Category Archives: Writing a book

Father’s Day and finding my way

Where's Karen? I'm in there to the right of the tall guy in the blue shirt (my son David), in this picture I took reflecting off The Bean In Chicago earlier this month.

My husband was suffering from allergies (or a cold, we weren’t sure which) yesterday, so his Father’s Day was spent quietly. We opted out of our Sunday routine — which typically involves a hike or long bike ride — in favor of lazily lounging around. Dan’s only goal for the day was to make some progress toward finishing the third book in Edmund Morris’s Theodore Roosevelt trilogy.

Both of our sons called in — Andy from Washington, D.C. and David from his new home in Chicago — to enjoy catching up with their dad. All three of the men in my family are extremely knowledgeable about politics and government (which I am not), so I enjoy listening to Dan’s side of the conversation from my perch at the kitchen island, knowing that this is a special bond they share (along with a love of all things sports). My conversations with our sons typically take a different tack. I ask about household/daily life stuff and girlfriends. I share news about extended family members — their grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins.

Quiet Sundays give me a chance to make some small amount of progress toward catching up and getting organized for the week ahead. I spent several hours sifting through emails, writing to-do lists and tending to naggy, small tasks that always seem insurmountable when you’re in the midst of a busy work day. And with no small amount of initial hesitation, I dove back into my Ethiopia notes.

My motivation was an email I received from a mother in New Mexico. She has written a book, Finding Aster, about her own Ethiopia adoption journey. I found out about her because of all the Google alerts I have set up related to international adoption — part of my continued research for the story that began when I first met adoptive parents Brian and Keri deGuzman of Paradise Valley in the spring of 2009 and which, I hope, will find its own book form if I just keep taking small steps to make it happen.

When I found out about Dina McQueen’s book, I subscribed to her related blog. Anyone who writes a blog knows how exciting it is to find out that someone has subscribed to it. Every time I get a message that someone has subscribed to my blog, I click through to find out who that person is. Dina apparently does the same. She found me, found Raising Arizona Kids and wondered, no doubt, about my interest in her adoption story.

She called my office while I was in Chicago helping David settle into his new apartment earlier this month. So she followed up with an email:

When I called your magazine to inquire, I was told about your interest in Ethiopia, which led me to your feature article on your 2010 trip to Ethiopia. Which led me to the remarkable story you wrote about accompanying Brian and Keri to Addis Ababa as they met their two new children. What a beautiful and inspiring story. I was quite moved. Especially as I learned how much some adoptive parents are doing to support their children’s homeland. And how ‘stuck’ I sometimes feel without the resources to do more.

What I can do, however, is share my story and my platform with others who may be able to help me get out there and speak. My mission, basically, is to encourage adoption as a viable and vital way to grow a family. Concern about the environment and women’s health, as well, of course, as the massive issue of parentless children world-wide fuels my passion to keep on connecting with others.

I have ordered a copy of Dina’s book and I look forward to reading it. One of the reviews I read particularly intrigued me. The reviewer said that Finding Aster could truly be called Finding Dina, because of the magnitude of personal growth the author underwent during her journey to become a parent.

With Keri deGuzman as we checked in for our flight to Ethiopia last July. We were both wearing T-shirts promoting Acacia Village, an orphanage the deGuzmans support in Addis Ababa. Photo by Brian deGuzman.

Personal growth — and continued striving for it — is intrinsic to my ongoing connection to the deGuzman family and their continued commitment to the many children who remain orphaned in Ethiopia. It is time to stop hiding behind my fears of being inadequate to the task of telling their evolving story.

Finding Aster may well help me get back to the task of finding myself.

An Ethiopian adoption story – a chance to hear it told

July 2010: Keri and Solomon.

I’ve heard her tell it dozens of times but I never tire of the story. When Keri deGuzman tells people about the remarkable journey she and her husband, cardiothoracic surgeon Brian deGuzman, M.D., took to adopt their four Ethiopia-born children, she is transformed.

Any pre-event jitters evaporate as soon as she begins to talk. There is no place for discomfort she may feel about public speaking. This isn’t about her. It’s not even about the four beautiful children that she and Brian are raising, though the children are the underpinning for her amazing and still-evolving story.

When Keri speaks, it’s about the millions of other children. The ones who don’t have clean homes and nutritious foods and the chance for meaningful education or productive lives. The orphans of Ethiopia.

Keri will share her Ethiopia adoption story at 10:30am tomorrow (Saturday, April 23) at Scottsdale’s Mustang Library. I’ll be with her, adding what I can about my experience traveling with her and Brian to Ethiopia last summer, when they welcomed their two youngest children, Solomon and Tesfanesh, into their family.

