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How The Beatles Helped Me Survive Brain Cancer

When you're getting your brain tumor blasted with protons, a masterpiece like the White Album goes a long way towards helping you keep your sanity.

The Beatles 1968’s double-disc record The Beatles (otherwise known affectionately as “The White Album”) has always been one of my all time favorites. But it wasn’t until I got brain cancer that I truly learned to appreciate it, and to understand some of its deeper truths.

For six weeks, I was locked down into a proton therapy machine for 45 minutes at a time, as millions of invisible particles bombarded my brain, trying to burn out the malignant tumor that was growing inside. It may be slightly hyperbolic coming from a music geek like me, but if not for The White Album, I might never have survived that time.

An original vinyl copy of The White Album.

When I was diagnosed with cancer, I had no knowledge of what proton therapy was, or what it entailed. As I was introduced to the treatment, my doctor described the process. It sounded relatively easy, burning out malignant tumor growth in the center of my brain. I joked with him: “So you’re going to shoot lasers into my head?”

“No,” he replied, deadpan-serious. “Proton beams are NOT lasers.”

“Will this be anything like the MRI machine?” I asked. I’d already had a dozen or more MRIs validating the shape and size of my tumor, so I already knew what the experience was like: the claustrophobic feeling of being trapped in that tiny tube, enveloped by blood-curdling blasts of big robotic rumbling. As a professional music critic, I found it especially discordant: an MRI test is the antithesis of music. Luckily they give you earplugs.

“No,” he told me. “You won’t hear a thing.”

But, luckily, that wasn’t true.

Bird’s eye view of getting your brain tumor blasted by protons.

When I disrobed and entered the proton room for the first time, the ambience was forbidding. It was a large space with a high ceiling, and the room was chilly as I lay down on the table. They fitted me with a custom-built hard plastic mask; it fit nugly to my face, assuring that the proton beam could direct its blast to the precise spot of my tumor. Once I lay down, the mask was clipped to the table, locking me–and my head–in place.

“Do you like music? We have a few CDs over here if you’d like to listen to something while we go through our business setting up,” the nurse asked me.

I get asked about music a lot, but I’m always hesitant to make suggestions. I feel like my brain is so full of music that I can barely pick out one or two songs without worrying that the whole piñata will explode.

Keep it simple, man, I told myself. “Do you have The Beatles?”

“Ah, we do! The White Album, does that work?”

“Oh my god, that’s amazing. Yes, please.”

A blessing from the universe. Everything about The White Album has fascinated me, ever since I first heard it. It represents an epochal moment in music history.

The year is 1968. The Beatles were splintering. After a couple months spent hanging out in Rishikesh, India with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and smoking plenty of grass, The Beatles had written some of the best pop songs ever. But a different kind of cancer than my own had found root in the band. Experts differ on what it was: was it John and Yoko’s relationship? Was it Paul’s perfectionism? Was it Ringo’s feeling disrespected, or George’s deep dive into Hinduism?

Whatever it was, by the time they came together to complete one of their last original albums, they could barely be in the same room together. The record is entirely built piece by piece, like slowly healing scars.  Each song demonstrated the strength of the writer, but revealed how distant these individual band members had become from the group. Once complete, the work became one of the last records they’d ever make together.

The only thing that stopped me from dancing was the fact that I was locked to the table, getting my brain blasted with protons.

Despite the tumult, it just worked. And that record kept me sane, seeming to reflect my own experience of being treated for cancer in a space oddly melodic in its own discord.

Paul’s tongue-in-cheek rocker “Back in the USSR” starts with the sound of a jet plane taking off. It was an energetic  launch pad for my radiation room, but I found the humor in it: it always gave me a smile. The only thing that stopped me from dancing was the fact that I was locked to the table, getting my brain blasted with protons.

But that’s just the blast-off. Part of what defines The White Album is its melancholy edge. Although the tracks first seem saccharine sweet, each song has an undercurrent of pain, weeping, and need.

The only truly silly song, “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”, may have been a cute track, but it caused tumult within the band. Everyone hated it but Paul. But that song is quickly balanced out by the powerhouse of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” where George’s breath itself sounds like it hurts.

