Media contact: Tom Hughes, (919) 966-6047, firstname.lastname@example.org
Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013
Written by Elizabeth Swaringen for UNC Health Care
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – You can never quite anticipate what words are going to come out of Bill Clanton’s mouth, but you better pay attention.
The humorous, direct turns of phrase carry life lessons that endear this bear of a man to his family, his health-care team and complete strangers.
“I like to think that these little shooting pains are the cancer cells leaving my body,” said Clanton, wincing and squeezing his blue eyes tight when the sensation gets his attention without warning. “I have lived in this body for 82 years, so I know when things are changing.
“And I’ve never had anything that Vick’s [Vapo-Rub] salve wouldn’t cure until this,” he said, pointing to his bulbous nose, red and blistered from radiation to treat the skin cancer inside his columella, the little column of tissue that divides his nostrils.
“But you see how pink and alive my skin looks,” said a seemingly unfazed Clanton of Aurora, N.C., (pop. 520) in Beaufort County. “That means there is blood circulation, and that is good.”
Clanton, retired from the U.S. Air Force and the construction industry but not from a life-long love of gardening and quail-hunting, received the radiation at UNC Hospitals over 25 days. He was referred to UNC by Dwight Grady, MD, an ear, nose and throat specialist in New Bern, after inflammation inside his nose refused to heal.
“It was a pretty sneaky tumor,” said William W. Shockley, MD, division chief of facial plastic and reconstructive surgery and W. Paul Biggers Distinguished Professor, to whom Clanton was referred. “It had grown up under the tissues in the tip of his nose. Surgery would have left him with less than half his nose.”
Dr. Shockley believed radiation was an equally viable option, and he called on colleague Bhisham S. Chera, MD, assistant professor in the Department of Radiation Oncology.
“Bill’s treatment was multidisciplinary for which we are known,” Dr. Chera said. “A lot of surgeons don’t have the understanding that surgery is not always the best thing. Dr. Shockley gets that.”
“That’s the beauty of working at UNC,” Dr. Shockley said. “We have specialists and super-specialists who can mobilize quickly. When I realized the surgery for which Bill was referred wasn’t his best option, Dr. Chera was able to see him that same day. We did the CT scans later that day, too, trying to accomplish as much as we could, being aware that Bill lives at least three hours away. It was a long first day, but he and his son-in-law, Jeff Fleming, left with a plan.”
The radiation treatment was complicated, but personalized. Clanton was fitted with a customized lead mask to protect his eyes and facial features as the radiation fields were changed during treatment to get at the pesky cells.
“The set-up and techniques were laborious, for him to sit through and for us to give,” Dr. Chera said. “But he has shown tremendous fortitude, plus he’s been so positive and jovial, characteristics we don’t always see in a patient.”
All of which comes as no surprise to Clanton’s children, ages 52 to 59, four of whom traveled from Texas and three towns in Georgia to take turns being with him during his treatment.
His daughter, Carla, and her family, stayed on their 15-acre farm in Aurora, caring for their mother, Gladys. “The best way I can help take care of Dad, is to take good care of Mom,” Carla said.
“He’s always been about family, faith and self-sufficiency,” said Chuck, 54, superintendent of city properties in Hapeville, Ga. “We never lacked for support, a kind word or advice. It’s about morals and integrity. He has always been there for us regardless. We wouldn’t be here if not for him.”
While in Chapel Hill, the Clantons stayed at SECU Family House, the 40-bedroom hospital hospitality house that is the ideal home-away-from-home for patients who may have daily appointments at the hospital or need immediate medical attention.
“Being at Family House is like going to a homecoming,” Chuck said. “You are able to be yourself and share yourself with others.”
“It’s like these big arms reach out and pull you in,” said Terry, 59, chief building official for Rockdale County in Conyers, Ga.
“There’s a warmth you can’t get at a hotel. You feel it regardless of how many times you go out and come back in.”
“There is a quiet understanding here,” said Rebecca, 52, of Houston, Texas. “Everyone here is hurting in some way, but yet we are supportive of each other. Being here is my chance to dote on my Daddy, but I know if I had to leave for some emergency at home, the people we’ve met just this week would take care of him.”
The Family House kitchen gave Rebecca and Bill the opportunity to nourish bodies, too.
Rebecca, winner of the Food Networks 2012 Cupcake Wars, made delectably decadent cupcakes for fellow house guests and staff — twice — to keep in practice for two upcoming cooking shows in the Lone Star State.
Bill turned out a few banana puddings and apple cobblers so an over-abundance of fresh fruit donated by local grocers wasn’t wasted. But his signature dish — sausage gravy and biscuits — converted more than one non-breakfast eater.
“And you know you have to use a wooden spoon to make the gravy,” Bill said. “It’s science. You will burn your fingers if you use a metal one.”
It’s talk that makes a difference for Bill. Always has, but especially during his care at UNC Hospitals.
“My doctors talk to each other,” Bill said, tears welling. “I have an invalid wife and a dead daughter because doctors in another state and in another time did not. I don’t know how to say it any stronger.”
(Bill and Gladys, his wife of 60 years, live with daughter, Carla, and husband, Jeff, a retired Master Gunnery Sergeant, USMC, who are primary caregivers. The Clantons’ oldest daughter, Debbie Clanton McLaurin, died in 2009 at age 53. An infant son, Michael Paul, died at two days old in 1962. Sons Barry, 59, and Jim, 55, live in Duluth, Ga., and Cincinnati, Ohio, respectively.)
The Clantons’ devotion to family does not go unnoticed.
“I typically have a long talk with the patient about what to expect,” Dr. Shockley said. “It’s a very detailed discussion because it’s important to understand the commitment it is going to take.
“For Bill and his children, they have a lot on their plates and have been thrown a lot of curve balls in life already. But they were unwaveringly united in their commitment to being there for Bill. When you see that, you know that things are going to go the way you want them to go, and you have the best shot at taking care of the patient.”
Bill completed treatment Aug. 27 and returned to Aurora to rest and heal, activities he believes are best achieved sitting on the 64-foot-long front porch where two swings and six rocking chairs only begin to accommodate his 14 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.
“The sweet potatoes and peanuts aren’t quite ready to harvest, but the tomatoes and cucumbers are done,” Bill said, showing pictures of the bounty from the family garden he canned on weekends at home during treatment.
“For now, it’s looking at all the zinnias and the thousands of butterflies we’ve had this season. If that’s not enough entertainment, a black bear comes thought the yard now and then.”