Keri’s four Ethiopia-born children are happy, healthy, thriving — and cherished. The story about how they came into her life is beautiful, uplifting and inspiring. Hearing it will be a perfect kickoff to the Easter weekend.

After flying all night from Addis Ababa, Keri and Brian unite their family at Washington's Dulles International Airport. The two older children, Jesmina and Musse, stayed with Brian's parents, who live in the Washington, D.C. area., while we were in Ethiopia.

Reading tea leaves

Like many fans of Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace One School at a Time, I was glued to the TV Sunday night watching the “60 Minutes” broadcast reporting allegations that parts of Mortensen’s original memoir never happened.

Like many fans who have followed Mortenson’s story, I didn’t want to believe it was true. Even though it was CBS doing the reporting. Even though CBS interviewed Jon Krakauer, a renowned author whose own works of nonfiction are meticulously researched, who donated money to Mortenson’s Central Asia Institute and who now believes Mortensen made up some of the most dramatic and emotionally engaging scenes described in his first of two books about his experience building schools in desolate areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

I’ve read The New York Times take on the story, and NPR‘s. I believe these media entities to be reliable vehicles for information that is presented with integrity, caution and care. And still I don’t want to believe it.

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A journey past distractions

A little girl named Hannah was dancing around my table, her long, curly  hair bouncing as she dipped and swirled. When an older gentleman walked past us (who am I kidding — he was probably my age), he misstepped. His iced latte went flying out of his hand, crashing to the ground and spreading a milky river across the sidewalk.

Remarkably restrained, he walked back into the coffee shop to explain what had happened. A few minutes later, he exited a different door, a new drink in hand, calling “Thank you!” to the barrista. Another employee came out with a big bucket of soapy water, releasing it with a forward thrust to push the mess toward a small patch of grass.

Hannah danced closer to the soapy, light brown puddle, clearly intrigued.

“Stay away!” her mother shouted cheerfully from a nearby table, where she was enjoying a late afternoon coffee and chat with a friend. “It’s the alligator lagoon!” Hannah looked up, alarmed. Then she met her mother’s eyes and smiled, enjoying the joke.

For a few hours, this was my happy place: a coffee shop at a busy intersection in north Phoenix. A place where little girls danced and mommies talked and customers oogled pastries as they debated how many shots of espresso and how many pumps of syrup they wanted in $4 coffee drinks.

I, too, had an expensive iced coffee, though mine was free because I belong to the “frequent buyers club” and they send me a postcard offer for a free drink every year near my birthday. I held onto my card for two weeks, waiting for a special occasion. Today felt right.

I sipped my drink (more milkshake than coffee), popped earbuds in my ears and pulled out my laptop. Blenders whirred loudly. The music of the Eurythmics (“Here Comes the Rain Again”) was jarringly loud. I wondered if I’d even be able to concentrate.

But when I pushed “play” on my recorder I was instantly transported. As I listened to an interview I’d conducted several months ago, I remembered the emotion of that meeting, the clarity of purpose I’d observed in my subject. I listened, typed, replayed, listened and typed some more, bracketing new questions that occurred to me and adding observations I thought I’d long forgotten but which now came flooding back.

I typed until my right hand index finger was stiff and numb. Until I, too, found a place of clarity. Until the sun started down on an almost perfect day and I knew it was time to get home for dinner.

Ethiopia is calling

Ethiopian President Girma Wolde-Giorgi and his guests (from left): Haddush Halefom (who oversees the Acacia Village project for Christian World Adoption), me, Zerihun Beyene (who works for Christian World Adoption), Brian deGuzman, M.D. and Keri deGuzman. Photo courtesy of the president's office.

I had a dream that I was back at the palace in Addis Ababa, sitting in the office of Girma Wolde-Giorgi, the president of Ethiopia. I was waiting for the president to enter his spacious office so I could interview him for a story.

I saw the same high ceilings, the same heavy curtains, the same bronze cowboy statue on the massive desk — the very statue that intrigued me when I was in President Girma’s office last July, during my trip with adoptive parents Brian and Keri deGuzman.

At the time, I found it ironic. There I was in Africa, thousands of miles from home. And yet what drew my attention was a cowboy, that classic icon of the American Southwest.

I didn’t ask President Girma how a cowboy statue found its way to his desk. Our meeting that day was about the deGuzmans, who were in Ethiopia to welcome two babies into their family. They were invited to meet the president because of their involvement with Acacia Village, a home where 250 children can be nurtured, healed and transitioned into adoptive families. President Girma serves as honorary chairman of the board for Acacia Village, a project of Christian World Foundation.