From there, we lead directly into “Happiness is a Warm Gun.” That’s what this album is to me: the happiness of a warm gun. Each and every song has a trigger: my nerves tingle, my body couldn’t move.

Rocking out on the therapy table.

“Martha My Dear” sings: When you find yourself in the thick of it. Just like I’m in the thick of it now.

I read “I’m So Tired” as a cancer song. I don’t know what to do. My mind is set on you? I’d give you everything I’ve got for a piece of mind. And forgiving the pun, do I hear that: I’d give anything for some piece of mind after all this.

So even though I’ve heard the White Album a thousand times, and will probably hear it a thousand more, I never really heard it like I did then. Every time I left the treatment room, I felt rejuvenated: the war on my cancer, the power of science and my own body, all melting away into the audiophonic bliss of an album that sometimes felt like it had been written just for what I was going through.

Not going to lie. Some days I felt the willingness to allow despair to win. Some moments I didn’t want to go to treatment at all. I went day in and day out for weeks. It was a tough time where my heart was constantly racing, and I was battling doubt at every moment. But music puts hope around me… and, more specifically, the White Album does it for me, maybe more than any other. And if I had to explain why, I’d say it’s because it’s an album that prays for you.

Music puts hope around me… and, more specifically, the White Album does it for me. It’s an album that prays for you.

Since the White Album is 93 minutes long, and my proton beams sessions only half that, the last song I heard every session was “Blackbird.” It’s a deeply peaceful track, where the titular blackbird chirps in the background, while Paul sings a haunting coda:

Blackbird singing in the dead of night

Take these broken wings and learn to fly

All your life

You were only waiting for this moment to arise

You were only waiting for this moment to arise

You were only waiting for this moment to arise

Now, my kids are asleep, and I’m listening to the record on my headphones, thinking about my treatment. The whole experience feels so distant, like it was all a dream or a strange piece of performance art. Perhaps when the White Album was put together, the band brought back bittersweet moments for them, too.

The Beatles playing together for the last time.

But the music of the White Album transcends The Beatles’ in-fighting, just like it transcends cancer and proton beams. It’s not about the regrets of the past, or the fears of the future. It’s just a moment, piercing into right now, whether that now is in your headphones or strapped to a table while protons get shot into your brain.

Later, when they played their last performance standing on a London rooftop, the end happened but then the “you” was the listener, us! We took that music and translated it into something beyond words, beyond The Beatles, beyond proton beams, beyond cancer. It’s just a moment, piercing into the now.

The way music is supposed to be.

Right now.

Essays

My Blade Runner Eyes

Photographer Nadya Lev was the toast of the fashion world, but it was only when she started going blind that she really learned how to shoot.

When I was 21, I shot my first magazine cover. It was for the 50th anniversary of Skin Two, a magazine of sex and fashion. The theme of the issue was “medical fetish.” At the time, the notion of having a chronic health issue was so foreign to me that it was easy to find exotic beauty in the trappings of sickness. My model wore a latex posture corset meant to evoke Victorian medical braces. Her arms were wrapped in long rubber gloves. Surgical scissors and Wartenberg wheels decorated her hair, which was coiled up in medical tubing.

That year, I became a well-known photographer within a few  niche subcultures. I shot nine more covers, for magazines with names like Elegy and Fiend. The models who had inspired me to begin taking photos flew to my city to work with me. I found myself on the lifetime guest list for every overseas party I grew up dreaming of one day attending. Over time, thanks in no small part to my gifted collaborators, my work entered the mainstream. Italian Vogue, MTV, VH1, Elle, Marie Claire, New York Magazine, and Harper’s Bazaar published my work in features on underground fashion.

Then, I had 15 eye surgeries. I went partially blind, and learned to navigate my world through a maze of hallucination-like visual distortions. And that’s when my photography truly reached the next level.

I had 15 eye surgeries. I went partially blind… And that’s when my photography truly reached the next level.

