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.










 


Wednesday, September 23, 2020

More from the Heart

My editors at the New York Times asked me recently to share my open heart surgery and what that experience was like in the middle of a pandemic. This is a different version from my previous blog post on how I discovered the aortic aneurysm and how I went about getting it repaired.

In the new piece, I dive into the decision making process of holding off on surgery (for months) because of the coronavirus crisis. Other patients are doing the same, delaying important procedures. I also highlight the various coronavirus protocols I observed during my five-day hospital stay at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach where I had the surgery. 

Below is the print version of the piece which was published Sept. 23 in the A section.  In case you are wondering, I am doing well. I still have some chest soreness which is expected and should last a few more weeks.  The scar on my chest is healing well. I've already become used to it.  Once the soreness is gone, I will able to run (and sleep on my side again.)




Wednesday, September 2, 2020

From the Heart

A soft cloth graft sits inside my aortic artery, helping blood flow throughout my body. The graft, almost like a 32mm sleeve or about 1.2 inches, replaced an unruptured aneurysm (bulging of the artery) that was silently and dangerously growing inside my aortic root. The aneurysm was recently removed and replaced at Mt. Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach. The name of the procedure is a mouthful: valve sparing aortic root repair.
It's weird to think that my heart has a new part or an artificial section (featured in light blue in the above illustration along with my messy notes.) I discovered the aneurysm by accident. Before a colonoscopy in Boston, my heart wouldn't stop racing. It was as if I was running even though I was lying down waiting for the happy drugs. The gastroenterologist halted the procedure and strongly suggested I see a cardiologist which I did a few months later in Miami.

That led to an appointment with cardiologist Dr. Todd Heimowitz followed by a series of follow ups and tests (EKG, echocardiogram, CT scans) that eventually revealed the aneurysm or "slightly enlarged aortic root." It was being monitored and managed with blood pressure medicine (and I was okay with that.) Before I moved to New York last fall, Dr. Heimowitz had strongly suggested that at some point whenever I visited Miami again, that I seek a second opinion from Mt. Sina's chief cardiologist Dr. Steve Xydas who specializes in aortic repairs and aneurysms. Aortic aneurysms affect about 15,000 Americans each year and they are most common in men and people over the age of 60, according to Columbia Surgery.

After meeting him in January of this year, he strongly suggested I have the surgery done and not to put it off. The news struck a huge fear in me. Open heart surgery? I thought I was too young for that. I wasn't 60 as the statistics show and I am not a smoker. More importantly, I didn't want my chest carved open like a Thanksgiving dinner.

I had thought I could just live with this for the rest of my life (knowing in the back of my mind that I had a grenade in my heart) but that would not be the case. While I was in Miami, Dr. Xydas quickly ordered another CT scan which showed that the aneurysm had grown to 5 cm (or a total of two-inches.) I was right at the line, near the danger zone of bursting. He said it's better to do this as a choice than during an emergency. He and his staff were also confident that I would be a strong candidate for the surgery and come through well given my "young" age and my overall good health.

My family history played a role into the decision for surgery. I had two uncles (RIP Josito and Bartolo) who died from aneurysms in their heart and abdomen in their 60s and 70s so that added to the urgency of having surgery sooner than later. I held off as long as I could with the chaos of the Covid-19 pandemic. But when summer rolled around, I knew it was time. An inner voice kept getting louder and nagging at me: You have to get this done! Don't wait any longer!

I had the surgery in mid-August (I had no idea that the nurses would shave EVERY THING even though I keep explaining that my heart was in my chest and not below my waist but that's another story.) The photo below is the second day after my surgery when I got my own private room after being in the ICU. If I look a little out of it, it was from the painkillers. After five days at the hospital (no visitors were allowed) and now several days recovering at home, so far so good, although my chest is really sore (they had to cut through my breastbone to reach the heart.)
My chest feels like someone took a hammer and struck me in the middle of my torso. It hurts when I laugh and when I cough (I have to hold a pillow to my chest for the latter.) I am somewhat limited in my movements; I am doing my best and feeling a little like old myself every day.

