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Dr. Toon: Woody and Me

In this month's column, Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman reflects on how Woody Woodpecker helped save his life -- literally.

Woody Woodpecker saved a life. © Universal Studios.

The summer of 1978 rocked. I was performing in summer theater, had a new girlfriend and was preparing for my second year at Emerson College in Boston, where I majored in dramatic arts. I was in splendid condition and could belt out Broadway tunes as if to the proscenium born. Under the supervision of my acting profs and vocal trainer, I readied myself for that inevitable do-or-die journey to New York that so many Emersonians undertook upon graduation. Once there, Equity card in hand, I would forge my name in lights through dedication, sweat and sheer force of will.

In the meantime, there were plenty of mundane tasks to do. One of them was financing my education and lessons, and, when not rehearsing, I worked full-time. I performed hard, dirty work in a pallet yard, where I broke up old pallets with a sledgehammer and reassembled the usable parts with a pneumatic nail gun. That company is now defunct, and with good reason; it was discovered much later that it sat on the former site of a rubber company, which had thoughtlessly turned the place into a toxic dump before it folded. Before the summer ended, my health, my performing career and all my aspirations to fame would be destroyed. It remained to be seen if my existence would soon follow them.

I didnt think much of the lumps when they first appeared, or later when they grew. Some nagging infection was the likely cause, nothing I couldnt beat. That nagging ache in my flank? Got to be a muscle strain. I didnt go to my doctor; I felt fine, and there was too much to do: lines to learn, songs to practice, dates to enjoy, money to earn. Even as I dismissed them, awful things were happening beneath my skin. The lumps were a result of lymph glands stuffed with cancer cells, as if they were malignant dumplings. That ache in my side was a painfully enlarged spleen. I finally heeded my family and girlfriend and scheduled a comprehensive physical that August. The results sliced my denial to shreds.

Vials of blood, dozens of tests and the procedure I came to dread above all -- the bone marrow aspiration biopsy -- confirmed that I was a very sick 22- year-old. The diagnosis of lymphoblastic lymphoma, undifferentiated T-cell type was worsened by an anomaly; configurations of cancer cells never before seen in any patient over the age of 12. I would eventually make The New England Journal of Medicine, but that was the furthest thing from my doctors mind, and mine as well. In 1978, rare cancers were a death sentence, and no protocol really existed for a case like mine.

But every challenge has a few takers. The Sidney Farber Cancer Institute (known today as the Dana-Farber) was, and remains, one of the premier cancer facilities in the nation. The Farber was an exemplar of research and cutting-edge treatment, and my case was readily accepted. In September, I tottered into this revered institution, which was to be my home for much of the next two years. By that time the marrow of my bones were spewing eruptions of malignancy into my bloodstream; I had been designated a stage four patient and was prepared to submit to any regimen of treatment that had the remotest chance of staving off death. This was going to be a war.

The heaviest hitter in my protocol was Adriamyecin, a.k.a. Big Red," This agent, highly toxic to fast-growing cells, required careful intravenous administration; any leakage could produce burns to surrounding tissue. For some reason Big Red could only be injected directly after removal from refrigeration, and I could feel it spreading into my veins like a spiraling frost each time it was used. Cancer regimens of the day called for heavy dosing with steroids. I inflated from 140 to 185 pounds with such swiftness that dark red stretch marks striped my sides, underarms and groin. Soon I was a hairless, swollen parody of my former self. The steroids were to have other effects as well -- but that comes later.

Still, I would soon obtain a secret weapon not found in any research journal or laboratory: one of my lifelong toon buddies. Boston had two UHF television stations, and channel 38 carried the syndicated Woody Woodpecker Show every weekday at 4:00 pm. Cartoons were the happiest, least depressing thing possible at the time, and I eagerly anticipated Woody and his raucous antics at the end of a long day of infusions, tests, restless half-naps, doctors rounds and bouts of vomiting. Woody Woodpecker didnt care how I looked or how sick I was; he became my comrade-in-arms. No degree of debilitation could conquer my joy at hearing his theme song flare out of the TV set at the appointed time.

Something about Woody was unconquerable. Maybe it was the image of him as a knight, lance hoisted high over the cartoon titles. Perhaps it was because so many of Woodys cartoons seemed to center around facing death from starvation or unrelenting predators before Woody turned the tables for the final time. All I knew was that Woody and I had something special going that terrible winter.

One part of my treatment involved a series of 12 injections of Methotrexate into the spinal canal, followed by cranial radiation, since regular chemotherapy could not cross the blood-brain barrier. At the end of each treatment, my eyes tended to swell shut. Yet I was never fazed; by the time Woody Woodpecker came on I could see again. And because I could see Woody, I could get through another day. Eventually, however, something strange began to happen. Without my asking, Woody Woodpecker himself began to take up the fight for my life.