It all began with a LASIK surgery gone wrong. After a perfectly normal initial procedure, I had a complication called “corneal melt.” Just like people have a dominant hand, they also have a dominant eye. And my dominant eye’s cornea had gotten abnormally scarred as it healed from LASIK. The surface of the cornea took on the curvature of a funhouse mirror, and everything refracted though it began look askew. I now look back fondly on this (at the time devastating) period as an innocent time when most of my vision was still intact, because it was only a year later that shit got real. At 28, according to doctors at UCSD, I became the second-youngest person in medical literature to be diagnosed with genetically-inherited PXF glaucoma: a particularly aggressive type of eye disease that normally affects people over 65.

Glaucoma is a disease in which pressure builds up inside the eye, causing progressive and irreversible damage to the optic nerves. When the optic nerves become damaged, vision begins to decrease – first peripherally, then at the center. Glaucoma can’t be cured, but it can be controlled through medication and surgery. Many people don’t know that they have it until a large portion of their vision is lost, because the brain is creative at filling in the blanks when it encounters blind spots. By the time I realized I had a problem, I was almost completely blind in my dominant eye.

Everyone always wonders if the LASIK complication had anything to do with the glaucoma, and the answer from all my doctors was always “no”. I just happened to win two statistically improbable eye fail jackpots in a row. One in 112,500 people require disability leave from LASIK complications, and the number of people who spontaneously develop PXF glaucoma at my age per decade really is 1 in 7.5 billion.

I just happened to win two statistically improbable eye fail jackpots in a row.

What followed was a series of surgeries, surgery complications, and surgeries to fix complications. Most of these surgeries were different from one another, with esoteric names like trabeculectomy, intraocular lens implantation, and topography-guided PRK. Although each  surgery felt different, they all had one thing in common: a surreal alien abduction vibe. The surgeries would work for a little while, then fail after a few months. Meanwhile, the complications were accumulating. Following several failed glaucoma interventions, one doctor advised me to start shopping for a seeing-eye dog. Another suggested that I start learning Braille.

The situation reached a critical point while I was in Canada. I was right about to get a corneal surgery – state-of-the-art, but not yet FDA-approved – to fix the LASIK damage. Right before that surgery, my glaucoma spun out of control, more aggressively than ever before.

In most alternate-world timelines, I believe that this is when I went blind. But in this timeline, something lucky happened. I got introduced to a world-renowned ophthalmologist – Dr. Robert Weinreb, who is basically the Sherlock Holmes of ophthalmology. He has a medical degree from Harvard and an electrical engineering degree from MIT (both of which, I’m pretty sure, he earned simultaneously), he never sleeps, and every single ophthalmologist I’ve ever met knows his name. When he’s not busy conducting stem cell research to reverse blindness or running an entire eye institute, he somehow has time to operate on patients. And so it was that I appeared on his radar – via my scientist uncle, who’d done research with him at UCSD.

I flew straight from Montreal to San Diego for an emergency surgery on Christmas morning. The surgery worked for a couple of months… and then, like the others, it failed. It was a scary moment, but we we were not ready to give up. Dr. Weinreb did two more surgeries, taking a different approach than before. Unlike all previous attempts, these surgeries succeeded.

“Succeed” in this case means that the surgeries stopped the progression of the disease. I can’t currently get back the vision I’ve lost, but for the time being – no one knows how long, but it could be the rest of my life, or another year   – I don’t have to worry about losing additional eyesight. The glaucoma is under control.

When the dust settled, it was time to learn to live with a set of visual impairments that come from different parts of the eye being busted. My optic nerves, retinas, cornea, and lenses are all worse for the wear, and the different types of damage all result in different types of visual aberrations. Rather than considering it a loss, to me it’s a chance to find inspiration in a series of lush hallucinatory visions that make my world feel more mysterious, layered and dazzling than it was before.

It’s always snowing indoors now. The “snow” is actually visual noise, the result of damaged optic nerves…

For example, it’s always snowing indoors now. The “snow” is actually visual noise, the result of damaged optic nerves, kind of like a television tuned to a channel that the antenna can’t quite capture. I’ll be sitting across the table having a conversation with someone, and there’ll be a blizzard tearing the air apart everywhere around us. It’s as if all houses are inhabited by ghosts – not ghosts of people, but of strange weather phenomena, Fortean poltergeists that vary in intensity based on the color of the walls and the quality of light.