I am walking a few blocks a day. No running (which I miss,) no driving and no lifting weights...for now. And I definitely can't play Twister, not that I would. I went back to work a few days ago, eager to write news articles once again. In the meantime, I am thankful this is behind me. I'm also kinda getting used to my badass battle heart scar which you can see below. Maybe I can turn it into an awesome tattoo at some point. ❤️


Monday, August 31, 2020

The Poet Within

Before I began writing articles in The Miami Herald when I was 16, I loved creative writing. Whether it was haikus in elementary and middle school or writing short stories for my high school Creative Writing class, words seemed to naturally flow out of me and onto paper.  I remember I had a notebook filled with my poetry, which mostly rhymed.

My teachers submitted my creative writing pieces to compete in the Miami-Dade County Youth Fair where I won ribbons in elementary school.  In the photo below, I won third place for a short story I wrote about a blind girl who finally had the chance to see again, thanks to a new experimental surgery. (I think I was watching too much "General Hospital" at the time.)
I won first place for telling a story through art on a pillow. It featured two workers in Egypt, the subject we were studying at the time,  If you look closely, you can see the sun and clouds over the workers.  I even sewed the pieces together. (Was I gay or what?)

I also included one of my college poems titled "The Wanderer" in my second novel "Miami Manhunt." There is a scene where Ray the movie critic character finds a small square of folded paper which opens up to a poem written by his promising love interest Ronnie. (p. 167 of the book.)

He walks alone amid the shadows and lights,
Wanders aimlessly around town.
No destination
A half moon is in sight.
He rounds a corner,
Hoping to find a soul to harbor him for a night.

I was reminded of my love of creative writing recently when I wrote a piece for the New York Times about the town of Portsmouth, New Hampshire where the Covid-19 advisories are released each Sunday with a poem from the city's poet laureate.  Whether she includes a free verse about the importance of the summer tradition of fishing in New England or an ode to a new class of nurses in Japan, poet laureate Tammi Trux helps break up the somber Covid-19 news while allowing residents a chance to reflect on something else other than the pandemic.
I had fun with the story and was inspired to write my own haiku which opens the story. The poetry also reminded me of one of the biggest honors I had in regards to creative writing. In 2014, my goddaughter Jessica and her then fiancee Billy asked me to write something special for their wedding on Cape Cod. They asked me to capture through my words how they met and fell in love.

It was a tall order. I kept thinking, what if they didn't like what I wrote? I remember spending weeks interviewing them and writing and writing rewriting. When I felt like I was done, I shared it with Jessica's mother, my cousin/godmother Mari, who said "it is perfect. Don't do anything to it. They are going to love it."  I received a standing ovation after I read it at the wedding. And I all could think of was "Whew! They liked it! I didn't ruin the wedding."

Because of my daily news writing and occasional blog entry here, I don't write nearly enough poetry as I did. But every now and then, when I'm inspired, I will pen a poem just as I did as a kid.







Sunday, August 2, 2020

When I Was the Jumpingest Boy on My Block

I loved jump roping. As a kid growing up in Miami Beach, it was something I excelled at. I could jump forward, backward and even criss-cross the rope side to side as I leapt through the loop.  Whenever my female classmates were jump roping or if there was a competition to see how many we could do in a minute, I was game.

I jumped so well that I won a few trophies and ribbons from the Miami Beach Parks and Recreation Department when I was in the after-school and summer camp program at Muss Park. That caught the attention of The Miami Herald which featured me in a small profile about my jumping rope skills.

I was 10 at the time and I remember the reporter Laura Misch visited our apartment. She sat with me in our living room and gently asked questions about what I loved about the sport and my future in it. She was respectful, sweet and really really pretty. She probably wanted to write about something more serious and bigger than a story about an effeminate boy with dark brown hair who was happy with a rope in his hand. But she made me feel like I was important that day and her sole focus. She genuinely seemed interested in knowing me.

After I happily showed her my collection of trophies, I then showed her what I could do. We stepped  outside my two-story apartment building. A Herald photographer Michel du Cille later met up with me and I showed him what I could do too. With my white rope in hand, I jumped fast, hard, the rope and my arms a blur in motion.  I remember I jumped so much that afternoon that my calves ached into tight balls of pain.  (Below is the photo that used with the story.)


