Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Los Angeles AIDS WALK

My first exposure to HIV/AIDS was when I lived in downtown New York City with my friend Fidel, more than a decade ago. His brother had been HIV positive for quite a long time. I’m not exactly sure for how long. Fidel came from a family of four boys.

Fidel was my best friend at the time. We watched his little brother die, together. I’ll never forget the day of the funeral. It was so unbelievably sad. I can still remember the look on his mother’s face – it broke my heart. Fidel’s mother died within the week of a heart attack. My thoughts at the time were: watching her son die – quite literally – broke her heart.

This is the reason that participating in the Los Angeles AIDS Walk was so special to me.

And this is how it all happened. I was hanging out in a great little coffee shop out here on Pico Street called UnUrban. I picked up LA Weekly and I saw an ad for the The Los Angeles Aids Walk. The next morning I went in to work and suggested to my team that we cover it.

I work with such wonderful guys (and a gal.) Tony Kucenski is my Executive Producer (read “my better half”). Joe Doughrity is my writer/field producer – his energy is infectious! Lance is my editor (he’s actually known as “Crabby” because his last name is Crabtree, which is ironic because he is the least grumpy person I have ever met!). Kirstin Gundersen is my graphic artist, she’s quite simply a doll. Jason is my webmaster, also a super sweet doll. Dave Freeman is my lead editor and perhaps the most laid back man I have ever met (he has to be, he deals with me on a daily basis! … read nightmare.)

So everyone was game to cover the event! Not to sound too cliché, but it was an amazing experience. Simply the fact that there was so much joy – and so much hope – at an event celebrating a disease riddled with so much sadness.

It gave me hope.

So don’t forget to check out the three-part series that is up on the Web right now, at either, or

Saturday, November 1, 2008

The Gala!

Finally the cab pulled up outside of the Virginia Beach Convention Center (“Virginia is For Lover’s,” I later learned, through many a bumper sticker.)

I pushed through the revolving doors and there was this wonderful moment when I set my sights on the Chief Executive Officer of Physicians for Peace – Retired Brigadier General Ron Sconyers. It almost felt as if we hadn’t been apart for a couple of months because the KBTV Productions team had just cut a five-part series profiling Mr. Sconyers’ work at PFP. You have to understand that this is a gentleman with whom I had accompanied on two separate missions – one in Nigeria and one in Guatemala. We have also spent countless hours on the phone discussing everything from fact checking KBTV episodes and Blogs to the birthday party for his twins. Something happens on these missions – you become very close, very quickly. This is why the Gala was so special for me – because I got to see my old pals, Dr. Margie, Nurse Evan and Nurse Francis, Jaya, Mary – and that’s just to name a few. It almost felt like a family reunion.

It was the Physicians for Peace annual “Celebrate the Nations” Gala. The evening started out with a VIP reception where guests from many countries who are involved in the work of PFP were able to meet and mingle. Among the distinguished attendees was Senator Bill Frist, M.D., this year’s recipient of the Charles E. Horton Humanitarian Award for Global Health; as well as The Honorable Abdoulaye Diop, Ambassador from Mali; Domingo Nolasco, Minister and Consul General of the Philippines; and Myra Obendorf, Mayor of Virginia Beach. Also during the reception, PFP gave special recognition to Hampton Roads area hospitals for their support of PFP’s mission work.

Then the evening got under way, and we all enjoyed an exquisite, Latin-inspired meal and mariachi serenade. The program, hosted by Kathryn Barrett of WVEC-TV, included the first annual Volunteer of the Year Awards, as well as a performance by Latin Ballet of Virginia. PFP Board Member Morgan Davis captivated the crowd with his charm as our very own auctioneer while raising money for our cause. An inspiring speech was given by Former Senate Majority Leader, Bill Frist, M.D., a leader in the quest for sustainable healthcare solutions for the developing world.

I’ll also mention that I was awarded the “President’s Award” for raising awareness for PFP’s causes through writing and video. It was an amazing feeling!

I want to thank Liz, Court and Dave for accompanying and supporting me at the Gala. And I want to thank Ron and everyone else at Physicians for Peace for allowing me the opportunity to be a part of their family.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Lights, Camera....Action!