And when I look up at the sky, I see not one moon, but 8 or 9, with smudges and smears of light all around them. It makes me feel like I’m an explorer on another planet, looking up at the sky to see unfamiliar celestial bodies, making wishes on each one that I see. It’s better now that my cornea is mostly fixed, but there’s still a beautiful layer of light leaks, a feeling like all lights are wrapped in tinsel, a real-time lens whacking effect applied to everything I see.  

And of course, there was the most terrifying of glaucoma symptoms, the rainbows that appear when pressure is dangerously high around every light source, every street light, every lamp, every phone screen, blooming like flowers, savage colorful beacons transmitting the signal of “get help now, or you will lose all these colors forever.”

It took me a long time to find beauty in the visual distortions, and it took me even longer to find beauty in how the surgeries transformed my outward appearance. Every time I looked in the mirror, I saw all this evidence of every surgery that ever happened. I was always told that my eyes were my most beautiful feature, and now they reminded me of pain and loss. But after a time, I began to see beauty in that, too. My new artificial lens implants, , swapped in to fix the cataracts, reflect light differently, so that there’s always an extra sparkle inside my eyes. When I blink, you can catch them flickering like tiny cybernetic enhancements. “I can’t stop looking at your Blade Runner eyes,” someone told me once. I like being half-replicant.

“I can’t stop looking at your Blade Runner eyes,” someone told me once. I like being half-replicant.

It’s not always magical and amazing. After losing depth perception, all staircases forever look like slides. And I’ve lost the ability to read paper books, because even with reading glasses, the text is just too small. I’m a weird person to take to bookstores, because now, my way of experiencing books is open them, sniff deeply and inhale the pages. Whereas before it was just a vaguely-defined paper book smell, I can break it down into so many different components now: the musty paper, the scent of fresh ink, the leather cover, the glue used for binding. So, when the door of one sense closed, another opened.

For a long while after the surgeries, I was afraid to take new photos. I didn’t want to publish new work that was not on par with my old work, because I was afraid of how that would feel. My friends and family wouldn’t stand for it. A photographer friend gave me a lesson in lighting. My parents bought me a studio light and some modifiers when I was broke. My extended community surprised me first by chipping in for a new camera. Friends began to model for me with no expectations of results.

At first, my photos were terrible. I couldn’t even tell if they were in focus or not. Gradually, I began to work around my limitations. Or, more precisely: my limitations led to new breakthroughs.

A lack of control around my eyes’ function led to an obsessive, disciplined quest to master lighting. In studio photography, “shaping light” means bouncing, diffusing, tinting or directing light in specific and predictable ways using light modifiers. If I couldn’t make my retina or optic nerves transmit data as faithfully to my visual cortex as before, at least I could learn to carefully direct a strobe of light along a path, at just the right intensity, at just the right degrees, to illuminate something in an exact and perfect way.

I took care to compose carefully, rather than saying “I’ll crop it later.” I learned to achieve the desired shot in-camera as much as possible, rather than saying “I’ll fix it in post.” With the help of my incredibly talented retouching partner Marina Dean-Francis, I was able to explore new dimensions in color, mood and polish during the editing step.

I stopped relying on hair, makeup and wardrobe as heavily to carry the impact of the portrait, and focused more on the story of the person in front of me. I broadened my focus from portraying young women looking invincible to people from all walks of life, and all levels of vulnerability. I let the fragmented feeling of my visual impairment come through in my work, experimenting with glitch processes such as corrupting the image file to produce jagged, colorful artifacts throughout the image.

What I discovered is that seeing people… is less about how well I physically perceive them, and more about the ideas that our time together inspires.

What I discovered is that seeing people – truly seeing and celebrating them through my work – is less about how well I physically perceive them, and more about the images and ideas that our time together inspires. It doesn’t matter if I see in 240p rather than HD. This realization, combined with my newfound command of the tools, has helped me to create some of my strongest work to date. I know I’ll always have some tools for telling the stories that I want to tell, even if those tools change over time..

