Editor’s note: The Union Leader is bringing back some of the late Joe Sullivan’s Union Leader sports columns. This one was originally published on Jan. 28, 2003.
MOST HIGH SCHOOL athletes sign them prior to the season: pledges that they won’t smoke, drink, do drugs. In Manchester’s athletics code, it’s No. 9: The possession or use of tobacco, alcoholic beverages or illegal drugs is prohibited by Manchester student/athletes.
Two-thirds of it — the drinking part, the drugging part — I regarded as serious business. The smoking component, however, didn’t strike me as that important. So an athlete smoked a cigarette. Big deal. It wouldn’t kill the kid.
Or so I thought.
Recent events have changed my mind. On Oct. 19, my wife, Denise, passed away. She was 57 years old and full of life. One of her lungs, though, was full of cancer.
As we went from doctor to hospital, from specialist to clinic, from radiation treatments to chemotherapy sessions, no one ever pointed the finger at smoking, but everyone asked the same question: “Did you smoke?”
Denise always nodded. She had smoked. Too often, and for too long. But she quit three years ago. Her three children, her three grandchildren and I all breathed a little easier. Smoking was in her past.
Unfortunately, I believe, it had already touched her future.
One day in late June, Denise stayed home from work. Didn’t feel well. She expected to improve in a few days so she didn’t see a doctor right away. However, she became so weak that walking became difficult for her. She finally scheduled a doctor’s visit, and underwent tests and examinations.
Saturday night, July 13, she told me that if I didn’t get her to a hospital, she wouldn’t be alive the next day.
In the emergency room, doctors found a lung full of liquid. Later, they discovered the tumor causing the problem. It grew where the bronchial tube entered the lung. Its position made it inoperable, the doctors said.
Denise Sullivan never flinched, never sulked, never bemoaned her illness, never thought she wouldn’t beat it. Her oncologist leveled with us when he discussed chemotherapy treatments.
“You have a life-limiting disease,” he said. “Chemotherapy, on average, extends a patient’s life a matter of weeks. There are exceptions, of course, but you have to consider the side effects of the treatments.”
He then listed those side effects and told us to take some time to think things over.
I told the doctor that our son who lived in New York would visit in several days and when he arrived, the entire family could sit and discuss Denise’s options.
She froze me with one of her looks. “There will be no discussion. I’ll start treatments as soon as possible. When do we begin, doctor?”
Earlier in the year, we had hoped that radiation treatments would stop the cancer. They hadn’t. Then we had hoped a long, painful procedure, called a broncoscopy, performed by a specialist at the Lahey Clinic in Burlington, Mass., would help resurrect her collapsed lung and improve her breathing and her quality of life. It hadn’t.
Now our hopes rested on chemotherapy.
Wherever I went during this time, people who knew what was happening asked if there were anything they could do for Denise, for our children, for me. I asked them to pray and thanked them for caring. Some of these people were smokers. I wanted to ask them to stop smoking, but it seemed melodramatic. So I never did.
Denise felt OK on the day she died. Her mom and dad visited. So did our three children and five grandchildren. Her family was everything to her, and she laughed with all of us.
Later that night, though, she bolted from her chair and rushed to the bathroom. Because she was so weak, it astonished me and alarmed me that she moved so quickly.
I always believed that cancer took its toll quietly. I knew Denise was in trouble from our first night in the emergency room, but I expected her to live much longer than she did. I believed that somewhere well into the future she would pass away in her sleep, quietly, peacefully. That’s how I thought cancer operated. I was wrong.
The tumor growing in her lung ate its way into a blood vessel. Telling this tears me apart, but I want her passing to do some good — if that’s possible.
Denise suffered a horrible end. The tumor ruptured the blood vessel it attacked. My wife vomited blood. When she realized what was happening, she looked at me and her eyes said, “Help me.”
I wanted to help her more than I’ve wanted anything in my life. I talked to her, held her, hugged her, loved her, lost her.
Denise Desrochers Sullivan was the finest, kindest, most caring, most loving person I’ve ever met. This week we would have celebrated our 37th wedding anniversary.
Just about everywhere I go, people who know I lost the love of my life ask me how I’m doing. I lie. I say I’m doing OK.
I wish they’d ask me if there is anything they can do. Because now I don’t care if it sounds melodramatic. If they’re smokers, I’d ask them to quit — for themselves and for everyone who loves them. If they’re non-smokers, I’d ask them to stay that way and I’d ask them to encourage smokers they know-like-love to quit.
I don’t know how many athletes read this column. I hope thousands. And I hope today’s words affect them.
As for No. 9 in the Manchester athletics code, the penalty for possession or use of tobacco is suspension from the team, pending investigation. After investigation, the athlete could be removed from all school athletic participation for 60 calendar days.
Most athletes would find those punishments crushing.
They should know this: If they continue to smoke, much worse penalties probably lie in their futures.