Court arrived on Saturday afternoon – soon after the rolling-down-the-hill-at-the-park event. Liz was meditating, Dave was at Kinko’s making business cards, so I grabbed Court and we headed to the Cheesecake Factory for a couple of turkey burgers. (One of my dirty little secrets is that I only eat half of my meal and I take the other half to go. In this case my intent was to bring the other half to Liz, who eats probably eight times a day. Nevertheless, Liz swore it was hamburger not turkey.)

The event started at 6 p.m. so we decided to meet downstairs at 5:30 p.m. A cab would be waiting.

As I mentioned, Dave Freeman, my FCP editor, had arrived late the night before and had gone to Kinko’s to make business cards because the ones we already had, hadn’t arrived in the FedEx. Dave Freeman is one of my best friends, my on-again, off-again roommate and I simply adore him. All said, he lives in his own Private Idaho. He is one of those super talented, creative people who (pretty much) wakes up when the sun goes down.

I mention all of this because we were supposed to be at the event at 6 p.m. Dave arrived downstairs at, you guessed it, 6 p.m. I can’t really complain though because he was in charge of the video equipment, still photography equipment, audio, business cards and copies of the trailer for our documentary “Two Million Tears: Africa’s Silent Epidemic.” He is just so adorable – that is “how he rolls.”

This is my favorite part. We pushed through the revolving doors to jump in to our chariot. Court is the consummate gentleman. He approaches the curb and opens the door to what can only be described as a jalopy (according to Wikipedia a “Jalopy is a common slang nickname in the English language for an old, decrepit and unreliable automobile which has limited mechanical abilities) I am wearing a Christian Dior red dress with a white mink stole (fake) and all I could think of was: being petrified that there would be professional photographers shooting me getting out of a taxi cab from the ‘70s in a multi-thousand dollar dress. I know, I know, I could have worse problems. The good news is that when I told Court of my fears, let’s just say I have never seen him laugh so hard.

Stay tuned for Part 4!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

How I Became Tigger

Ok. Let’s go back five days so I can start at the beginning.

I left Los Angeles to meet my dear friend Liz Brown; we spent a day hanging out on her boat – a gorgeous boat with a gorgeous captain named Chris Fox!

The following day we were slated to fly in to Norfolk Virginia in advance of the Annual Physicians for Peace gala in Virginia Beach. Liz decided to come in a show of support. I was a little down – my grandmother had died; well, let’s just say I was feeling a tad unsettled. My dear friend Court Coursey came as well. There is something so wonderful about putting a bunch of friends together and watching them interact – my experience is that they get along almost immediately. (By the end of the weekend, I thought Court and Liz were going to run off in to the sunset!)

Liz and I landed on Friday night around 7 p.m., checked in to the Westin and quickly realized we were smack in the middle of a PUD. According to Wikipedia, a PUD is “a designed grouping of varied and compatible land uses, such as housing, recreation, commercial centers and industrial parks, all within one contained subdivision.” I was thrilled because everything was in walking distance. We went for sushi at a place called Zushi and went to bed – not without watching Angelina Jolie kick some serious ass in a terrible movie called “Wanted.”

My Final Cut Pro editor, Dave Freeman, was flying in that night (he arrived after Liz, Angelina and I all had gone to bed.)

So I wake up the following morning to Liz calling me “Tigger" because of the way I bounce in and out of beds and bounce around hotel rooms. I didn’t know who Tigger was until I Googled him. (I’ve decided to take it as a compliment.)

We woke up Dave to go to breakfast. When we arrived back at the hotel, Liz announced (read mandated) that we needed to “go get some nature.” We asked the concierge to direct us to a park. He recommended one called “Trashmore” … it was beautiful! (We were later told by the cab driver that it was called Trashmore because it is built on a landfill.)

We stumbled upon an event being thrown for children with Down Syndrome. We chatted with the locals and ate snow cones. Then Liz decided that she and Dave were going to play a game where you lie down on the grass and roll down a hill. This is what ensued … (see pics)

Don’t forget to check in for Part 3!

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The Week I Started Blogging Again …

On Tuesday, my grandmother died.

On Wednesday evening I flew to the East Coast to bond with one of my dearest friends and tele-shmooze with my family – over the death, but frankly – well, really, a lot of other things.

