Wednesday, September 1, 2021

From the Heart, One Year Later

It’s been a year since I had my open ❤️ surgery to remove an aortic aneurysm. It’s been a l-o-n-g emotional and physical journey, with some ups and downs. I'm happy to report that the scar is fading. It's almost gone. I am healing and overall, I am thankful 🙏🏻.

The top photo is of me now. I gained some color (and a little weight.) The second photo was taken a few days after surgery last year. I looked pretty pale and felt awful from the chest pain and limited mobility. I tried to recreate the shot. It’s the same Old Navy shirt and wall background.

Here is my New York Times article that I wrote about the journey that led to the surgery and my immediate recovery.

And here are my previous blog entries in order (From the Heart, More From the Heart and From the Heart, Part 3.)

Saturday, August 21, 2021

Breakthrough Covid Infections: It happened in my household

My partner had gone to two birthday parties among close friends on different weekends in late May. I didn't want to go because even though I am vaccinated for Covid-19, I did not want to be around big crowds and increase my chances of an infection. (I am also a bit of an introvert and don't like big crowds anyways but that's another story.)

But a few days after the last party, my partner began to present symptoms that included congestion and fatigue. He also lost his sense of smell and tase.  He found out that a little boy at the party had similar symptoms and tested positive for Covid-19. That prompted my partner to get a rapid test. The result was positive. I got the same test at CVS. My results were negative.

To be absolutely sure, we drove down to Cutler Ridge (about 25 minutes south of Miami) and got our noses swabbed during a drive-through test offered by the county. A day and a half later, my test came back negative. But my partner was still positive and another test he took a few days later also came back positive.

It was a scary experience. At that point, I didn't know anyone personally or in my immediate family who had Covid and here it was, in my home. We began wearing masks in the house and I slept in a separate bed temporarily.  I didn't get infected (thank God). I felt that my vaccine, the Johnson and Johnson shot I had received in March, protected me.

Inspired by the incident which left me with a lot of nagging questions, I wrote a story, an explainer in my paper, The New York Times, on what vaccinated people should do if they become infected with Covid-19.  The story was published in June and yet, we are seeing more and more of these breakthrough infections especially among the high profile set (athletes, senators, celebrities, etc.) as the new Delta variant envelopes the country.

Saturday, July 3, 2021

Celebrating LGBTQ Pride in New Ways

Pride celebrations have been around since 1970, a year after the violent Stonewall uprising in Greenwich village which sparked the modern gay rights movement. But five decades later, there are new ways cities, groups and people are celebrating Pride this year. 

I wrote a story that looks at these Pride firsts which include the San Francisco Giants marking June with the team's first Pride logos on uniforms and Vice President Kamala Harris being the first sitting vice president to participate in a Pride event.

Closer to home, the Miami Police Department unveiled its first Pride patrol car last month to showcase its inclusivity. 

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Trans and Non-Binary Teens Telling Their Stories

 My latest  New York Times article on four teenagers who are publishing books that provide clarity about their trans and non-binary communities while adding to the national conversation.

The books aim to spark and facilitate conversations for children and the grown ups in their lives about what it means to be transgender, non-binary and inclusive.  In the books, the authors also celebrate their lives and how they came out to their families and communities.

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

How I Got The Covid Vaccine and Some Side Effects

 It was just past 11 a.m. on Saturday when the Facebook post popped up on my news feed.

It was from a fellow journalist Marc Caputo who said that he was at the Florida City Youth Center where workers were providing Covid-19 vaccine shots, no...questions...asked. Of course, I read in.

"What?" I thought to myself.

He  posted a photo with the city's police chief who had confirmed the same thing to him. Mr. Caputo said he was waiting in line, which was about 40-people deep.

