New Life

Feature story for The Memphis Daily News

Aug. 14, 2013

New Life

Transplant reversal gives Memphian healthy future

After her mother died of heart failure, Anissa Swanigan began experiencing rapid heartbeats and was told to chalk it up to anxiety. With a pregnancy a year later, she was told she had hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a congenital disease that results in a thickening of the heart muscle.

“I could barely walk from my garage to the driveway. Things were bad,” she said.

In 2009, Swanigan had a right heart catheterization to determine how well the organ was performing. When the diagnosis came in, she said, she was “devastated, shocked. I tried not to think about it. You’re praying; you’re hoping that somebody made a mistake.”

She would need a heart transplant. A subsequent life-threatening liver disease would require a liver transplant as well.

The want of a second opinion took her to the Mayo Clinic. Since August 2012, Swanigan has been a regular visitor to the hospital in Rochester, Minn., and she has been living there since February.

To further complicate matters, Swanigan is “highly sensitized,” meaning antibodies in her body would fight certain proteins on the cell surfaces in the donor heart and rejection of that organ would almost be a given.

“Not everybody has significant antibodies to other people, but we can develop these kinds of antibodies, especially if we’ve had blood transfusions or in women that have had children, or sometimes we just don’t know why,” Richard Daly, cardiovascular surgeon and team lead on Swanigan’s surgery, said by phone. “Some people have antibodies to a large portion of the population, and when that occurs, if somebody has antibodies to 80 or 90 percent of the population then, of course, getting a donor is much, much more difficult.”

In any multiple organ transplantation involving the heart, it is the first to be transplanted, which reduces the amount of time the organ is outside of the body. To combat Swanigan’s sensitivity, however, the liver would be transplanted first in an effort to soak up and reduce the majority of the antibodies and mitigate the chance that her body would immediately reject the heart. It would be only the second time such a reversal of transplantation had ever been done; the first was at the Mayo Clinic in 2011.

On Mother’s Day weekend, a donor became available. A team of surgeons and nurses worked for 12 to 14 hours to complete the process . . . (read more)


Root System

Feature story for MBQ magazine

June 2013

Root System

The Memphis-based Hardwood Lumber Association carries on a century-old tradition of grading lumber.

In the beginning, there were the sawmills with enormous circular saws doing the work of hundreds of men. Whole trees went in one end and even, uniform lumber was ejected from the other. It was the turn of the twentieth century with improving technology, and people were developing new methods of smart work in an age-old industry defined by hard work.

The National Hardwood Lumber Association (NHLA) was founded in 1898 to provide the establishment, education, and enforcement of the hardwood lumber grading rules. Today, the NHLA represents “more than 1,200 companies and one million hardwood families that produce, use, and sell North American hardwood lumber, or provide equipment, supplies, or services to the hardwood industry at all career stages,” according to its website.

Memphis has been home to the headquarters of the NHLA since it moved here from Chicago in 1980. To drive the highways of Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi around Memphis, and in passing acre after acre of the straight yet soft pine trees that abound, one may not realize that this area is considered the hardwood capital of the world. In fact, says Mark Barford, executive director of the NHLA and a trained forester, “most of Tennessee is forested, 60 to 70 percent is forest. Out of that, of course, there is a fair amount of pine, but there’s a lot of hardwood — it’s predominantly hardwood throughout Tennessee.”

Memphis in particular, at one time, was home to a number of different hardwood sawmills, distributors, buyers, consumers, and shippers, all concentrated due to the logistical advantage of the Mississippi River, numerous railroads, and highways. Anderson-Tully, the largest hardwood manufacturer in the United States, was once based out of Memphis. Due to downsizing and mergers over the years, the group now works more from its Vicksburg, Mississippi, headquarters. While most of the industry’s production has moved to the east and north and states such as Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania, Memphis is still considered its nexus.

