Larry could talk to anyone. He was someone who could meet people on their own terms. He could discuss street drugs at a base level, or chemical composition in academic terminology. The night I met him, he was making his way down the hall, chatting with other patients, stopping when he got to the desk at the nurse’s station.
I was two months into my first year in nursing school. At age 18 I already had two years of nurse’s aide experience behind me (see previous blog), and was working evening and weekend shifts to help support myself and my mother while I went to school. Larry was a patient on 1-South—the orthopedic ward- down the hall from where I was working this night. 1- West was a medical ward, and the endpoint of what was an exercise lap for the patients told to “get out of bed and walk.”
I saw him there, a little over six feet tall in a double hospital gown, one reversed to become a “bathrobe”. He stood on his left foot and a pair of crutches. His right leg was missing. This was not a war injury, even though it was 1969, and many of my own high school classmates were fighting and dying in Viet Nam.
Larry had bone cancer.
I was to learn that he was 19 years old, a pre-med student at Florida Presbyterian College, and a local athlete and hero of sorts. After that evening we had a standing “date”. I would take my break and we would walk, or visit the cafeteria vending machines. He was learning to handle crutches, and making mental plans for how his life would now change. He was optimistic. He could handle it.
In 1969 they kept you in the hospital forever. No same day surgery and out the door. Larry was in rehab, working on his balance, learning how to deal with daily activities such as shaving without falling over. A few nights later, he did not show up for our usual meeting. I went looking for him. He was there, in his bed, back to the door, curled up and silent. He had had a follow-up X ray that day. He was healing nicely. For some reason they had also taken a chest film. His cancer had spread to the lung.
Gone was the optimism, the hope, the ready smile. They had told him his life was over, that he would die of lung cancer, and that he should consider how he wished to spend the time he had left.
They had offered him surgery, but had left him with little hope that even with that he would be cured. Today it would be different. Today there are more options. But then—and in Florida—things were different, medicine was less advanced, less aggressive, and people had different choices. Larry was in no emotional condition to choose anything at that point. I watched him fall into a deep depression.
Two days later I was surprised to see him crutching his way down the hall. He had not left his room in 48 hours, refusing rehab, refusing visitors. Suddenly, he was back. I asked him about it. He told me Eldora came down on him with a vengeance and screamed him out of the bed. Eldora Moore (this is her real name) was a no nonsense middle aged nurse’s aide on 1-South. She told him she was tired of him feeling sorry for himself when he still had a chance to live so much of his life. He realized he could have countered anything she said—but something resonated, and her words got him up and living again.
During his illness, Larry was interviewed by a newspaper reporter named Bob Chick. Bob taped their interviews for two years, and chronicled the progress of Larry’s illness. For some reason, in the article, there was a drawn picture of a nameless white nursing assistant leaning over Larry’s bed. . But Larry told me what Eldora..a plump and motherly black lady..meant to him. He credited her with giving him back his hope and determination. So I name her here, today.
Larry was discharged, and we began dating for real. I wasn’t certain what I wanted in life, but I knew it could possibly be this guy. I met his family and his friends. I watched him play timed chess in the park..and usually win. I laughed while he and my grandfather—a left leg amputee—discussed how they would shop for shoes together and split the pair. We didn’t have a lot of time, but we spent it as well as we could, with me in school and working. Meanwhile, Larry was deciding what to do in his remaining time.
He continued in school..but changed his course of study, taking photography classes. He had long discussions with his family. He had long discussions with me. He spent time with his friends.
He was torn, of course. Our discussions actually included the possibility of getting married and trying to have a child. Or not getting married and trying to have a child. He wanted that..and at the same time he wanted to pack as much living into his life as he could. He couldn’t be tied to that kind of commitment and do all of the rest of the things he dreamed of doing.
In the end, we came to our senses. We were kids, and everything was immediate and emotional. But common sense won out, and I supported him in his desire to go out and live. He and a few friends had decided to buy a van and fill it with camping and photography equipment, and just travel the US for as long as they could. His family wanted him close—but they also wanted him to live as much as he could. So it was decided.
Larry did not give up. He did agree to treatment, having to stop along the way in his travels to receive medication which invariably made him very ill just a few hours after administration. Eventually he went to New York for experimental treatment, but he seemed to know time was running out.
We lost touch. I don’t know the final details. I really only know what I read in the articles Bob Chick published after Larry’s death on May 15, 1971. He was 21 years old. Today marks the 40th anniversary of his passing. I have even lost the first article of the five published. I am trying to find them in the archives of the St. Petersburg Evening Independent. Bob’s articles were published the following September. I am grateful for them. They fill in a lot of gaps.
For today, I just want to pay tribute to a life cut much too short, and a memory of a road never taken.
RIP, Larry S. Newman. 1950-1971.