So instead of watching my usual Grey's Anatomy reruns on Netflix with my doppio espresso and croissant from Starbucks, I made a run for it. I didn't even give myself time to change my clothes (baseball cap, tank top, shorts and sneakers sans socks.) I grabbed my wallet, keys, phone, mask and cup of water and hightailed my Beetle to Florida City. 

I got there in about 30 minutes (there was no traffic, really!) As soon as I got in line, I saw that it gradually began to centipede down the block.  I was about the 40-something person in line.  To my surprise, ahead of me, I recognized a familiar face and mop of straight black hair, former radio news host and regular MSNBC political commentator Fernand Amandi whom I had interviewed a few times when I was a reporter at the South Florida Sun Sentinel. He was in line with his lovely wife Chenell.

Just as I was about to reintroduce myself (we didn't immediately recognize each other with our masks) Marc Caputo emerged from the center with a band-aid on his arm and his CDC Covid test card. I and others in line thanked him for his post. His post was a life saver.

While we waited, the Amandis and I caught up and talked about our pandemic year, the pros and cons of working from home, not wanting to leave our homes in the Miami area and the idea of always to continue to wear a mask on planes after life gets back to normal.  (That's Fernand and myself in line on Saturday. I was holding my organizer filled with documents that I indeed was a Floridian.)

After standing in line for about an hour where I also bumped into Miami filmmaker Billy Corben a few rows back, we finally made it inside a room at the center where FEMA workers and nurses awaited. They asked me for my Florida proof of residency (my driver's license) and medical questions that involved allergies and whether I had been diagnosed Covid and treated for it.  I kept thinking they were going to ask me for medical documentation (which they didn't and I didn't have). I was prepared to pull down my tank top and show them my scar from my recent heart surgery. But that wasn't necessary.  I was asked which vaccine I wanted and I went with the one-time Johnson & Johnson shot.  Johnson & Johnson & Johnny. 

A few minutes later, a lovely nurse asked me where I wanted the shot (my left arm) and she asked if it was okay to do it on my shoulder tattoo which she thought was dolphin but was a shark. (Happens all the time.) Another nurse said she was happy to take a photo of me as I received the shot.  The needle on the syringe looked really long and I was a little nervous. But I didn't feel a thing. It was over before it even started. I was relieved and I felt I had some peace of mind. I had to wait for 15 minutes at the center (which I spent chatting with Billy bout his upcoming documentary called Kings of Miami and Netflix) before leaving to make sure there were no immediate adverse effects. The process was easy, smooth and the staffers were friendly. A Saturday morning well spent.

Like so many other people around the country, I was scared of catching the virus but even more so after I had open-heart surgery last August at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach. My doctors had warned me I was at high risk for catching the virus given the surgery and living in South Florida (which has had high infectious rates) so I did my best to stay even more indoors than pre-surgery.  At least this Covid-19 vaccine will add an extra layer of protection and that soothed my fears, anxiety.

And like so many other Floridians, I was confused about when and where I could get the shot. I kept hearing different requirements from Miami-Dade to Broward counties which border each other. At first, it was intended for people over the age of 65 and then that expanded to include front-line workers and public school teachers (like my sister) over the age of 50. But some sites were offering people the vaccine if they were over the age of 18 and had documentation from a doctor that they were at high risk.  

During my recent physical, my primary doctor said that she would support me in getting the vaccine because of my medical history (ulcerative colitis, bladder cancer, high blood pressure and aortic aneurysm. I'm a Grey's Anatomy storyline waiting to happen.) I thought I would have to wait a while for my shot at the shot. (pun intended.) But when I heard about the Florida City FEMA site doling out doses to anyone over 18, I took a chance and dashed over.

I wasn't the only one. Word about the site spread like wildfire on social media, resulting in lines of hundreds people.  More than 400 people got the shot the same day I did. The next day, the site returned to the state's original requirements and people were turned away. The secret was out and the story became local and national news including my newspaper, The New York Times.

