Dec302013

Tony Bliss 1966-2012: Rest in Peace

Real estate news coverage is suspended from December 21 through December 31.

Rest In Peace My Friend

Tony’s last post, “Burn, Baby, Burn” was published on October 12, 2012.  Unfortunately, Tony never received his bone marrow transplant, and he passed away on the evening of November 17, 2012.  And, in many ways, his Blog journey was incomplete.  I was fortunate to have spent much of that last month with Tony, his family and several of his friends.  Larry has asked me to fill in the gap in information here.  I’ve tried to describe what happened from my perspective during that last month, although I have left out some very personal items that were shared between Tony and me and Tony and his family during that last month.  The tone of this post is necessarily and deliberately different than of those posted by Tony’s because, unfortunately, we know the outcome.

The same day that Tony posted the last entry in his blog, I flew from Kansas City to Houston to spend a long weekend visiting Tony and Deborah.  I arrived sometime late in the afternoon and immediately called Tony to let him know I had arrived and was on my way.  Tony was actually at one of the MD Anderson clinics receiving some treatment when I arrived, so he asked me to come by the hospital to give Deborah some relief.  About thirty seconds later, Tony called me back and asked me to reprise my high-school job and pick up a pizza from Pizza Hut for dinner on my way in.  I was happy to oblige, and the two of us got to share a medium, pan crust, Italian sausage and Canadian bacon pizza.  As you can see from the picture below, we both were looking forward to dinner.

MY LAST DELIVERY.

During most of that weekend, Tony was feeling pretty good, and he was optimistic about getting to take the trial drug to control his lymphoma so he could get to the transplant.  We hung out at his apartment; we went to watch Argo; we went out to eat at Tony and Deborah’s favorite Italian restaurant in Houston; and, on Sunday morning, Tony and I even went to a nearby park and took a two mile walk.  In some ways, this was an uplifting weekend for me.  I had previously visited Tony during August when he was admitted to the hospital and suffering from the blood clot in his throat that he so eloquently described in an earlier post.  In August, he looked terrible; he was hardly conscious; he was mostly drugged up; and, we hardly interacted at all.  So, despite him being tired, my level of concern was much lower during this visit.  We did, however, have some very frank conversations about his condition, and I was truly forced to face his mortality for the first time.  He expressed some very personal thoughts about possibly leaving behind a family and so many dear friends.  However, the overall sense was one of optimism, and I went to bed Sunday night feeling great about the visit.

However, my optimism took a bit of a hit when I woke up Monday morning to a text from Deborah indicating that Tony had gone to the emergency room a few hours after I went back to my hotel because he was in a great deal of pain.  I still caught my early Monday morning flight home, but was a bit more worried.  My apprehension continued to grow when during the next two weeks I didn’t really receive any news from Tony, no calls, no texts, no updated blog posts.  My calls to Tony went unreturned.  Deborah informed me that Tony was dealing with some infections, continued issues with platelet levels, and continued setbacks in terms of timing for reaching the transplant.

On Thursday, November 1, Deborah let me know that the latest attempt at chemo had been discontinued because it was not working at all.  Not surprisingly, Tony was devastated and depressed as it was becoming clear that the transplant was not going happen and that the treatment options were exhausted.  The following day, Deborah asked if I would come down to visit.  I immediately packed up my car and headed down to Houston.

When I arrived on the afternoon of November 3, Tony was in the emergency room due to severe pain and respiratory issues.  After checking in to my hotel, I went up to the ER and sat with Tony while Deborah and her sister took a break.  They had been in the ER since 11 pm the night before.  Tony had been diagnosed as having pneumonia, and they were looking to get him admitted to the hospital for treatment.  Tony was fairly alert, and we were able to talk while he was awake, although he had fits of coughing and extreme pain.  But true to his character, Tony felt compelled to try to embarrass me by mentioning to one of the nurses that I had been waiting more than thirty years for the opportunity to hold his hand in public, and it had finally arrived.

