Monday, May 15, 2006

An old acquaintance gets a boost

At my Saturday morning AA meeting, it's an interesting group of (mostly younger) men who attend. There are playrights; artists in paints, wood, metals, and other media; musicians from rock guitarists to jazz pianists; at least two legitimate stand-up comics; and a variety of other talented folks.

One fellow is a cinematographer - a video/film cameraman. He's been all over the world, seen all kinds of things with all kinds of people. Some of his footage was on the Chicago news recently, and he spent an evening last week hobnobbing with Conan O'Brien. And I remember the insecure little-boy voice inside me saying, "Gee...I wish I could say I know famous folks, like these guys do..."

Tonight, I found out that I know a guy whose knowledge and skill just might save the world.

My friend Eric's college roommate was Rick Bright. Eric and Rick were great friends even after they left the University of Kansas, and Rick went on to other graduate studies.

My connection with Rick was meeting him by email in the summer of 1999. Rick had been born with a sunken chest (where the bone that joins the ribs up front actually grows inward), and in the middle of 1999 it had grown inward so much that Rick was having trouble breathing, walking, anything that required much in the way of oxygen. In a very short period of time, his condition degenerated to the point where he was passing out at the grocery store, or unable to walk up flights of stairs.

That's when I "met" Rick, by email. Our church had been doing daily email devotions, and Eric and I were pretty much the mainstays of that effort at first. Eric had evidently forwarded some of my stuff to Rick, and Rick seemed to enjoy it. So we started up a conversation - about his condition, both physical and spiritual.

Rick was trying to get a specific type of surgery done that would undo this damage, and the place to have it done, at the time, was the UCLA medical center. But (of course) he got tied up in a battle with his health-insurance company about whether they would cover this life-givng exercise. (They, of course, wanted some half-vast hack to do something locally). So the battle was on...

Rick was also struggling with the Christian faith, and the Christian church, on a number of levels. So our emails were about half physiology, and half theology. Rick eventually had the surgery, charging the cost of it on his credit cards, and actually came out to Kansas to stay with Eric's folks while he recovered.

At the time, Rick was working on his 3rd or 4th degree, a doctorate in Immunology and Molecular and Viral Pathogenesis (say that one three times fast), and was working on research at Emory University and at the Centers for Disease Control. I always knew he was bright, beyond just the name...

So in talking with Eric yesterday, he'd heard from Rick shortly after Eric's dad's funeral in March. Turns out Rick Bright has a new job at Novavax as Vice President of Vaccine Research. He'll be leading efforts to develop a vaccine for the H5N1 avian flu, which many experts expect will make the mutating jump from birds to humans in a few short years. And if his work so far is any indication, he's the man to do it. Two months after getting hired at Novavax, he was addressing the World Health Organization. Eric said he spends most of his time jetting around the world to wherever outbreaks of avian flu are occurring. His work, if it's as successful as some folks think, could well put him on the path of a Nobel Prize...

Oh, and his health problems? The 32-year-old guy who couldn't get to the grocery store without passing out in 1999 has participated in a number of bicycle marathons, including a 400-mile bike ride across Canada to raise funds for AIDS research. His management-team picture sure looks like he's in great shape! (Ricks's photo is here, at the bottom of the list.)

So it seems I have a famous connection after all. I doubt I'll be slowing him down long enough to have coffee, but it's good to see a happy ending to a story, once in a while.

1 comment:

Peter said...

It is quite possible that he feels privileged to know you, Steve man.