Resuming Life

I’m staring deeply into a large, ominous, empty white text box on my screen as a small vertical text cursor blinks, staring back at me. I faintly remember writing my first blog entry eleven years ago (to the week), as a 15 year old boy typing on his keyboard in the middle of the night. Every time I log-in to write on my website, I see the same cursor, monotonous in its dependable, unvarying appearance.  What does the cursor see in me? Definitely not the same person it saw the last time I logged-in. What collection of words can even begin to describe the jumble that’s in my head? My name is Scott Harden, my future is changing before my eyes, and I’ve chosen to use this website to continue to document my life as it unfolds.

It’s been 298 days since I’ve last written. For anyone who’s been through a hard time, part of getting better is acting like ones self again. For me, that’s doing the things that I used to do: designing circuits, writing code, building radios, and documenting my projects on my website. Me, starting to write again – forcing myself to write again – is a step in a positive direction, and an indication that I am starting to be okay. My intention is to resume building and sharing projects on this website like I used to.

I feel it is important to address some of the recent changes in my life in a clear manner. I refuse to resume posting code and pictures of circuits all the sudden without acknowledging the serious issues that I’ve dealt with and am continuing to deal with. I choose not to ignore these things – a decision made out of respect, and out of logic. It’s important that it’s obvious that (a) these things happened, (b) I’m working to be okay with them, and (c) I’m not ignoring them. I have noticed that ignoring serious issues by pretending that they do not exist is one of the most dangerous and destructive coping mechanisms a person can exhibit. People behave this way around me often, but I, in an effort to improve my situation, refuse to ignore my challenges.

I will attempt to describe a few of the highlights of the last nine months of my life. It’s certainly not an exhaustive list, but it touches on a few of the significant experiences I have gone through, changes which have affected me, and a few of the events that made me happy since I last wrote here.

I began a new Ph.D. program in Neuroscience through the Interdisciplinary Program in Biomedical Science through the College of Medicine at the University of Florida. I am currently in my 4th year of dental school (in my 10th year of colletge currently), and I’m considering starting a new program from scratch. Rather than throw-away my dental degree (which I’ve been working on for several years and spent quite a lot of money to pursue), I am seeking a combined D.M.D/Ph.D. degree. This will allow me to graduate with a degree in dental medicine (D.M.D.) through the UF College of Dentistry about the same time I get my Ph.D. in Neuroscience through the UF College of Medicine. I begin this August, and I couldn’t be more excited. As my Google Scholar author page reports, I’ve had a lot of excellent experience publishing research in the past, and I’m eager to begin life again as a biomolecular graduate student. I have yet to decide the specific direction of my research, but if I could do anything in the world, I would try to find a project which lets me dip into bioinformatics. The pictures below are of me on the day of my PhD interview. I think I nailed it 🙂

It looks like I’m kind of sick. To make a long story short, I’m in a strange diagnostic limbo where it’s looking like I may have a pretty serious, rare, and somewhat difficult to diagnose form of cancer (stage 4 peripheral T-cell lymphoma), but at the same time it seems there is a chance it could be a weird, rare ailment that’s not as serious (an obscure autoimmune condition or abnormal presentation of chronic infection). The type of cancer it is currently proposed to be is pretty bad, and people usually don’t live too long after their diagnosis. Intriguingly, my symptoms and clinical presentation don’t reflect the rapidly destructive nature commonly associated with this disease, leaving open the possibility that it might not be that form of cancer after all. I have hard, enlarged lymph nodes (with abnormal histology demonstrated by 1 needle biopsy and 2 separate surgeries) in all quadrants of my body, and have a lot of fatigue (which I combat with large volumes of coffee). Other than that, I’m relatively normal (physically, at least). The picture to the right is me on the first visit to the oncologist. I didn’t take it too seriously. I kept thinking (and still do to some degree) there’s no way it could be that bad.  I mean, who my age gets sick like this? And right on the heels of losing my wife? It’s too coincidental, it can’t be that serious! Realistically we still don’t know for sure exactly what it is, and it’s too early to tell how this will affect my life. It’s a strange experience grappling with the idea that I might only live a few more years, knowing at the same time that my cancer might not be that bad and I may have a long, relatively normal life. I will know more a few months from now. In the mean time, I’m content planning my life as if I will be completely fine (which is certainly may be the case), and if I get sick along the way I’ll re-evaluate my situation if the need arises. For now, I’m quite positive. If anyone were to get a one in a million disease and get through it unscathed, it would be me!