In my dream, I was waiting in his office by myself, tending to unfinished business. I woke up before I found out what that business was.

A few days later, someone else told me about a dream she’d had. In her dream, I was staying at a beach house in California. The deGuzman family—Brian, Keri and their four beautiful children—had come to visit me. And so had my staff at Raising Arizona Kids magazine. I was fixing lunch for everyone. It was some sort of special occasion.

Ethiopia is calling to me in every way it can. In my own dreams and even in the dreams of someone who is close to me, I am reminded that there is work to be done, stories still to tell.

I have lost some ground in the last few months. The period between November and the end of February is always the busiest and most stressful for my small staff. It begins with research and fact checking for our 128-page Schools, etc. guide to education, which mostly happens in November. December brings double-issue production deadlines for the book and our January magazine.
The holidays throw us all off our game, as various staff members take vacation time to be with family and friends. And then, once we return to work in January, we’re back on deadlines for February, March and the last weeks of planning for our annual Camp Fair.

I knew that I would make little headway with my Ethiopia writing during this time, so I made a conscious, proactive decision to ride it out without punishing myself (too much).

But now it is time to get back on track. After this week, when the April magazine goes to press, I must recommit my time and attention to this story, which has gotten under my skin, dominating my conscious thoughts and seeping into subconscious ones, too.

An unexpectedly nostalgic afternoon

Heading home. Photo by Brian deGuzman.

I’ve been waiting for the perfect moment to share this picture. It was taken sometime in the middle of the night as an Ethiopian Airlines jet sped across the Atlantic Ocean in a hurry to reunite a family.

And for many years to come, I imagine, that family will introduce me with this story: “Solomon fell asleep on her lap on the way home and she didn’t move for eight hours! She didn’t even have her seat reclined, so she was sitting straight up the whole time!”

I don’t remember being a bit uncomfortable. As an empty nest mom of two grown sons, what I remember was the sheer bliss of holding a sleeping baby. I was somewhat wistful, in fact, when Solomon, then just 8 months old, finally woke up and went back to his parents, Brian and Keri deGuzman. I knew my moment was over. Soon we would land in Washington, D.C. This child and his sister Tesfanesh, just a few weeks younger, would be surrounded by two other siblings, two grandparents and a family friend, all of whom couldn’t wait to meet them.

That was a defining moment in my Ethiopian journey. From that point on, I knew, my claim to some sort of connection with these children was something I’d have to work hard to maintain. And after what I’d experienced with their family — 14 months of waiting, a trip to a land far away — I didn’t think I could bear that.

I don’t always see the deGuzman children as much as I’d like, but I do make an effort to connect every few weeks. I had hoped to meet with Keri this Friday, but she had other plans. So when I heard she was bringing 4-year-old Jesmina and now-15-month-old Solomon by our building today, I grabbed Calendar & Directories Editor Mala Blomquist and we went upstairs to visit.

Jesmina was getting her tightly curled hair washed, combed out and braided at Hairloks by Arlette Natural Hair Care Salon. (In the “small world” department, multimedia journalist Vicki Balint did a piece with the salon’s owner, Arlette Pender, on the challenges of styling African-American hair. The video went viral on YouTube and has been seen by more than 17,300 viewers.)

Keri has learned to do Jesmina’s hair herself, but periodically brings her to the salon, where her daughter will take any amount of pulling and tugging required of a comb-out without a whimper.

Keri had Solomon with her today, too. He spent quite awhile pretending he didn’t remember me but coyly watched and smiled. When Keri, Solomon, Mala and I walked outside for a bit, Keri could tell he’d warmed up to me and handed him over. “You can take him for a walk,” she said, knowing that was exactly what I wanted to do.

Mala and I walked him right down to our office, where he held court as the rest of us oohed and ahhed over him. We gave him some water, a cracker and a piece of cheese. When we showed him a copy of the December magazine cover that features his whole family, he pointed straight at Brian and said “Da, da!”

Mala was the one who noticed he looked sleepy. So I took him outside and walked him around our courtyard, finally stopping by the fountain, swaying and humming as he slowly settled down, rubbing his fist up and down against my stomach, then dropped his head onto my shoulder and fell sound asleep.

When Keri came by about half an hour later to retrieve him, this is what she found.

Enjoying a repeat moment I never expected to have. Photo by Mala Blomquist.

How to sell a book: Step 1? Be famous.