It was probably some combination of steroids, sickness and stress, but as the inpatient days mounted, I began to crack under the strain of battle. Dying had become my default mode, and The Reaper of Souls had been staring at me too closely for too long. I no longer recognized my own body. My mind was a cesspool of dysthymic sludge. Cancer wards are notable for their lack of mirrors since it may be counter-therapeutic for patients to see what the disease (and treatment) wreaks upon the body. I forced my girlfriend to give me one, and it was amazing to see how much I resembled Woodys bete noir Wally Walrus by this point in the treatment. Wally became a psychic metaphor for what Woody struggled against in my behalf.

Martin Goodman.

The doughty bird had deeply integrated himself into my consciousness. I began to believe very strange things. Woody became conflated with Big Red, probably by dint of his scarlet head and sharp, needle-like beak. He was inside my own bloated body, fighting the cancer, and Woody always trumped Wally, right? Woody Woodpecker and I now co-existed in a delusional universe. Others praised me for how courageously I was holding up under an experimental protocol thrown at an unusual cancer, but they didnt look closely enough. That was OK, though, just fine; Woody Woodpecker would be on soon and I would be better. Maybe even healed. You see, by now I believed that if I made it to 4:00 every day and saw Woody, it was a guarantee that I would not and could not die. Not one of my doctors realized this.

Until one rainy day in the spring of 1979. Doctors rounds were a constant feature of my routine. They included affable questions, broad smiles and mutual briefings on my condition, which was miraculously improving. The odds had been greatly against my leaving the hospital alive, so this fact excited my physicians to no end. Unbeknownst to me, the news had gone out among important parties in the medical and research sectors, and some of them decided to come in for rounds that afternoon. Had they waited 30 minutes either way, they would have been spared what happened next.

Woody, you see, was a few minutes ahead of them. As I was clinching another day of life with Your old pal, Woody Woodpecker! a flock of docs strode in to talk. Plainly annoyed, I kept looking past them, trying to focus on Woodys showdown with Buzz Buzzard. One slim, sandy-haired doctor, trying to be helpful to his colleagues, reached up, manually switched the TV set off, and unthinkingly ended my life.

Well, so I believed. Had I been in my right mind, his actions would not have mattered (or at worst I could have simply used my remote), but my right mind had just collapsed into a fading pinpoint of light on a TV screen. I rose from the bed, cursing and snarling like a diseased werewolf, determined to take my killer down with me. I never felt the IV needles tear from the crook of my elbow, nor do I remember hurling my entire pitcher of ice water at the esteemed assemblage; only later did I learn of the carnage. I can only recall, as I slipped into sedation, the laughing face of an animated woodpecker fading into the darkness as he bailed out of my long, bloody, death march.

Woody, O Woody! Why hast thou forsaken me!

As it turned out, he never did. After that aggressive episode, the talented people in charge of my care made some adjustments. I incrementally improved in both mind and body, and something like my sanity returned. So did Woody, every weekday at 4:00, but only in the context of raising my spirits. While I still looked forward to his show, I no longer thought him responsible for keeping me alive. My treatment would continue until 1980, some two years after diagnosis. There were still rough spots ahead but my doctors and I were going to pull off the upset victory with one last push from Woody Woodpecker.

He spoke to me in my hospital bed on a late summer afternoon in 1979. Born to Peck was Woodys last great gift to me, and the day I saw that wonderful short, I knew that I had truly turned the corner, for Woody never lied. The cartoon, made in 1952, starts out as one of the most depressing ever made; Woody is seen in decrepit old age, wistfully recalling his vibrant youth and mischievous, maniacal feats. We witness a poignant montage of Woodys life, and when the reminiscing ends, the creaking ruin that was Woody prepares to end his own life. At this ghoulish point in the cartoon an animator steps in, a merciful deus ex machina who produces the Fountain of Youth for our feathered friend. Revitalized, reenergized and once again in the prime of life, Woody springs forth and proves that he was indeed born to peck.

Woody, in this one short, recapitulated my illness, my debilitation, my depression and then my resurrection. I may have been delusional earlier, but I had somehow glimpsed the truth beneath the obsession: The animation gods had sent Woody Woodpecker to me. Woody really did know what I was going through. He did fight for me. Now, as my lucidity returned, he showed me that it was over at last, that I had gone from a diseased piece of meat with a terminal prognosis to a young man about to return to life. I had always felt that my love of animation was an important part of who I was. Now I knew that it always would be. I would live to enjoy Woody and his friends for many years to come.

I still believe thats exactly what the crazy woodpecker wanted.

My props for this months column go to the staff of Bostons Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Chris Robinson (who taught me how to write this sort of thing), and, of course, to my old pal Woody Woodpecker.

Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.