Here are a few relevant images from my medical experiences within the last few months. The left image is my PET CT, which depicts active metabolism. I was injected with radioactive glucose, and the tissues that work hard absorb it and appear as “hot” on the image. I was lying down (for about 30 minutes), so the only active organs should be my heart and brain. The kidneys/bladder are illuminated because it filtered some of the material from the blood. Actively growing tumors also uptake glucose, and are labeled on this image. While the majority of my tumors are benign and slow growing, this image shows a few rapidly growing tumors: one on my upper right leg (which was removed with surgery #1, second picture), one small one at the base of my neck (which was removed with surgery #2, third picture), and a few scattered ones under each of my arms. The active ones were removed to aid in diagnosis, and it’s not feasible to remove all of the affected lymph nodes. The last picture shows me after my most recent surgery coming out of anesthesia. I don’t even remember it being taken – I was pretty high at the time, as you can infer from the photo 🙂

Many people have asked me how I am doing after the death of my wife Angelina. Unexpectedly losing a spouse at any age is difficult, but at such a young age (I was 25, she was 24, we were married for 4 years) it’s even harder to rationalize sometimes. No words I write can even begin to describe the complex array of emotions I carry. Although I wish things had turned-out differently, I still feel fortunate to have had Angelina in my life, and I know unquestionably that I am a better person for having known her, and am thankful we got to share as much as we did. The picture on the right is the last one I have of us together. (I’m in the blue shirt, she’s in the black shirt). It was taken about two weekends before she died. We went with a group of my dental school classmates to Islands of Adventure (part of Universal Studios) in Orlando. If you had told me then that I would be a widower in a couple weeks, I couldn’t have even begun to comprehend it. I will always miss her, but I know that she would not want me to destroy my life because she is gone. In a note she wrote for me the day she died, she said “I love you, Scott, more than you will ever know.” It’s a phrase I remember and repeat in my mind every day, and it’s given me comfort over the last several months. I know that I will always carry part of her with me.

Several people have e-mailed me in concern due to the fact that I had stopped posting over the last few months. Again, I was surprised and honored the unexpected support I’ve been getting over the internet from people I don’t really even know. The following quote is one that came in this morning.

It has been a while since I have last visited and I really hope you’re doing OK since your last post. I can’t pretend to remotely know how you feel, even with the time that has passed since then. Just wanted to say I wish you well and miss your posts. All I can say is that I know that there have been periods of time in my life where I put down the soldering iron due to life… even for a couple of years. But, I always come back around because its part of who I am… and I hope it will be for you as well.

–Jeremy

The truth is, when Angelina died, life stopped. I stopped answering email, I stopped adding to my website, I stopped making phone calls, I even distanced myself from my own family for a while. Slowly, one by one, I’m resuming these activities. A few months ago, I unpacked my electronics workstation in my new apartment. It was a little premature, as I only worked at my station 1 day and took a few more months before I came back to it, but now it’s a weekly process. For a long time I felt guilty even thinking about picking-up my silly projects again. I felt that, after everything she and I had gone through, it seemed fickle. With a little time and some self-reflection, I realized that Angelina encouraged me to do these things throughout our marriage. I remember her telling me that she went to college and bragged “my husband is on hack-a-day“. I told her that my academic publications on PubMed are more impressive, and I’ll always remember her response: “Yeah, but you get more excited every time you make it on hack-a-day”. I remember this and remind myself that, if she were here, I think she’d still continue to encourage me to do what I enjoy. While silly little projects might not seem significant, they do make me happy, and I think she would be proud of me for working on them.

Angelina left a few special reminders on my workbench. A few months after she died, and as I would unpacking my workstation again, I noticed a carving she made in my workbench. I almost threw away this table when I moved, and I’m so glad I didn’t. I think Angelina carved it with a car key, probably on the day this post was made, when I left her unattended for a while soldering at my station. I also found a message she wrote on my roll of solder. I didn’t remember seeing it before, so I imagine it was something she wrote the last few days she was alive. It is really special to me.