The NHLA HQ moved from Chicago three decades ago for the lower overhead of a smaller city and because this was already the home of its training school. Established in 1948 through the help of the Lumbermens Club of Memphis, one of the strongest and largest membership associations in the country at the time, the NHLA Inspector Training School has seen more than 7,000 graduates since its founding.

“Over time, when that school kept growing and getting bigger, it just made sense to put both the offices and the school together, so they put them together in Memphis,” Barford says.

The Inspector Training School is a showplace where each room is themed with a different species of hardwood. Located on 10 acres at the Whitten Road exit of I-40, it also has lumber storage and dry kilns. First built in what was then the country, Barford says, there were no places for visiting students to stay. “The only place really for people to stay was in the local houses, so we used to go out and around and bang on people’s doors and say, ‘Hey, would you have a room you could possibly rent?’” Now, they’re put up in extended-stay hotels and there is an active discussion regarding the addition of dormitories to the school for students who travel from all over the world to learn how to grade lumber . . . (read more)



Christmas in August, or, How I spent my summer vacation money

Family Matters feature for WKNO-FM 91.1 (NPR affiliate for Memphis)

Aug. 7, 2013

I handled the writing, photography and voiceover narration for this radio segment

Permanent link to WKNO-FM 91.1 with audio

Christmas in August, or, How I spent my summer vacation money

It’s Christmas in August. The temperature hovering close to 90 degrees doesn’t testify to this. But the ringing of the cash register does. Another telltale sign? The children’s palpable sense of diminished expectations.

Back to school time is Christmas without the merry.

That’s how parents view it, of course. For children, the thought of being allowed to accompany us to the Wal-Marts and Targets as we hunt for school supplies is like being given a private tour of Santa’s workshop.

Our elves – Calvin, Joshua, Somerset and Genevieve – represent 10th, 7th, 6th and 2nd grades, respectively.

Stores are resplendent this time of year with institutional decorations and eye-catching displays. They point in the direction of gifts that are new, shiny and completely utilitarian. We’re looking for pencils, number 2s, of course. Binders. Folders. Crayons. Spiral notebooks. And that prize, the X-box of school supplies: the glue stick.


(Somerset and her younger sister Genevieve try to pick out the right backpack for the right amount of books.)

It’s only a matter of days before the first tardy bell rings and my wife, Kristy, and I attach ourselves to a reindeer we’ve named Procrastinator. We’ve waited until Tennessee’s tax-free weekend to hit the Target on a Friday night.

Once in the front door, the store seems surprisingly vacant. As we make our way to the back, though, to the deepest circle of Dante’s retail, we find ourselves in a chaotic symphony of school supplies.

With four school-age children, back-to-school shopping is an adventure — a scavenger hunt with our children running interference.

We’re not new to this game. We’ve been on this aisle before – the one with the decimated shelves and the once-neat rows of Bic pens. We know that it’s better to overload than to under-plan; kids lose things, it’s what they’re genetically predisposed to do. Reserves are essential.

We’re going to need a bigger basket.


(A shopping list for a family of four children.)

We’ve made a list and the kids have checked it twice. It’s a hand-written page with the required, and the probable, items needed for a decent public school education. Fifteen-year-old Calvin dutifully calls out the next item while ticking away the prizes we’ve scavenged already.

This year’s prize is the backpack, the last vestige of visible personality allowed for uniform-clad students these days. They are multi-colored, have intricate patterns, super hero logos and Angry Birds. As parents, the only thing that matters is size and whether they are big enough to carry the loads these kids will be burdened with all year.

Once finished, we wend our way to the check-out line with a sense of accomplishment. And a sense of dread.

After an hour-and-a-half, we find ourselves hitched again to Procrastinator laden with our tax-free spoils. The total cost of sending four kids to three different Shelby County public schools loaded with all they’ll need: $443.91.

Whose job was it to buy the calculator?


Anderson embarks on new chapter in education career

Memphis Standout profile for The Memphis Daily News

Aug. 9, 2013

With the first semester of the newly consolidated Shelby County Schools in full swing this week, all eyes are on this mammoth system and what it might mean, if anything, for education’s progress, efficiency and reform in the Mid-South.