I am glad I got the shot but it did come with some apparent side effects. The day after the shot, my back and arms ached. By early Monday morning, I felt fatigue and the muscular ache had spread. I also had chills. I told my doctor and she said that was common among people who got the vaccine and if the symptoms hadn't gone away after two days, to let her know. Most of Tuesday, I still felt feverish and a little achey but I feel better now as I write this. I shared this with my cousins in Boston where they were getting the same Johnson & Johnson vaccine this week.

People in South Florida have asked me on social media how did I get my shot even though I am not 65 or over 50. These are some sites I recommend. They include Broward Health in Fort Lauderdale where you can make an appointment even if you are over 18, CVS, and Dr. B which matches people with clinics that have leftover vaccines.  My old paper The Miami Herald has been reporting on the various sites such as Miami Dade College North, Overtown, Florida City and Sweetwater (suburb west of Miami) where you can get a shot, with or without an appointment.  And Miami on the Cheap has been updating where people can find the vaccine in South Florida.

Saturday, February 20, 2021

The Wanderer, A Poem

I've always written poetry, something I dabbled with in elementary school where I had a notebook filled with them. I looked forward to our English and reading assignments that involved haikus or writing a lyrical poem and I would store them into my notebook. I even took photo with my work for school contests. Cue the embarrassing photos which can be seen here from a previous post.

My poetry continued in high school, college and adulthood (I wrote a poem for my goddaughter's wedding in 2014 in Cape Code. ) I began keeping the poems in journals. Many, many journals.

As I took an afternoon stroll today and felt the cool gentle Miami breezes tickle my face, I remembered this poem that I wrote when I was about 21 at F.I.U. in Miami I remember sharing it with a reporter whom looked up to and he said how amazing it was. (That meant a lot to me because I had a crush on him and his writing.) 

The poem was inspired by late night walks in South Beach with different buddies after hitting a club. I would wander around and take in the bright lights of the hotels and closed shops as we talked about whom we thought was cute and who hooked up with whom. I kept the poem all these years and even found a great spot to slip it into my third novel, Miami Manhunt. So now I present you a poetry throwback, The Wanderer. 

He walks alone amid the shadows and lights, 
Wanders aimlessly around town. 
A half moon is in sight.
He rounds a corner to find a soul to harbor him for a night. 

He passes closed shops, 
Crosses wet-dewed streets. 
Crowds flock. 
People walk. 
Simmering stars so high. 
Another night he had to lie.

Passersby stare. 
Marveling his chiseled profile. 
A deep loneliness he tries to hide. 
Through his bashful smile. 
His innocent eyes. 
Good looking, shy.

He continues his journey. 
Not knowing where to go. 
Can't figure out the present. 
He just doesn't know. 
Looks to the past. 
Forgets the future. 
He hopes the nights will always last.

He thinks of a chum.
So smart and nice.
He's cute and cool.
He envies his life.
So masculine and straight.
Nothing like me,
a gay, people hate.

Fear brews inside.
Hope is sometimes near.
Innocence fades away.
The soul remains young,
The face gets older.
Tormented, alone, afraid.
Life's getting colder.

He slinks into a club.
Eyes meet his.
An octopus of hands reaches out
They try to grab, to hold, and to touch him.

He dances away into a world he knows.
Where he forgets the future, the past.
The life he loathes.

He sways to the left.
Swirls, sweats, alive.
Beats pulsate inside.
Sounds resonate.
Life feels right.
No pain, pure fun.
No feelings to fight.