In late January I signed up to take a Writer’s Digest webinar called “3 Secrets to Selling Your Nonfiction Book.” A few days after I paid for the session, I was invited to observe an open heart surgery scheduled the same day at St. Joseph’s Hospital & Medical Center.

It wasn’t a tough choice. The chance to stand in the operating room watching cardiac surgeon Brian deGuzman, M.D. do a double valve repair and maze procedure on a 60-year-old Valley wife and mom was a once-in-lifetime opportunity and an experience I will never forget. (Find related blog posts here.)

At one point during the six-hour surgery, Brian looked up at me and said, “Bet you thought I was kidding about all this heart surgery stuff!” It was certainly a different look at his life. Six months earlier, I was riding around Ethiopia in a white Toyota Land Cruiser with deGuzman and his wife Keri, who had just adopted their two youngest children. (I wrote about that experience, “An Ethiopian Adoption Story,” for our December magazine.)

I knew the audio transcript of the webinar would be available after the event, but it wasn’t until this past weekend that I found time to listen to it.

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What it was like to watch open-heart surgery (Part 1)

A lot of people have been asking me what it was like watching open-heart surgery. Many of the questions emanate from all-too-human fears that such an experience could be upsetting. There is, after all, the blood. The open chest. The saw.

I won’t lie; I was more than a little bit worried about how I might react. After all, I almost fainted in the doctor’s office once when my son had to have stitches removed from a deep cut in his arm.

But the last thing I wanted to do while I was in cardiac surgeon Brian deGuzman, M.D.‘s operating room yesterday was become a problem for him or his team. So when one of the operating room nurses wheeled a chair up behind me before the procedure began, I took note. And when she warned me that “most people lose it when the surgeon  starts the saw,” I paid attention.

I was not sitting in a room high above the operating theater, separated from the reality of the surgery by a wall of glass, like you see in “Grey’s Anatomy.”  I was on the floor in the operating room itself, right behind deGuzman, who is associate chief of cardiovascular surgery at the Heart and Lung Institute at St. Joseph’s Hospital & Medical Center. I was wearing dark blue scrubs. I had a surgical mask over my face, protective eyewear (“which you’ll need in case the blood starts shooting out,” I was told) and a shower cap-style hat over my hair.

Oddly, what bothered me most was the surgical mask and eyewear. It was claustrophobic, and my eyewear kept fogging up with each breath I took. I had to do some serious talking to myself about settling down and staying focused on the experience before I finally adjusted to the uncomfortable sensation.

When deGuzman and surgical resident Christina Lovato, M.D., began preparing for that first incision at 11:18am, I trained my eyes on the monitor above my head to my left. Somehow, watching what was taking place two feet in front of me on the overhead monitor gave me the distance I needed to adjust to the experience. I glued my eyes to the screen, taking deep, full breaths as I realized that skin and tissue was being cut, and as some of the tissue was burned away from the sternum to make a clear path for the saw. (The smell of burning flesh takes some getting used to.)

The first whir of the saw was a bit jolting but I quickly became absorbed in what I was seeing. Lovato needed only four seconds to separate the thick bone. “It’s all in the teaching,” deGuzman said, jokingly, clearly proud of his confident, capable student.

I could no longer focus on the screen. I was ready to see the real thing. So I cautiously peeked over deGuzman’s left shoulder,  wide-eyed as I saw the open chest cavity and the beating of the heart.

The surgeons cut away the pericardium (the sac of tissue that contains the heart and major vessels) and there it was: the heart itself. Yellowish, not red as I expected. Pumping away and yet, I knew, not pumping efficiently. There were problems with two valves that open and close between chambers. The valves are supposed to close fully after every attempt the heart makes to push blood forward. But in this heart, two different valves were allowing blood to leak back into the starting chambers because the damaged valves could not fully close. That was forcing the heart to struggle and push even harder. And there were other problems with this heart that caused the patient, a woman, to experience the unsettling symptoms of atrial fibrillation (cardiac arrhythmia).

One by one, with infinite patience and calm, deGuzman tackled each one.

Tomorrow: The view from the anesthesiologist’s chair.

What matters in surgery

A very worried husband and his two adult daughters are breathing a little bit easier tonight.

Their loved one — his wife, their mother — is resting easily in the intensive care unit at St. Joseph’s Hospital & Medical Center following a six-hour surgery to repair two of the valves in her heart.