As the new executive director of Stand for Children Tennessee, Betty Anderson will be based in Nashville, yet she said, “there is a lot more engagement in the Memphis reform community, there are a lot of coalitions, business involvement, there’s a lot of involvement by the Gates Foundation, the Teacher (Talent) Initiative, things that Stand has been involved in before me.”

In addition, the Memphis chapter of the organization is currently without a director and is actively looking to replace Kenya Bradshaw who left recently for a position in Texas.

Stand for Children Tennessee is part of a national network that advocates for students by affecting policy and legislation, increasing funding, improving schools and working toward solutions to the challenges affecting education today.

Anderson’s background is in education, having majored in it at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, close to her hometown of Fayetteville, Tenn. She realized early on that the classroom wasn’t the place for her, but, she said, “I never lost my interest in education.”

She moved into championing the causes of educators and the needs of students alike by taking a job with the Tennessee Education Association as editor of its monthly magazine, “Tennessee Teacher.”

Anderson moved from that position to the TEA’s lobbying political action team, where she spent seven years as chief lobbyist and political action organizer across the state. In working closely within the TEA for 10 years, she was also deeply involved with the Memphis Education Association . . . (read more)


Salomon helps clients navigate estate planning

Law Talk profile for The Memphis Daily News

Aug. 8, 2013

For Jason Salomon, an attorney with the trusts estate and personal planning service team of Wyatt, Tarrant & Combs LLP, the kinetic needs of his clients and the challenges turned into opportunities keep him involved and excited on a daily basis.

“I enjoy that,” he said. “I like the interaction. It changes every day; no set of circumstances are ever the same and you’re closer to the client.”

The White Station High School graduate completed his undergraduate degree in engineering at Georgia Techand worked in the Nashville office ofEnSafe Inc. as an engineer for a year after graduation. His plans all along involved going back to law school to become an environmental attorney. He did attend the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law, but, he said, “things change and I got into more of a general practice.”

While in law school, he had taken a great interest in his probate, and trust and estates classes. Upon graduating in 2000, his first job was with Gregory & Gregory, where he was able to do a good bit of probate work that led into estate planning.

From there, he worked with his own practice for a while, an experience that “was more of a roller coaster,” he said. “Some months are great and some months are horrible; there’s not a whole lot of consistency.”

For a more even keel, he joined Williams, McDaniel, Wolfe & Womack PC, which merged with Wyatt Tarrant in September . . . (read more)


2 little girls not afraid to dream big

“Because I Said So” column for The Commercial Appeal

Aug. 1, 2013

2 little girls not afraid to dream big

I am 20 feet tall and can outrun a gazelle. I can step over houses and fly when necessary. I can remove a set of training wheels from a bicycle and a splinter from the thumb, inflate soccer balls, squash bugs, vanquish bad dreams, find lost socks and cook toast. I cannot braid hair; it is my white whale.

I am the father of two little girls.

While I do what I can for my daughters, I know they are growing and learning, and will eventually surpass me one day in all the things I can do. And those that I only pretend I can do.

Last week, this house wrapped up its annual daily viewings of the Tour de France, and each of my daughters, at some point during the three-week race, asked me if there are girls in it. There are not. I told them that perhaps they could help change that in the future, that there is a movement already under way to do so. Even better, I said, maybe one day you’ll be part of a women-only Tour, one that is longer and more grueling than the current race.

They might well do so because women are stronger than men. I’ve witnessed four births; you guys who have seen what I’ve seen know what I’m talking about. I would rather ride my bike 2,115 miles over the French Alps four times than have to go through labor once.