 One of the things I’ve done that’s really helped me a lot is to get out of my comfort zone a little bit and go places and do things I’ve never done before, often on a whim. This has led me to have a lot of a lot of fantastic experiences, and give me some new things to occupy myself with and remind me that there’s still a lot of life out there left to live. Over the last several months, I tried to minimize the amount of time I spent doing things I’d done before. I noticed that the more time I spent doing the same old things, the more I felt like a part of me was missing, and the worse I felt. Changing scenery and being in new places, it felt less like something was missing, and began letting me establish the feeling of being okay on my own. I stayed away from Gainesville as much as I could, stayed away from family as much as I reasonably could (sorry mom and dad if you read this one day), and kept the amount of time I spent interacting with my old friends from dental school to a minimum. For some reason, nothing made me feel worse inside than being around my old environment, and avoiding it for a while was my way of trying to heal. For several months, this behavior was the only thing that made me feel better. Luckily, within the last few weeks, things have started to settle down, and I’m a little more comfortable settling-back into some of my old environments. I’m going to toss-in a sizable collection of random photos from the last several months. I’m not going to describe them in detail – it’s more an indication that yes, I’m alive, and yes, I’m getting out there a little. I’ll post them in little clusters with descriptions in between…

I marched in the UF homecoming parade with the University of Florida Gator Amateur Radio Club. I participated in the “out of the darkness” walk for suicide awareness sponsored by the Suicide Survivors of Northeast Florida group. I volunteered to operate as net control for Gator Amateur Radio Society during the 5 points of life “relay for life” marathon (official site). I spent some time in Georgia and caught a sunrise on the east coast of Florida over the ocean.

I practiced advanced suturing techniques utilizing a pig jaw. I actually messed it up pretty badly… oops? Next time I’ll do it on a person. Scary, right? I took an awesome photo of the dental school early in the morning, and the radio antennas are visible on the top. I have a picture at the 2011 “art walk” in downtown Gainesville, Florida. A few days after my wife died, I got a new apartment and moved in with a dental school classmate. His name is Ray, and he’s a pretty cool guy. I’m very lucky to have him. He moved out of his old apartment and into my apartment in less than a week’s notice. I spent some time in Georgia and had the opportunity to operate my Yaesu 857-D portable. I have a 25 foot boom with an inverted-vee wire antenna fed by 300-ohm ladder line. I worked Italy on 40m (7MHz) CW (Morse code) on 20 watts.

I visited the base of the Appalachian Trail in Georgia, Bok Tower in Lake Wales, and a high-rise retirement home in Tampa. Another photo is of me with my two sisters (who were obviously adopted). You can see me operating as net control for the 5-points of life relay marathon early in the morning. Also there is a picture with me beside my friend Bill, W4HBK. He and his wife were wonderfully kind in offering me a place to stay over a portion of the Christmas break. Bill is a fellow QRSS’er (who mans the Pensacola Snapper) and we had a great time working with antennas, looking at QRP equipment, and testing 160M WSPR. It seemed like a random thing for me to do (drive 6 hours to spend several days with a family I hadn’t met before), but was a wonderful experience and I am thankful to both of them.

Here are some more photos of me working as net control for the race. I also went shooting with a sharpshooters group at a shooting range after hours. That’s a scoped 22, and it’s accurate as heck. It was pretty fun to shoot. I also began working on some new micro-controller projects, and I even purchased an arduino. I’ve had the arduino for a few months and haven’t used it for anything yet. Between you and me, it’s an annoyance since I’m so used to programming these ATMEL microcontrollers in AVR-GCC, but I figure that I should do at least *one* project with Arduino for the sake of doing it. It’s what everyone is using these days.

I started getting into electronics again a couple months ago. I learned how to etch PCBs at home (using the toner transfer method with hot ferric chloride) and am making digital QRSS transmitter designs. My signal is the one that looks drunk, swerving all over the QRSS road. The picture of me by a fence was in Ocala at a gokart racetrack. One of my professors took a few students, and it was a pretty cool day. It was the week I found out I was sick.

There I am shooting again at a friends house. I don’t remember the details of that weapon (I shot quite a few that day), but I think it was a 9mm with a red-dot scope. I spent a little more time in the wilderness up in Georgia, and had some time to stop by Georgia Tech two days ago. I visited to watch a friend’s friend give her master’s thesis defense. She did really well, and while I was there I snapped a picture of the campus indicating the proximity of the Georgia Tech Amateur Radio Club (W4AQL) to the Coca-Cola factory. Also pictured is my QRSS transmitter, a somewhat novel design using no potentiometers. The oscillator is a 74HC240 with a varactor diode, allowing frequency adjustment via a potentiometer, and a lowpass-filtered PWM line from the microcontroller to provide modulation. The degree of modulation is adjustable via the second potentiometer.

The nighttime image is a small restaurant a few friends took me to. The lights were spectacular. I’m also eating a frozen banana. I get my hair cut in my friend’s kitchen. His name is Don and he is a dental student too. My hair cuts are $5. I visited the coast and have a strange picture of me touching my hair. I operated the W4DFU radio station during the CQWW contest. I also visited a museum. Can you believe I went my entire life without ever actually seeing a dinosaur skeleton in person?