In his essay titled “Blindness,” my favorite author, Jorge Luis Borges, who did go blind from glaucoma, writes:

“For the task of an artist, blindness is not a total misfortune. It is an instrument… everything that happens, including humiliations, embarrassments, misfortunes, all has been given like clay, like material for one’s art. One must accept it … those things are given to us to transform, so that we may make from the miserable circumstances of our life things that are eternal, or aspire to be so.”

He ends his essay with a line from Geothe. Alles nahe werde fern, or: “everything near becomes distant.”Life is a gradual discovery of this fact, with higher and higher stakes as time goes on. I just happened to discover it more viscerally and literally than most people my age. The greatest gift my eye fail has given me is the ability to calmly survey whatever is in front of me and ask myself: “given that my vision is so potentially finite, is this worth looking at?” If so, look at it with all the love you can–this project, that face, this dream. If not, refocus your gaze on something else as gracefully as you can.

Try it for a week. Imagine that you have replicant eyes, with a replicant lifespan. What do you want to see the most? Bring more of it into your line of sight.

Top photo of Nadya Lev courtesy of Star St. Germain. 

Nadya Lev’s Instagram can be found here.

Q&As

Shelter Dogs Helped This Woman Battle Bulimia

Shannon Kopp loved dogs. Over time, they helped her learn to love herself

Around the time her father’s alcoholism spiraled out of control, Shannon Kopp, then 17, started binging and purging food. Despite several attempts at recovery, her bulimia persisted for years, until she began working at the San Diego Humane Society. Kopp found that the shelter dogs’ love and resilience in the face of their own struggles gave her the motivation to overcome her own demons. Her experiences inspired her new book, Pound for Pound: A Story of One Woman’s Recovery and the Shelter Dogs Who Loved Her Back to Life.

Folks recently chatted with Kopp about what she did to regain her sense of self, how shelter dogs fit her into her recovery and why she feels people misunderstand eating disorders.  The following excerpts have been edited for clarity and brevity.

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Kopp and pup.

Your struggle with bulimia began when you were 17 and continued into your twenties. What treatments had you tried before you started working with rescue dogs?

I do think therapy was helpful. I would recommend therapy for anyone struggling with an eating disorder, but that alone didn’t seem to really change my behavior. I was in therapy for a total of 14 years.

I tried going to a residential treatment center and that seemed to temporarily help, but inevitably I relapsed again and went back to the eating disorder. I tried yoga, diets. I tried to make promises. I carried around a picture of my younger sister with me in my back pocket hoping I would pull that out and look at it and remember not to binge.

Especially towards the end of my eight-year struggle, I was willing to try anything because it was getting to the point where I was becoming suicidal. It was really not until I started spending a lot of time with shelter dogs that I began to finally see changes in my thinking and reacting.

How did you come to work at the San Diego Humane Society? Was that something that you thought might help?

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Shelter dogs helped save Shannon Kopp’s life.

As a child before the eating disorder, I loved animals. I was always rescuing them and even tried to start my own little nonprofit. It really was my greatest passion as a kid. As the eating disorder became more and more a dominant part of my life, I became disconnected from who I really was. I became almost mesmerized by this voice in my head telling me to binge or purge or lose weight.

It wasn’t until I went to residential treatment at the age of 23 where I experienced equine therapy and that woke something up in me. I remembered, “Oh, my god, I love animals.” Unfortunately, my insurance cut out and I would not be able to go to treatment for the time I needed. When my insurance cut out I was really scared, but I just had this feeling that I might be OK if I found a way to work with animals.

When did you start to feel like yourself again?

I went that first year at the humane society without binging or purging. I was still going to therapy, but I hadn’t really learned how to handle my emotions yet. I relapsed after a year. It was just devastating to me that I went back to those behaviors after almost a year free from them.

The only reason I even got out of bed anymore, because I was binging and purging 20 times a night, was because my job was to promote these shelter dogs and to help them find a home. I didn’t love myself at the time, but I loved them. My love would get me out of bed and get me to the humane society.

I didn’t love myself at the time, but I loved them.