I was in the room with my youngest when her heartbeat was gone for a few seconds, and it was the nurse who remained calm and told me what to do. I helped unhook the bed from the wall so she could maneuver it better, and then I stood back, as ordered, while she applied an oxygen mask and monitors, and did what she needed to do with a remarkable swiftness. My wife continued the heavy lifting of labor, and I could only stand to the side and look on. My daughter, newly born, newly blue, eventually let out a defiant shriek that began somewhere around the knob of umbilical cord and has filled our ears ever since.

Not long after our Tour de France talk, we learned that Helen Thomas had died. The longtime journalist set a bar in the White House press room, not only for women, but for all reporters. My daughter asked me who that was, and I told her that she was a successful reporter, and that if it had been a race, Helen Thomas surely would have won. I told her that she could very well be on the front row asking questions of the president one day if she chooses. Or she could be the president.

My daughters will be able to do anything they want because they come from a line of strong women. If they don’t one day win awards on the field of physical competition, then perhaps they will win in the battle for understanding, equality and professionalism.

My girls are 20 feet tall. They can swim far, jump high and argue their points. I’ll give them what I have, and mend what I’m able, but one day, on their own, they will soar higher than I could ever imagine.

Permanent link to The Commercial Appeal


Bjorklund helps AutoZone meet compliance laws

Law Talk profile for The Memphis Daily News

Aug. 1, 2013

When Susan Bjorklund, policy and procedure attorney for AutoZone, left Houston High School for the University of Mississippi, it was with only an inkling that she might want to be a lawyer one day.

Others were more certain.

“My parents would say that they knew I was going to be an attorney from the moment that I argued with them about everything as a small child,” she said.

The idea didn’t completely click with her, however, until she became more entrenched in political science and constitutional law as an undergraduate. One professor in particular, John Winkle, proved inspirational and helped “spark that fire” for her to eventually seek out the legal profession.

Bjorklund graduated from Ole Miss in 2005 and entered Mississippi College School of Law in Jackson, Miss., where, she said, “I wasn’t the best law student, but I worked hard, and I was really good about getting real-life experience there.”

It was experience that came in the form of summer clerkships with FedEx’s labor relations department and both plaintiff- and defense-side law firms in Jackson, and as an active member of the Student Bar Association’s governing council . . . (read more)


Wiffleball league provides big-league backyard fun

Feature story for The Commercial Appeal

July 25, 2013

The excitement was palpable, from the spectators in the pool to the few parents under an umbrella. The players wore homemade jerseys, swim trunks and bare feet. This was Game Day for the Memphis Wiffleball Association, founded in June by 10-year-old Trey Whidden.

Wiffleball has become an activity that keeps Trey and his friends outdoors and away from the video games and television that can dull any summer day. He did get the idea from the Internet, though.

He saw “guys in leagues and pictures on YouTube; I thought it would be kind of cool,” he said. “I mostly got the idea from these kids our age in Michigan, and I got a lot of the rules and stuff for the website from them.”

Not content to gather friends for a one-off game, the sixth-grader at Holy Rosary began a league consisting of four teams, each with four players. Trey put together the rosters and schedules, andnamed the teams from Major League Baseball. On any given day, the Cordova Cardinals might play the Germantown Giants. On this day, the Ripley Rangers took on the Raleigh Red Sox.

Trey’s folks, Jimmy and Cynthia Whidden, own Poplar Perk’n coffee shop, and Cynthia’s family’s business is Landmark Heating & Air Conditioning. Thus, the games of the MWA take place on “Landmark Field at Poplar Perk’n Park,” known to the Property Assessor’s Office as the Whiddens’ backyard in East Memphis.

“I was unaware of all the doubleheaders,” Jimmy Whidden said with a laugh from his shaded seat in leftfield, adding, “but the alternative is to have them inside playing video games, so I’m fortunate enough that I get off early and I can come watch them, and I enjoy it. I like helping with the field. He tells me what to do, and I’m pretty much the groundskeeper.”

In the heat of a July sun, the diamond was well-manicured, and PVC foul poles bookended the 6-foot outfield fence. The terrain is tricky: a flower bed in rightfield, the pool in left, a wooden jungle gym with a slide where a dugout might be, and a trampoline abutting the bullpen.

