIBLE FEELING TO GET BACK TO DENNIS. Being as it was so late and no one was on the road, we sped all the way in the limo. We got there quickly and safely but only to find he had been bleeding profusely all the time I was away! Another race to the hospital, this time a bloody one that landed him in intensive care for 3 days. (All those days the dear Palmerios stayed with me in the solarium outside his room.) Once stabilized he again remained in reverse isolation.
On the subject of isolation: it is said that an only child will learn to live in the room of his mind and for Dennis that skill came to again serve him well. But, was Dennis ever really alone? Perhaps another time I will write of the tales told me of how Dennis and I came to mind in either thought or in the dreams of many different people.
But for now I must tell one striking story told me by a then stranger to us, Alma, a doctor’s office receptionist. Long before Dennis went to the aforementioned Dr. C.W. Lee, I took him to another doctor because he was suffering with a sore throat, or so we thought. Remember the above-mentioned friend, Jimmy Kendzierski, who worked at the Front Row Theater? He told me he often would take ailing stars to Eye, Nose and Throat specialist Dr. Charles Cassady (who happened to be a neighbor of mine). He suggested I take Dennis to him. Well, when I called his office requesting an immediate appointment, a lady named Alma answered. She said that it was already too late in the day. I offered that I was a neighbor of the Cassadys and did he make house calls for, what we thought was, laryngitis? She said no, but since she knew how long it takes the doctor to get there from his North Hill home in Solon, if I could I make it there in the time left, she’d squeeze us in.
I’ll never forget what happened when we entered that office. After I said “I hope we made it in time to see the doctor. I called. I’m the neighbor. I’m Liz.” She answered, “Hi, I’m Alma.” And poked her head out of the little receptionist window and said “Oh, and this must be the patient? He said, “How could you tell?” Alma answered, “You don’t look so good!” Dennis retorted, “Well, I don’t feel so good either!” Then Alma blurted out something I never forgot,”Well, you ain’t dead yet!” We all laughed and we proceeded in to see Dr. Cassady. (Dennis did have laryngitis and he prescribed some medicine and we went home.)
That happened weeks before that fateful night in the hospital when Dennis had his near-death experience (of being spoken to “Go back, my son, your calling is on earth, not in heaven”, etc.). Not too long after that night, I answered the phone at home and a lady said, “Hi, I don’t know if you remember me from when you and your husband came to Dr. Cassady’s office, but my name is..” and I interrupted her with “I know, I remember you. Your name is Alma.” She exclaimed “Yes, that’s right. I’m glad you remembered but I have to ask how is your husband doing? (I didn’t know what she meant.) She said she didn’t know where to begin to explain why she was calling. I could tell she was apprehensive. I told her nothing would surprise me at this point. (She didn’t know what I meant.) So I explained how Dennis was all right now but that he was still in the hospital being treated for leukemia. Alma screamed “Oh, that explains everything! I was awakened from a deep sleep and felt forced to pray for this man named Dennis, someone I barely remember meeting. But, I did stay in fervent prayer on my knees the whole night until I exhausted myself.” I was stunned but not too surprised because this wasn’t the only such incident that was told to us.
Years passed but I never forgot and I often wondered what happened to “that lady, Alma”. Then during the summer of 1998, the mayor of Eastlake stopped Dennis and me, as we were walking around their new classic car cruise that had just begun the previous week. Mayor Dan DiLiberto said to Dennis, “I understand that you have a band and that if I had you play here you would draw more cruisers.” Dennis asked who told him that? He answered “Alma”.
Neither Dennis nor myself made the connection that this classic car cruiser named Alma was one and the same. Dennis played for the whole summer there at that cruise and still we didn’t make the connection. The crazier part of the story is that because we both got recruited to sell raffle tickets (she as an officer of the car club and me being with the band) we often shared the same picnic table! There we were weekly sharing space, food, friends and always bopping to the beat of the band. But never, ever did we figure out we knew one another before. Not until spring of ’99. That’s when she called.
Alma left a message that said she was cleaning out an old telephone book and noticed my name in it. But, it was a different number than the one the mayor had for us. She tried the old number, and as soon as she heard my voice on the outgoing message, something clicked about us having had a phone chat, a long time ago. The machine recorded her astonished tone and as she tried to explain, she concluded with “What a time to remember such a blessing. The start of Holy Week.” (Passover and Easter!)
I figured out why I had a mental block about Alma. Up and until meeting this Alma, I never knew anybody else with that name except for someone from high school. So whenever I wondered about Alma-the-nurse, my brain kept recalling Alma-the-classmate. But, that day when I heard Alma-the-cruiser’s voice on our answering machine, it was like the scales were removed from my eyes. I could see her face clearly as the woman who stuck her head out the receptionist window and said to Dennis, “Oh, you must be the patient. You don’t look so good!” And my ears seemed to become unplugged because there was that voice. The one that quipped in retort to Dennis’ saying, “I don’t feel so good either” when she said that shocking comment, “Well, you ain’t dead yet!” It shows you that the Lord can use anybody in any way He chooses.
To understand why Dennis particuarly enjoys performing music for crusin’ audiences, let me explain further… During chemo treatments he looked forward to rebounding in time to play these summer gigs with his band. He lived to play these gigs. Why? A big major reason was he felt safe playing outdoors. He had been told to control his environment i.e., the air around him whenever possible. They said to avoid secondhand smoke! (Known to cause leukemia because benzene exists in secondhand smoke.) At first we thought not be able to play anywhere? What a BIG price to pay. Or did Dennis almost pay the price because of all the years playing (since his teens) in so many smokey places? But, that was then, this was now. Where was he going to play? Fortunately, for Dennis, love of classic cars and classic music proved to be important to baby boomer types, too. Hence demand for his renditions of classic car cruisin’ music (roots rock and blues) hit big, too, fortunately.
Determination to make his playing engagements gave Dennis quick and clear thinking when it came time to make one hard choice. It was back when Dennis decided to take the option of a round of what they called “consolidation chemos”. A treatment that was used to “blow out the bone marrow so as to insure there would not be a missed cancer cell hidden somewhere”, was how it was explained to us. We both felt confident spiritually and we felt success would come if the good Lord willed it. He did. We were blessed. Dennis made it (and all the dates on that calendar). Talk about a musical mindset.
Now that we have come far, far out of the woods, so to speak, other survivors tell us to do the things we never got to do. To do the things we always wanted to do. To do the things we enjoy. I see that inspiration can come from reflecting on past missed- opportunities, too. From where I sit, I see that such shouda-woulda-coulda feelings can be healthy motivators. It is often said, “Each day is a gift”. We’ve come to believe maybe each day is a mini-lifetime and as the good Lord leads, we follow and that’s all that matters.
Dennis and I both are grateful to all those folks who prayed for us. To all the ministers, priests and rabbis who prayed, from the shores of Cleveland to the Western Wall in Jerusalem…. thank you. May the good Lord bless you back, ten thousand fold.
The following printed bookmark was given to us during “The Journey”.
“I ASKED GOD”
I asked God for strength,
that I might achieve,
I was made weak
to humbly obey.
I asked for health,
that I might do greater things,
I was given infirmity
that I might do better things.
I asked for riches,
that I might be happy,
I was given poverty,
that I might be wise.
I asked for power,
that I might have
the praise of men,
I was given weakness,
that I might feel
the need of God.
I asked for all things,
that I might enjoy life,
I was given life,
that I might
enjoy all things.
I got nothing
that I asked for-
I had hoped for.
Almost despite myself,
my unspoken prayers
I am among all men
most richly blessed.