Alone he continues to wander.
The shadows are gone.
Thoughts still brood.
The night has turned to day.
It's another episode being
Unhappy, young and gay.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

One Year at The New York Times

I can't believe that I recently marked my one-year anniversary at The New York Times where I am a reporter on the Express Desk. We cover a mix of national, politics, business, sports and international news, stories that appeal to a broad online audience.
It's been a wild, fun ride covering mostly breaking news (police shootings, wildfires, hurricanes), serious stories about race (the removal of confederate statues and symbols), viral stories (fat bears, shark attacks, ancient gators) and profiles (a super ambitious Florida valedictorian.) My stories are published online but some trickle into the print edition (and I can't resist saving those pieces as you'll see below. My backpack is filled with copies of my print stories.) Here are some highlights from the past year beginning with Mystery Shipwreck Dates to Before Revolutionary War, Researcher Says
Cuffing of Black Miami Doctor Was Justified, Review Finds
Atlanta Police Chief Resigns After Officer Shoots and Kills a Black Man
Great White Shark Kills Maine Swimmer in Rare Attack
The Votes Cast, a Fat Bear Is Crowned
New Hampshire Poet Laureate Lifts Her City’s Covid-19 Advisories
Dated 1920, a Postcard Finally Gets Delivered

Saturday, November 7, 2020

From the Heart Part 3

It's been almost three months since I had open heart surgery to remove an aortic aneurysm. I can finally say that the chest soreness and breastbone pain are gone. I can sneeze or cough freely without having to quickly grab a pillow and press it up to my chest so that my sutures don't pop out.

The zipper-like scar that lines the center of my chest is fading. I have gotten used to it. Six weeks after my surgery, my surgeon and his physician assistant lifted the physical restrictions they had me following. Now I can drive, lift light weights, swim, and more importantly, run, one of my favorite things to do.

I returned to running last month.  I began modestly, running half a mile. I did not want to overdo it, knowing that I have new piping in my heart. A side affect from the surgery is that I sometimes feel and hear my heart pumping. It's strange and unnerving. Who wants to hear their heartbeat in their ears? It's weird but I was told that would eventually go away. 

Although my doctors cleared me to exercise,  they strongly suggested that I do not over do it with the running and weights even though I was feeling good.

"Don't go lifting 200 pounds now, Johnny,'' my surgeon said. "Start at 10 pounds. Take it easy. Progress slowly. Listen to your body." 

Like a blinking yellow traffic light, caution ran through my head as I began to hit the pavement. Instead of running like a colt, I slowly jogged, which felt like I was running in place and not going anywhere but I was moving and that was the goal.

Other runners, mostly University of Miami students, whooshed by me but that didn't matter. I was going to run on my own terms. This was not a race. This was me literally getting back on my feet. When I reached my half mile goal, I smiled. A great sense of accomplishment washed over me. I did it!  

I couldn't believe that just a few weeks before, my chest had been cut open. I was in the hospital for five days attached to a tangle of IVs. I could barely move around without feeling searing pangs of pain in my torso. I finally recovered, cured of the aneurysm, untethered from the paranoia and fear of it suddenly bursting. Running was my way of celebrating that feat.

It felt so good to run again, the freedom that it brings. The breezes tickled my face, the sweat beaded on the back of my neck and my shadow accompanied me each way as if watching out for me. Knowing that I could get around on my own boosted my confidence. 

I enjoyed running to the tropical rhythms of Jimmy Buffet such as “Brown Eyed Girl” and The Beach Boys including "Sloop John B." These songs always put me in a good mood. I imagined I was back in the Keys and gazing at the various shades of blue in the water. I also ran to a medley of Pussy Cat Dolls hits because their infectious pop-dance songs make me want to run faster and their lyrics are fun to bounce along to.  "Tip top, drip drop, Bottles drop, lips lock..."

My confidence continued to blossom. I began running a mile which is what I am doing lately. Again, I do not want to over do it.  My doctors told me that my heart was stopped for about 2.5 hours during the 5 hour surgery so they could cut out the aneurysm. The heart was kept cool with a special fluid while I was hooked up to a bypass machine which did the work of my heart and lungs. I do not want my heart to suddenly stop because I overexerted myself with the running and weights.

My goal is to eventually return to 2 and 3 mile runs, my previous routine. But I am in no rush. I know it will happen. I am already half way there.