The photo from space indicates a successful retrieval of a camera that was launched back in August. It was placed on a high altitude balloon launched the same day Angelina and I drove to Orlando for the weekend (the next day the photo of us above was taken). It took photos as it ascended, then landed, and it was lost for several months. Some boys playing in the woods found it and gave it to their mom, who contacted us. The photos are pretty impressive, and I’ll post details in a future entry. There’s another photo of me on a beach, and one of me at a jellyfish exhibit. I look funny in the car playing with my camera. I recently realized that if I pushed the correct button, there was a camera facing me that could take a picture. Also there’s a photo of me at an old artillery battle fortress in Pensacola, Florida. I’m not much of a history buff, I’m not sure what it’s formal name is.

It’s nice being in the woods. A friend of my owns a house far enough out of town that we can shoot in the back yard. Bok tower in Lake Wales as seen from beneath a tree. I went there for a carillon concert one night after the sun went down. It was absolutely beautiful. I visited a small Irish pub in North Florida one day and listened to a small guitar player. It was so sparsely populated that, at one point, I think my table was the only one occupied. It was nice though. The picture of me sitting on the couch is from Christmas at a big family get-together. That was an experience. Like I mentioned above, my wife’s death hurts the most when I’m in a place where I feel she should be. When I do “old things”, and go to the places we used to go together, and be in situations where we always were together, her absence is unignorably overwhelming and painful. I imagine holidays will continue to hurt for a while. I don’t know how I got this photo, did my sister take it? Anyhow, that’s that. In another photo my fiend Ben sits at my workstation in one of the photos. Occasionally I invite engineering students to spend time at my apartment. With all the silly old electrical equipment I’ve amassed over the years, my apartment is turning into quite the electronics workshop! I’m posing in a tux with my sister, sporting a fine mustache.

At the March for Babies walk in Gainesville, Florida (where I served again as net control station for the event), there was a military representative who brought a rock climbing wall. I made it up two of the three paths. That third one was rough, and I never got to the top. My sister got married a few weeks ago. She went from Kelly Harden to Kelly Tran, and I got to be at the wedding. Actually, I was part of the wedding. I read Corinthians 13 during the service. It’s commonly known for “Love is patient, love is kind…“, but there were some ironic parts of the chapter that were a little hard to read: “If I have everything but do not have love, I am nothing” (1-3), “love always perseveres” (7), and “Love never fails” (8). I took it as a personal challenge, and made myself to be okay with the way life is. The harder something is for me emotionally, the more I feel like I’ve grown after getting through it. There’s another photo of me at my workstation. I don’t think I knew it was being taken. There’s a picture of a poster I found in a shoe store. The message was pretty cool, so I snapped a picture. One of the days working in the dental clinic, let’s just say I had “computer problems”.

Kicking-off the transition back into internet productivity, I will share some code which I utilized to create today’s entry. I wanted to rapidly browse through numerous high resolution images to choose which ones to share, but pressing the left and right arrows was too slow (some of the large images took 5+ seconds to load). I therefore copied all of the images (*.jpg) created within the last 6 months and copied them into a single folder. I whipped-up a script to use ImageMagick’s convert feature (which is available for linux and windows) to create 300px wide thumbnails and place them on a static HTML page for viewing in a browser. Each thumbnail was clickable, revealing the original, large image. Below is the script I used to do this.

import os
out="<html><body>"
fnames=os.listdir("./")
fnames.sort() # alphabetize them
for fname in fnames:
if ".jpg" in fname or ".JPG" in fname:
if "sml_" in fname: continue
cmd="convert -resize 300 %s sml_%s"%(fname,fname)
print cmd #note that this requires ImageMagik installed
os.system(cmd)
out+='<a href="%s">'%(fname)
out+='<img src="sml_%s"></a><br>'%(fname)
out+='%s<br><br><br>n'%(os.path.split(fname)[1])
out+="</body></html>"
f=open("pics.html",'w')
f.write(out)
f.close()
print "DONE"

What do I plan to do from here? I’m starting my PhD program in August, and I plan to hit it hard. I feel lucky that I have the opportunity to study biomolecular science again. I’m holding my breath for it to start, and am looking forward to having something academically and intellectually challenging to devote myself to. I plan to continue making my electronics and programming projects, and publishing them here on my website. If my health changes, it all might change, but I’m holding out that I’ll be okay.  All in all, I’ve lived through an unbelievably rough year, but I look forward to getting back into the game and pushing into life head first.