On Friday evening, around 7 p.m., I landed in Norfolk, Virginia in advance of a black-tie event where I was set to receive an award at the Physicians for Peace Gala recognizing "a person outside of the medical field" who worked tirelessly to help those less fortunate.

It's Sunday – and depending on what time zone you're in – I am somewhere over Chicago flying back to LA. Let's just say I'll land around 4 p.m., PT.

This blog is a four-part series. But I am going to begin at the end – and then take you back through the last four days with photos and my impressions.

Let's start in Dulles. My flight is set to leave at 11:31 a.m. EST. I board the plane – its layout is a 3-3. What that means is that there are three seats to the left, three seats to the right and one, narrow, Medieval-esque aisle, in between.

It is over-booked and the passengers are breeding and bleeding. I look down at my boarding pass – 26-B. I stumble and bump and angle and slither and beg and request and the list goes on and on. Somehow I make it to 26-B. I look up at my two mates for the flight – 26-A and 26-C – and it's almost as if I've been slapped right down in the middle of an early Monty Python movie.

I am bookended by two passengers that by all accounts are morbidly obese. The guy in 26-A weighed-in somewhere over the 400 pound ballpark and his wife, 26-C, weighed north of 300 pounds. (How do I know this? I later asked the flight attendants when they were scrambling around to find me an alternate seat – they didn't.)

I was one of the last passengers to board, which is somewhat typica;. But what was atypical was the fear I read in their faces. It was as if I had kicked-in a fully-loaded home invasion. They looked terrified.

And, as I was told later, so did I.

I shimmied in between them, locked my elbows to my side and began to stew. Seethe about how unfair it all was. I recalled the Op-Eds in USA Today and Time Magazine about how unfair it was that "fat" people weren't forced to buy two seats.

It was then that the Head Steward arrived and provided them with "seatbelt extensions." I later learned that these are given to those folks whose seatbelt is not large enough to "hold them in or provide them comfort in their physical state." I freaked out. Five hours of this?

Then I calmed down and pulled out my laptop and began photoshopping pictures I had taken over the past four days. It always relaxes me.

I was acutely aware of how excruciating it all was, each time 26-A brushed up against my elbow … or how his wife, 26-C, would continually edge away from me into the aisle when the flight attendant wasn't around. We would all visibly – physically and emotionally cringe. It got worse when we heard a teenager – he was probably 17 years old, and a punk I might add – say to his friend that I looked like "a slice of turkey between two oversized bagels."

I'm not sure what happened next but I suddenly saw the flight attendant offering these United Airlines snack boxes that came in four different flavors/styles. I had my Bose head phones on so I simply shook my head no. I thought the tunes in my iPod would make this 5-hour sandwich-situation a bit more soothing. 26-A and 26-C shook their heads "no," too, instead reaching – or attempting to reach – for their "home-packed-lunches." They couldn't bend far enough to actually reach the containers – I was happy to assist. But, suffice it to say, it was getting more and more bizarre.

I looked left at the husband, his flesh was pushing so hard into the arm rest he (from the sound of it) was precluded from taking deep breathes. He smiled and opened up his Tupperware container of carrots and celery and began chomping away – providing a bigger smile. I smiled back – as hard as I could. And I prayed.

I put my lap top away and I shut my eyes. When I reopened them 26-A was just finishing swallowing a huge ham and brie cheese hoagie (with "the works") and tucking the wrapper into the pocket of the seat in front of him.

I thought nothing of it. I was just waking up from a nap … getting re-oriented into the space where I was.

26-A assumed what he perceived to be an expected level of disapproval emanating from me. He grimaced and cringed and then visibly whimpered. I touched his hand, returned the smile and as I was again tucking in my elbows, I saw a tear slide down his right cheek.

I handed him my United Airlines napkin and smiled – a smile of hope and empathy. He simply said: "I'm sorry; I'm trying."

I replied: "Aren't we all." And we laughed – that conspiratorial laugh – one from one stranger to the other. That we're all dealing with our "stuff" – it just comes up in different formats.

I imagine the whole point of this piece is: if I hadn't just attended the Annual Gala for Physicians for Peace, and won the President's Award for my efforts to help those in the developing world … I know I would not have had the sympathique that I had that Sunday afternoon for this morbidly obese married couple … my two fleshy bookends for this five-hour flight.

I understood at that moment that's all we can do – keep trying. And to keep praying.