I’m pregnant right now so it’s actually the first time that I’m not volunteering or working at a shelter, but I still have my own shelter dog and animals are still the most vital part of my recovery. Therapy has certainly been helpful. Medication has been helpful, but those things alone never helped me until the animals became a really big part of my life.

There is something really powerful for me, someone who was too ashamed of her eating and was trying to hide it from the world. There was something very liberating about being with a dog who also had a traumatic past, but was still herself, and was still reaching out and asking for help.

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A kennel full of shelter puppies greet Shannon with wet noses.

Is there anything you want other people to know about eating disorders?

Yes, I misunderstood bulimia. I had this lingering sense of shame that I was choosing to do this. I was choosing to hurt all these people. We’re getting more and more proof and data that eating disorder of all kinds, anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder are mental disorders that are biologically influenced. They have to do with genetics. They have to do with brain chemistry. They’re very complex mental disorders and just like PTSD, or depression, or even cancer, these are illnesses that are not choices. There’s never a choice to become a bulimic, to become an anorexic. It has nothing to do with vanity.

There’s never a choice to become a bulimic, to become an anorexic. It has nothing to do with vanity.

Usually, eating disorders are marked by trauma. My trauma had to do with my alcoholic father, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I became bulimic around the time that he lost complete control to alcohol. What people often say in the field is that genetics loads the gun, environment pulls the trigger. It’s a very complex illness that I think if I had recognized that, perhaps, I wouldn’t have been so embarrassed and ashamed.

Perhaps I would have asked for more help sooner, or I would have been more honest about my struggles and everything. Eating disorders are often seen as a young, white girl disease. The truth is, they impact a huge cross-section of our country. People of all ages, all backgrounds, all races, all genders struggle with eating disorders.

Profiles

A Deadly Dream Job

Whether hunting gators or surviving cancer, Ronald Guy is used to looking death down the throat.

Whether hunting gators or surviving cancer, Ronald Guy is used to looking death down the throat.

Outside of gator country, the threat of giant, man-eating reptiles is something most of us only think about when watching Jurassic Park. But as the tragic death of a two-year-old in Walt Disney World last month shows, in America’s deep south, alligator attacks are very real… and very deadly.

Not every gator is a nuisance alligator. To earn that title in Louisiana, the dangerous animals must be more than four feet long and stray out of the swamps and bayous to directly approach or attack people. While it’s not a pretty job, someone has to protect lives in these dicey scenarios. One of those someones is Ronald Guy.

On the evening Guy discovered his life’s calling, a friend drove him to a small stream in the woods, 15 miles south of his home in Alexandria, Louisiana. “I didn’t know where we were going; I didn’t know what to expect,” says Guy, 57, of that day about two decades ago. At dusk, the two men strung a line of hooks across the stream. When they returned in the morning, they had caught three alligators weighing 80 to 100 pounds.

I was all big-eyed about it because I had never seen anything of that size,” Guy says. “It was quite an adrenaline rush … You might be familiar with the basics on TV, but it’s nothing like holding that cord in your hand and pulling that alligator to you. It’s like jumping out of a plane—it’s against everything you’re taught. … Even at the time I remember thinking: What are we doing?”

A nuisance gator is an alligator over 4-feet-long that strays out of the bayous to directly approach people.

Guy’s interest was piqued. A carpenter at the time, Guy applied with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries for a license to become a nuisance alligator hunter. These self-employed contractors are able to hunt year-round to remove large alligators that are aggressive or violent toward humans or pets. The wait list was long. After Guy had waited six years to hear back, he gave up on the job. But then he got the call.

Even though it paid less than carpentry work, Guy loved it. He met new people on every gig. Unlike carpentry work, his callers were often elated to see him, the hero and slayer of the dangerous beast near their home. And then, of course, there was the thrill of the chase. “I’ve never enjoyed anything as much as I like this,” he says.

A year into his dream job, Guy was diagnosed with follicular lymphoma. “I was scared to death of what was to come,” he says. In 2008, a tumor was discovered in his back. So began the years of chemotherapy during the winter, scheduled around alligator season in the warmer months. Guy underwent several rounds of chemotherapy until December 2012, when he finally received a stem cell transplant.