Nearly 24 hours after arriving at the ER, Tony was admitted to the hospital for treatment.  It was soon discovered that in addition to pneumonia, Tony was suffering from an infection in the blood as well.  Fortunately, the broad spectrum antibiotics prescribed for the pneumonia would likely work for the other infection as well.  Tony was still in a great deal of pain, and was on IV pain killers as well, which made him sleep a lot and he was a bit mentally checked out.  For the next few days, it was a waiting game for the most part.  I’d spend a good deal of time sitting with Tony, even though we never really interacted much.  However, during those days, Tony gave me the best gift a person could ever ask for.  On Sunday November 3, Tony was never really conscious or interactive.  He was mostly sleeping, but would occasionally say something that seemed out of context or unintelligible.  However, early in the evening, when a nurse came in to check on him, the nurse asked Tony if he knew who I was.  He looked at me, and loudly, clearly, and without any hesitation, he said “He’s my best friend in the whole wide world!”.  I know that we probably talked more in the next day or two, but those still stick with me as the last words he ever said to me.

TONY AND I ON MY WEDDING DAY

On the afternoon of November 6, 2012, Tony sat up in bed and began coughing.  He was also having difficulty breathing.  Deborah and I were both there, but she was taking a nap.  I knew Tony was due for some pain medication, and I called the nurse to see if we might administer it a little ahead of schedule to let Tony calm down and get back to sleep.  However, when she came in, she immediately determined that Tony was in respiratory arrest and called a code.  The next few minutes were complete chaos and emotionally difficult as the room swarmed with more medical personnel than you can imagine.  I can still feel the helplessness, not knowing what was happening and not being able to do anything meaningful.  Eventually, Tony was taken to the Intensive Care Unit, sedated and intubated with the hope that the antibiotics could work while his body rested and healed.

When Tony moved to the ICU, his family and Deborah’s family all headed to Houston.  I took the opportunity to head home to Kansas City to see my family before returning the following Monday, November 12.  By this time, it was apparent that there was nothing more to be done in terms of treating the cancer, and the goal was to get Tony healthy enough to return home to Little Rock for hospice care.  Unfortunately, not even that was possible.  On Friday, it was decided to give him one more opportunity to be weaned from the respirator.  It did not work; and, on Saturday November 17, Tony was removed from the respirator and put on comfort care alone.  The ICU rules were waived and Deborah, Tony’s father and mother, and several friends were allowed to enter and sit with him during his last hours.  About 9:40 pm on November 17, 2012, my best friend in the whole wide world passed away.

Even after more than a year, it was a difficult exercise for me to piece together the events of the last month of Tony’s life.  But in retrospect, I’m fortunate to have been able to be there with him and his family.  Although Tony and I remained very close after college, we were often separated by great distance and did not see each other in person that often, so being with him over that time was something I’ll always cherish.  I was also gladdened to see the outpouring of support for Tony by so many people from some many different parts of his life.  There were comments on his blog from people that represented his childhood and schooling in Rogers, his college years in Conway, his travels to Austria, his work life in Conway and Little Rock, and his family life in North Little Rock.  The fact that he affected so many lives in such a significant manner is a testament to the person that he was.

I also feel compelled to publicly thank my wife and children for understanding how important it was for me to be in Houston during this difficult time.  Without their support I couldn’t have been there for myself and for Tony.  I know that Tony, Deborah and the boys recognized and appreciated their willingness to sacrifice time with me so I could be there for Tony.

Finally, I have to mention that getting to watch the mobilization of the Pike (Deborah’s) and Bliss families during the last days of Tony’s life was truly an amazing sight to behold, and it speaks volumes to the support enjoyed by Tony, Deborah and the boys during this difficult time.  Specifically, Deborah’s sister Sophie was in Houston for most of the last month, and she was unbelievable support for Deborah during this time.  In addition, Lora, Tony’s mother (although she was Tony’s step-mother, he always referred to her as his mother without diminishing the significance of his birth mother who died when Tony was fairly young) was an amazing source of support to Tony’s father and everyone else during the last week.

Tony A. Bliss
of Little Rock, AR
1966 – 2012

Published: November 22, 2012

Tony A. Bliss, 45, of North Little Rock passed away on November 17, 2012 at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston after a courageous battle with cancer. He was born November 21, 1966 in Iowa City, Iowa.

Tony is survived by his wife of 18 years, Deborah; their sons, Adam and Jason; his parents, Lora and Rod Bliss of Jane, Missouri; his sister, Kris Hilmer and her husband, Randy, of Van Buren; step-siblings, Katrina Lewis and Robert Harrison; his AFS son, Nils Fitzen of Dortmund, Germany; and several aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews. He is predeceased by his mother, Joann Fewell.