This KBTV Productions Blog is a four-part series … I began with Part 4 … to be continued …

Monday, September 29, 2008

Two Million Tears: Africa’s Silent Epidemic

“I have no friends and my family won’t speak to me. Wherever I go, people run away from me due to the horrible smell that comes out of me because of the condition I have.” – Madeline, a 13-year-old girl from Zaria, Nigeria.

These are the words of a young lady, a teenager – barely – from Nigeria. After 24-hours in labor on the dirt floor of a hut, miles away from the hospital and doctors who could help her, she gave birth. But instead of a healthy baby, she was left with a stillborn son and a large tear that constantly leaked urine and feces.

The hurt of a dead child coupled with her new condition was too much for Madeline’s husband and family to bear. She was thrown out of her home and abandoned by everyone she ever knew.

This year, 130,000 girls and young women in the third world will develop what is known as a “vesico vaginal fistula” – a condition mainly caused by prolonged or unattended birthing labor. This devastating circumstance — known commonly by the acronym VVF — can be prevented with the proper medical care and fixed with a specialized, but relatively routine surgery. Yet sadly, most local surgeons are not trained to treat these young women; thereby they live out the rest of their lives without help, suffering silently; they hesitantly walk through their villages carrying a white, plastic bucket because they have no way to control the constant leakage.

This “leakage?” VVF leaves a woman – typically a very young girl – continually dripping urine and other vaginal fluids from fistulas, abnormal connections or tears formed between the bladder and vagina. Not only are these young women in immense physical pain, they also deal with tragic, emotional damage – in the form of complete rejection from their families, friends and communities; they become social outcasts.

While AIDS, famine, and war grab national attention, the growing VVF epidemic goes virtually unnoticed. Though the exact magnitude of the fistula problem worldwide is unknown, estimates have put the number of women living with the condition at nearly four million; at least two million of those live in Nigeria.

“Two Million Tears: Africa’s Silent Epidemic” tells their story.

To get at the heart of this devastating problem, The KBTV team and I traveled to northern Nigeria, the country hit worst by VVF. At a small hospital in Kaduna, in the southern region where 70 percent of the country’s VVF cases are, we followed a team of American surgeons and health care practitioners on a medical mission to repair dozens of women with VVF. We also delved into the stories of some of their patients, very young women like Madeline, who have known nothing but sorrow. From their journey to the hospital, to the operating table to the recovery room, we have followed their road to recovery and what it means for other women with VVF.

Part of the reason this epidemic has largely been ignored is the culturally sensitive nature of VVF. Some 97 percent of VVF cases are caused by prolonged obstructed labor during childbirth, which often occurs when women have no access to health care. However, a large proportion of these problems are the result of girls having children before they are fully developed. African culture, like many others in the developing world, practice early marriage; UNICEF estimates that 42 percent of girls in Africa are married before age 18.

In some African countries the figure is much higher, such as in Nigeria where there is a 76 percent incidence of child marriage, and in some areas of West Africa and in Ethiopia, girls are sometimes married as early as 7. African governments, such as that of Nigeria, are beginning to address the massive VVF problem, especially with the push of the United Nation’s millennium development goals, help is coming slowly. Africa is severely lacking the medical professionals trained to do these kinds of procedures.

It is organizations such as Physicians for Peace that make a difference by not only embarking on these missions – but raising awareness.

KBTV Productions, through our feature-length documentary “Two Million Tears: Africa’s Silent Epidemic.” We seek to bring light to an issue that has remained in the dark.

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Pod

In the blog prior, I mentioned "The Pod."  

 I'm not really certain about how much I can write about it but suffice it to say that I went on a spiritual retreat – somewhere in New Mexico – and I learned a heck of a lot about the architecture of how I can embark on being happy. Of course, now I just have to execute it. Let's also say that Liz Brown of the "Liz Brown Series" was involved.

I did something called a Sweat Lodge. I did lots of other stuff as well, but one of things that happened on my journey was that I met three people, Hope, Scot and Whitney. All of whom I know will be lifelong friends and all of whom have been doing this spiritual gig for eons. I was the newbie.

I couldn't take photos; and I don't want to write too much because apparently it takes the energy out of The Place. So I'll leave it to your imagination.  

 To be continued …