Sunday, May 28, 2000

A tough soldier battles a new enemy




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        Listening to Joseph Dee talk about his life is like watching a dozen action films or reading a pile of best-selling thrillers without pausing for breath.

        After three tours in Vietnam, a field commission in the Marines and officers' candidate school, he vowed to himself that he would try to do everything in life that he wanted to do, without excuses.

[photo] JOSEPH AND SANDRA DEE
(Enquirer photo)
        A cross-country motorcycle trip, 2,000 parachute jumps, 14 years as a police officer and a decade as a private investigator are just a few of his milestones. He has been a tough soldier, a sometimes maverick cop, a lover of life.

        Today, at 56, his days are considerably shorter and energy at a premium. His wife, Sandra, has “everything ready to go” for his funeral — a time that may not be far away.

        Some 22 years ago, as a detective for the Hamilton County Sheriff's Department, Mr. Dee was assaulted during a homicide investigation. The blood transfusion required in emergency surgery proved 20 years later to have been contaminated with the hepatitis C virus — a disease that, in its advanced stage, is fatal.

        Since May 1998, when the disease was diagnosed, Mr. Dee has had three courses of chemotherapy (without positive results) and is now considered completely disabled. In addition to fatigue, constant abdominal pain, sporadic vertigo and blurred vision, joint pain and a perpetual flu-like state, Mr. Dee is somewhat haunted by the lack of education and understanding regarding hepatitis C.

        As in his own case, hepatitis C often lies dormant for 20 to 30 years, presenting no symptoms and remaining undiagnosed until an individual is already in an advanced stage. A blood-borne virus, hepatitis C is transmitted through blood transfusions, intravenous drug use and, more rarely, sexual contact.

        Believing that he is in the fortunate position of educating his medical practitioners and doing what he can to promote awareness, Mr. Dee says he is still optimistic. Sure, there are days when he would like to lie down and die; but those moments of quitting are fleeting, he says, and his overall attitude is one of gratitude for the family, friendships, and full life he has enjoyed.

        In an attempt to explain his disease and his feelings to mystified family and friends, Joseph Dee wrote an explanatory letter which he sent via mail or e-mail to at least 20 people. The sentiments he expresses in that letter echo laments heard from others with chronic or fatal illnesses and warrant repeating.

        “If we are talking and I sound happy, in a good mood, or up,” he says, “that is exactly what it means. ... It does not mean that I am not in pain, or extremely tired, or getting better.”

        He does not want to be told that he is not trying hard enough, getting out enough or trying the right alternative medicines. What he does want is for friends to come visit, often, and to understand that “I am still the same guy you know inside this body. I still think about my life, my wife and family, friends and current events. These are still my thoughts and concerns, and I'd like to hear about yours as well.”

        There are several strains of hepatitis, but only one that kills. Hepatitis C affects an estimated 4 million Americans, but the majority of those are as yet undiagnosed. About 10,000 die each year from chronic liver disease.

        Joseph Dee has chosen the priest, the church, and the ceremony for his funeral. He has purchased the cemetery plot and planned the party. If he begins “to fail,” his wife is ready to alert friends around the world via telephone and e-mail. But he is far from waiting to die.

        The highlight of his life these days is realizing the wealth he holds in family and friends. Three weeks ago, his brother came from California for a visit. Two weeks ago, his daughter and grandson arrived. Once every other week, two friends from the brigade he commanded in the National Guard call from Columbus to ask, “Are you still alive?” When he responds, they come and take him to lunch.

        He is pragmatic, knowledgeable and optimistic. “The doctor said the only way to treat me now was palliatively”" he says. “I had to look it up — and that confirmed that it doesn't look good.”

        Right now, his only hope of survival is a cure or a liver transplant. While neither look promising, he is hoping to be included in new drug trials which have had some positive results, continuing with interferon (chemotherapy) and a synthetic morphine patch for the constant pain in his side.

        “My point isn't to cry the blues,” he emphasizes. “It's to take the opportunity I have to educate others about a silent epidemic.”

        This self-proclaimed “hard-nosed soldier” is succeeding admirably.

        Cincinnati writer Deborah Kendrick is a nationally recognized advocate for people with disabilities. Write her at Cincinnati Enquirer, Tempo, 312 Elm St., Cincinnati 45202. E-mail: dkendrick@enquirer.com.

       



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