I probably needed this 30 years ago when I thought I had total control over my life.

Though he’s been in remission ever since, Guy struggles with graft-versus-host disease (GVHD). His esophagus is swollen, making it painful to swallow, and he can’t eat the spicy food that defines Louisiana. As a result, he’s underweight by about 20 pounds. “I’m running out of gas sooner than I would have in my early hunting days,” he says. He regularly takes an immunosuppressant, which makes it even more dangerous to be around bacteria-infested alligators. He produces no saliva or tears, so he travels everywhere with plenty of water and eye drops—even on hunts.

And hunt he does. Nearly every day, he’s cruising to a catch in his truck, fully loaded with chicken or roadkill bait and his business manager—his wife, Terri. Recently, he caught an alligator that had eaten a family dog. The owners called Guy to protect their small children and two other dogs. “This is my thirteenth season, and I can still get up in the morning knowing I’ve got somewhere to go to that I really want to go to,” he says. “On this alligator job, it’s always a joy.” 

Sometimes it’s a joy because of the stories that come out of a hunt. Once, an elderly gentleman called Guy because he couldn’t get to the newspaper on his porch—an alligator was pressed against his screen door. By the time Guy arrived, the oversized lizard had slithered down the street, and a swarm of neighbors were herding it with brooms.

Guy doesn’t always get to swoop in like the perfect hero. One particularly ornery nine-foot alligator near a family home was restless. Guy kept on dragging it out of the pond on the side of a house, thinking the beast was dead, only to find himself struggling with its squirming, heavy body. A young girl was watching from a distance. After Guy finally subdued the gator, she commented, “Mister, have you ever done this before?”

Just last year, Guy was bit by an alligator behind a high school. Classes were in session, so Guy was called in to protect the children from the deadly animal swimming in their sewer system out back. He was with his brother, who “gets flustered easily.” When they fished the 5’’6’ gator out of the water, Guy restrained it with his catch pole. He was about to tape the gator’s snout shut so they could euthanize it elsewhere. When he reached around, Guy realized he had just put his hand inside its ring of snaggly teeth. Suddenly, he felt the chomp. “It’s intense pain—he holds on really tight and the more you fool with him, the harder he bites.” But Guy didn’t scream, lest he startle his excitable brother or the kids gaping through the baseball field fence. Guy calmly asked for pliers from his brother, who couldn’t see that Guy had been bit. When he plied open the gator’s jaws, six puncture wounds gushed blood.

“With my condition, that’s all that raced through my mind: death,” Guy says. “I look at everything through a stained glass.” With his compromised immune system, the water from the sewer system, and the highly infectious bite of an alligator, Guy was terrified. But thankfully, the right antibiotics saved his life, and he didn’t back down from his day job.

With my condition, that’s all that raced through my mind: death.

To make his living, Guy skins the nuisance gators in his backyard and sells the skin. (The state doesn’t pay him to remove the animals, but simply grants his special license to catch troublesome gators. In certain southern states, such as Florida and Louisiana, nuisance alligators are killed rather than relocated because they are likely to either return or become a threat to life in their new spot.) The market rate for gator skin is about $23 for a foot of skin, though Guy says he commands a higher rate with his refined skinning skills. The meat goes to family and friends for their home cooking.

Lately, Guy’s pay has taken a nosedive with the declining market for alligator skin. Still, Guy adores his job. His body has weakened considerably with his GVHD, so much so that friends often mistakenly suspect his cancer has returned. But Guy has modified his job. Instead of dragging an alligator into the boat, he’ll subdue it when it’s still in the water. He uses pulleys to lift it up, instead of his atrophied back. He relishes everything more slowly these days, from hunting to eating.

“Now, I’m not in a hurry to get to the end of anything,” Guy says. “I probably needed this 30 years ago when I thought I had total control over my life.”

Terri cuts in to deadpan: “He still tries to be in control.”

Life’s pretty good,” Guy continues. “I can’t fuss about it. My hope is that our alligator market will rebound, and everything else, we can live with.”

 

All illustrations by Shannon Wheeler.