Their surgeon, Brian deGuzman, M.D., associate chief of cardiovascular surgery at St. Joseph’s Heart and Lung Institute, talked with them at about 6pm in the ICU waiting room. He told them the surgery went pretty much as he’d expected. The patient, who suffered from atrial fibrillation, handled the procedures well. She was breathing on her own — a good sign — though she would remain connected to the ventilator for a few hours as a precaution…”until we’re sure she’s alert enough to protect her own airway.”

The daughters asked questions. What to expect, what risks remained, when they could see their mother. The father just kept saying, “Thank you.” His beloved wife had survived a scary, open-heart surgery. At that moment, nothing else mattered.

I was in the operating room during the entire surgery, so I have a pretty good sense of what else mattered.

It mattered that this family chose a surgeon who is among the top in his field, who practices his gift with the most cutting edge of tools and technologies, who takes as long as it takes to get each step, each suture, absolutely right. (“It needs to be perfect,” he says. “Not good. Perfect.”)  As he did today, he chooses to repair, not replace, damaged valves whenever possible — even though it means the surgery takes much longer — because artificial valves require patients to take blood thinners for the rest of their lives.

It mattered that deGuzman surrounds himself with other professionals who also strive for perfection. Today his team included anesthesiologist George Gellert, M.D. (who is a leading expert in interpreting high-tech 3D echocardiagrams) and perfusionist Barry Steinbock, who orchestrates the functions of dozens of dials, tubes, clamps and medications as the patient’s entire circulatory system is relegated to a heart-lung machine that collects darkened blood, filters it, oxygenates it and returns it to the body, bright red with vitality. (The heart-lung machine is necessary because the entire body is paralyzed during surgery, so the lungs can’t breathe, and the heart also is immobilized in a state of chilled, suspended animation.)

Also on the team: a bright young surgical resident, Christina Lovato, M.D., who assisted deGuzman throughout the surgery. Neither of the doctors left the table even once during the entire six hours.

It mattered, too, that even after the surgical procedures successfully concluded, deGuzman and his team took the extra time and steps to reconnect the patient’s sternum with a series of four titanium plates, screwed firmly into the bone with tiny, Phillips-head screws. Traditionally, cardiac surgeons reconnect the bone by wiring it back together. But wires leave the surgically separated bone a minute margin to shift, which can create discomfort for patients during the recovery period. And besides, titanium is several times stronger.

For patients, that matters.

Tomorrow: More about my experience in the operating room.

That beautiful heart

I had a new appreciation for the heavy pounding of my heart as I trudged up the mountain trail near my home late this afternoon. I will never again take for granted the miraculous choreography of muscle, tissue and resilient fibers that keep my heart functioning and strong.

This morning, I attended a two-hour symposium, “Living with Heart Valve Disease,” at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center. Almost everyone in the audience was there because they have some type of heart disease — or a loved one who does.

Lishan Aklog, M.D., director of The Cardiovascular Center and chief of cardiovascular surgery at St. Joseph’s Heart & Lung Institute, gave a crash course in heart valve disease, diagnosis and repair. “Plumbing 101,” as he called it. He and Brian deGuzman, M.D., the hospital’s associate chief of cardiovascular surgery, take turns doing these Saturday morning presentations, typically once or twice a month. Some of the symposiums focus on valves; some on atrial fibrillation. All are free to the public. All are presented by two very busy doctors with families of their own who volunteer time to do this  because they believe that patients deserve to be fully educated about their options and involved in decisions about their care.

Aklog showed lots of diagrams, pictures and even audio/video clips to support his explanations. He used analogies to facilitate understanding. (“Think of valves as the doors leading to the rooms that are the chambers of the heart.”) At one point, he played two audio files — one with the steady “lub-dub, lub-dub” of a healthy heartbeat, the other with the eerie, whooshing sound of a narrowed aortic valve.

Imagine a valiant heart struggling to pump gallon of blood every hour through a tiny pinhole. That can happen with severe aortic stenosis. Imagine a determined heart working overtime to prevent the backwash of blood when the “parachute chords” that typically yank the flaps of the mitral valve closed have evaporated or frayed. That can happen with mitral regurgitation.

As Aklog explained complex terms, flipped through visuals on his PowerPoint presentation and patiently answered questions from the audience, I saw anatomy as poetry, anatomy as art.

One morning next week I will don scrubs and watch an open heart surgery. It’s background for some future writing, part of a larger story that involves deGuzman, the adoptive father of four Ethiopia-born children, and Aklog, his Ethiopia-born colleague, collaborator and friend.

That day, I will see anatomy as adventure.

For information about future Heart & Lung Institute symposiums, call 1-877-602-4111 or email info@heart-valveclinic.com.