A golden retriever lumbered across the pitcher’s mound. Stopping his windup to pet Sampson was Ranger Thomas Smith, 11, a sixth-grader at St. Louis Elementary, where he plays football, soccer, baseball and basketball . . . (read more)



Giles builds solid career as construction attorney

Law Talk profile for The Memphis Daily News

July 25, 2013

Justin Giles III spends his days entangled in the details of contracts and plans as a construction attorney with Evans Petree PC.

Despite the ever-changing nature of the construction industry and specific projects, he says, “I love it.”

He enjoys helping clients develop a project plan and working with like-minded attorneys to cut through the complexities to “get to the meat of an issue” and help make a potential problem into an opportunity.

Born and raised in Memphis, Giles attended Memphis University School before heading to the University of Tennessee-Knoxville to study broadcast journalism. The dream was to work in pro sports and he sought counsel from the general manager of the Tennessee Smokies Double-A baseball team when graduation neared.

“I said, ‘What do I need to do to have your job?’” Giles said.

The answer was to further his education, either with graduate school or law school, to gain credibility. He was interested in being a trial lawyer and chose Stetson University College of Law in St. Petersburg, Fla., for its high ranking as a trial advocacy school.

Just out of law school, Giles was offered work with the Chicago Cubs system, but $15,000 per year wouldn’t begin to cut into his student loan debt. Moving back to Knoxville, he took work doing insurance subrogation . . . (read more)


If son’s still driving in 30 years, he passed test

“Because I Said So” column for The Commercial Appeal

July 18, 2013

If son’s still driving in 30 years, he passed test

I recently drove my 15-year-old son to a wide open parking lot, parked the car and handed him the keys. It was his first time behind the wheel of a car and my first time in the passenger seat with a teenager behind the wheel of a car since I was a teenager myself. I dialed 911 and let my thumb hover over the send button.

He did pretty well, though, narrowly avoiding the few obstacles, and I only barked “Brake!” once or twice.

I learned how to drive through a combined effort of my father and his midlife Camaro Z28 and Memphis City Schools. Despite your experiences on the streets of Memphis, many of us drivers had lessons. And how many Memphians my age were taught to drive by Mr. Rafael?

After a three-week course of textbook and on-the-road tutelage, Mr. Rafael administered our final exam, a grueling, hourslong written and multiple choice test as I recall, only to tell us when we were finished to hold on to that test and if we were alive to read it in 30 years, then we passed.

I’ve passed. And here I am trying to pass that knowledge on to my own son. Imploring him to check his mirrors, mind the blind spots and pump the brake pedal.

When he was 6, I drove him to a wide open field at Tobey Park to teach him to ride a bicycle. It took only about 15 minutes before we were out of patience with each other and I loaded up the bike in the back of my truck and we drove home in silence. It wasn’t long after that when I was down the block talking to a neighbor, and here came Calvin, riding his bike as though he’d been doing so for years — self-taught.

How much simpler would it be if they were able to teach themselves to drive a car? How much better would it be for our nerves if we could just send our teenagers away and have them return as safe and responsible drivers?

I told him that day a couple of weeks ago, as we made circle after circle in the vacant lot, that it amazes me that just anyone can drive. That we allow anybody who is of age and able to pass a fairly simple test the opportunity to wrap himself in metal and hurl himself down the interstate at 65 mph. And then I told him to “Brake!”

He’s a good kid, and I have faith that he’ll be a good, conscientious driver. I’m not sure how I’ll be as the parent of a driver, though. I don’t think there are any lessons for that, none that Mr. Rafael imparted anyway.

I can’t imagine that first time I’ll stand on the porch and wave my son away as he backs out on his own and heads into traffic. I’ll wish him well. And I’ll wish I could give him just one last word of advice: “Brake!”

Permanent link to The Commercial Appeal