A couple of days later on May 22 in the Sunday Miami Herald Beach Neighbors edition, there I was on page 14 under a section called "Portrait of Beaches People." My parents were so proud and especially my Tio Frank (Uncle Frank,) my mom's brother who was a boxing coach in Cuba and Venezuela where his boxers trained by jump roping. I remember he bought a stack of the Herald and told people about his jump roping nephew.

After the story was published, my classmates' moms and my teachers congratulated me when they saw me at North Beach Elementary or at Muss Park. (Back then, The Miami Herald was everywhere, dotting practically every household lawn and filling newsstands on every business corner, and I felt like everyone from Miami Beach to Bay Harbor Islands, the coverage area of Beach Neighbors, saw the piece.)

Below is the text of the story that the Herald published about me. I never got to see Ms. Misch again but I never forgot her professionalism and how she captured the spirit of a 10-year-old boy through her short 333-word story or what we call a "brite" in journalism.

Coincidentally about four years later, I joined the school newspaper at Miami Beach High. Less than two years later, I began working as an intern in the same Neighbors office she worked out of.  I began writing about Miami Beach's unsung heroes and colorful personalities like she did. I wanted to make the people I wrote about feel the same way Ms. Misch made me feel about me, that they mattered and their story was important, something I continue to do today at The New York Times.

BY LAURA MISCH Herald Staff Writer

Tell him there's no future in jumping rope and 10-year-old Johnny Diaz just smiles and bounces on. And on. And on.

He's the jumpingest boy on his block, in his school, maybe the world. Johnny Diaz is a rope jumping fanatic. While other kids his age catch fly balls and go for touchdowns, Johnny likes the simplicity of a piece of rope, a place to jump and his own boundless energy.

He practices three hours a day, sometimes, jumping fast and slow, forward and backward, arms crossed and arms rigid. Before he saved up and bought his own rope, Johnny practiced his routines with an electrical cord.

He's already worried about being a has-been in a little kids' game. In fourth grade at North Beach Elementary, he's a year too old to win any more trophies. He's also getting heavier, and that spells the end for any serious rope jumper. He was clocked once at 200 jumps a minute. Now the best he can do is 155. You've got to be light on your feet.

But Johnny has memories. The trophies and ribbons, more than 20 of them, sit on his parents' dresser. He won his first trophy at Muss Park, in first grade. It was the beginning of an unflagging enthusiasm for the gentle art of jumping rope.

The kids tease him.

"People say it's for girls, but it's not." Jump. Jump. Jump.

"Some people call me a sissy." Jump. Jump. Jump.

"But I don't care because I want to be a champion jumproper." Jump. Jump. Jump.

He knows he won't make it. He realizes, in the twilight of his rope jumping career, that there are other possibilities in the world.

"Tennis," he said, "is what I plan to play." He also collects coins and stamps.

There was one kid at school who told Johnny in so many words that anybody who spent his time jumping rope was a fool.

"If he said that in front of a boxer, he'd punch him." Jump. Jump. Jump.



Saturday, June 27, 2020

Catching up with "The Old Man and the Sea"

I was about 13 the first time I read "The Old Man and the Sea" by Ernest Hemingway.  It was a class assignment for my English class at my junior high in Miami Beach. The book was an easy read, pages filled with simple sentences that were powerful in their description and emotion.

The story of Santiago, an old fisherman down on his luck (84 days without a fish) always stayed with me.  Mr. Hemingway captured the spirit of dogged persistence as Santiago went head-to-head with a large marlin off Cuba's shores. He also showed a fatherly love between Santiago and a boy who looked up to him for his fishing prowess and who wanted to learn everything he knew about fishing and American baseball.

Looking for something new to read, I stumbled upon this book at Barnes and Noble. The thin white and blue book sat at the end of a table under a sign that read "One Sitting Reads."  It seemed to call to me and I smiled as I picked up the book and began leafing through it. I had to buy it.  I wanted to see if this tale still held the same magic I had experienced all those years ago.