After graduating from Rogers High School in 1985, Tony attended Hendrix College, earning a B.A. in German in 1989. Following college, he traveled and lived in Austria for two years. Tony was a business analyst with Southwest Power Pool where he made countless friends, as he did wherever he was. In addition to his highly skilled technical career, Tony had many hobbies and talents. After running cross country in high school, he went on to run in several marathons and adventure runs. Tony was especially passionate about photography and taught occasional classes at the Arkansas Arts Center. Camping, playing football, learning to play the banjo and other musical instruments, and doing special projects around the house were some of the many things he loved to do with his boys. Tony was a founding member of the IBVG. Tony felt strongly about community service and volunteered with the Pulaski County Election Commission for 10 years.

Tony chronicled his battle with cancer in a blog, “Let the CLL Games Begin” at http://tbtransplant.wordpress.com/ where he used his great sense of humor to downplay his courageous fight and to keep family and friends updated. His blog was also written to provide an insider’s view to other cancer patients. Tony was asked by M.D Anderson to write a blog for them as well.

Tony and Deborah felt richly blessed by the outpouring of support from their family and friends and would like to give a special thanks to the Sunshine Committee at Southwest Power Pool. There will be a service in celebration of Tony’s life on Saturday, November 24, 2012, at 2 p.m. at Lakewood United Methodist Church in North Little Rock. Family and friends are invited to gather in Gibson Hall following the service. In lieu of flowers, please consider a gift to the American Cancer Society or American Diabetes Association in Tony’s name.

She Said

by Deborah Bliss

Tony always talked about writing a “he said-she said” piece, but he planned on giving both perspectives (wanting to somehow change the natural order of things so that the dialogue was logical to him, I think!).  That I am actually getting in the last word, however, would not surprise him in the least.

When Larry reached out to me about reposting Tony’s blog about his battle with cancer, I knew it would be something Tony would have deeply appreciated. Writing his blog was in many ways a lifeline to him during the few months that wrote it—he felt very strongly about reaching out to other cancer patients.  It also turned into a way for him to create some order, I think, in a time when he had so little control over anything.  There were many days and weeks when he had no heart for writing, but whenever I saw him sitting at the keyboard with his headphones on rocking back and forth to the music as he worked out what he wanted to say, I knew it was a good day.

There are a lot of pictures to tell his story, though not as many as he would have liked (sometimes, not often, I balked at pulling the camera out in the middle of whatever was happening).  Tony wanted to capture every procedure, every physical manifestation, of his experience as another way to share what was happening.  And also because he thought it looked cool.

Tony’s positive attitude was a-mazing.  Pretty much everybody who spent time with him or read his blog commented on it.  While I saw it every day (or almost), there were still times when his energy and gift for looking forward took me utterly by surprise.  Like the day in October when he started his platelet-building pills.  For me (she said), the day went like this:  we showed up at the lab for Tony to get his IV mega-steroid dose, we had to wait too long, I had been down to the pharmacy on the 2nd floor twice already to see if the pills had arrived (we were grateful that our insurance had decided to cover the unbelievably expensive and rare pills, so rare that MD Anderson Cancer Treatment Center didn’t carry them and they had to be special ordered), because if they hadn’t arrived he might have to get more platelets and that would delay when he could start the Newest New Plan for experimental treatment by another 28 days, luckily the pills had arrived and were at the loading dock . . . then when I got them in my hands (Tony had been called back by this time and was receiving his treatment) and read the fine print, the manufacturer warned against somebody with blood cancer taking them so I went upstairs to the 10th floor to see his leukemia doctor and finally got to see his awesome nurse (we loved her) who said the doctor was aware of the risk and wanted to proceed so then I went back to the treatment room where Tony was and give us both some hand gel and then got him some water and got one of the pills out and placed it in his hand and he said, with a smile:  Step one!  (To refresh, after three weeks in the hospital at UAMS in May and then countless days at MD Anderson with test after test and chemo trial after chemo trial interspersed with weeks of wait-and-see, this was October and not by any stretch of the imagination—or mine, anyway, Step One.  But to my awesomely, blessedly, incredibly, powerfully positive husband, this was truly the first step that mattered because it was the next step.)

We spent many an hour counting our blessings while we were away from home in Houston:  time to spend with each other, our boys, our family and friends who were taking care of us and keeping things as normal as possible for the boys during our long absence, the humbling number of friends who put themselves out time and time again to come visit or reach out to us in some way,  his good health insurance, his great MDA doctors and nurses, our hotel room, then our apartment, his great job (friends and benefits), my great job (the same), his good days, and all the prayers that kept us in a cocoon of amazing grace.