It did. Mr. Hemingway transported me to the small beach town where Santiago lives in a shack sparse with personal belongings. I felt like I was on the skiff with the old man for two days as Santiago wrestled with the 18-foot marlin and eventually towed what was left of it back to shore. (Those damn sharks!)  The reader can taste the salt and feel the heat that Santiago experiences on the skiff being so far out to sea.



The simple sentences packed with so much color hooked me (so to speak.)  Descriptions such as "a great island of Sargasso weed that heaved and swung in the light as though the ocean were making love with something under a yellow blanket" and describing a dolphin as "true gold in the last of the sun and bending and flapping wildly in the air."

The book carried so many themes, the love and respect of the sea, the love and respect between a mentor and protegee.  The book also reminded me of the first time I went fishing.

I was 14 when my cousin's husband took me out one early Saturday morning to Watson Island in Miami where we boarded a large boat called the "Blue Sea II" with about 20 other people looking to catch some fish.  We ventured off the coast of Miami to a point that we could barely see the downtown skyline in the distance. After bobbing on the boat for an hour or so, I remembered suddenly feeling a tug on my line, so strong it almost pulled me over the rail.

I was excited and scared and nervous, not sure what to do but others gathered around me and cheered me on. After a few minutes of leaning forward and back, pulling my rod and reeling in some line, I plucked the fish out of the dark blue water. I did it!

There was a middle-aged couple who congratulated me and the wife offered to take a picture of my prize. She was kind of enough to mail it to me. I received the photo and nice note in the mail about a week later. And below is that photograph.

The Young Kid and the Sea. 









Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Review of "Blue Marlin"

Jenny is an adventurous 13-year-old who dreams of being a novelist.  When she's not riding her bike and spying on her neighbors in her Virginia town in 1958, she's jotting down scenes and ideas in her notebook for her later novels.  During one of her spying escapades, she discovers that her lawyer father is having an affair. Does her socialite mother know? How long has this been going on?

The discovery of the affair sets off a series of events that will take the family on a healing road trip to to Key West in Lee Smith's novella "Blue Marlin," the name of the motel where the family stays. Ms. Smith brings the reader on the road as the family drives through Florida, Miami and finally, the Keys.

For anyone who has enjoyed the trek to Key West, the book serves as a mini-travel guide. The reader sees what the city was like in 1959 through the eyes of a teenager experiencing it for the first time.

"But I loved that final part of the drive, with the luminous sea and sky surrounding us and the Keys with their wonderful sounding names: Key Largo, Cudjoe, Sugarleaf, Saddlebunch, Raccoon," Jenny narrates in the final leg of the trip.

The book is told through Jenny's point of view, as if she's sitting next to you in the lobby of the Blue Marlin and chatting away about her parents during their month in Key West.
As Jenny explores the island on her own and performs a daily good deed, she makes some keen observations about the carnival bustle of Key West where "everyone seemed to have all the time in the world" and "old frame houses covered and sometimes hidden by lush vegetation."

To Jenny, Key West was where the "the light was green and golden" and the city was a "disorienting, a bright buzz of color and noise."  Her descriptions are spot on;  her narrations are mostly fun and yet sad at times as she sees the chasm between her parents because of the affair. She realizes that she has become the glue to help her parents patch things up.

But Key West can be a "geographical cure" and it just so happens that the Hollywood movie "Operation Petticoat" with Tony Curtis and Cary Grant is being filmed in town. The cast is also staying at the Blue Marlin, a motel "that was made of blue-painted concrete, two stories in a U shape around a good-sized pool featuring a diving board and a water slide and lots of lounge chairs and palm trees."

Ms. Smith writes with heart as she describes Jenny and her mom enthusiastically watching the actors dive into the pool and talking on the phone in the lobby. Ms. Smith also captures how Jenny befriends some young friendly Cuban female dancers who paint her nails and keep an eye on her. I won't spoil the ending but it involves a lively big submarine scene from the movie and the family gets to help.

"Blue Marlin" is a short read (123 pages and the book fits in the palm of my hand) but Ms. Smith's descriptions of everyday slow-going Key West life makes the novella a charming, breezy summer read.