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Still here

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J.T. Franklin keeps smiling though tough times

By Greg Summers

The jet-setting lifestyle came easy for J.T. Franklin. It’s no wonder he was smiling.

His grin came from helping estimate, design and oversee the electrical components of facilities like the $143 million Mecklenburg County Courthouse with its 39 courtrooms, the $27 million Billy Graham Library and 44 hospitals from coast to coast.

Franklin’s running with the big dogs includes tailored three-piece suits, five-star hotel accommodations, gourmet meals and shaking hands with some of the major movers and shakers in the construction business. From gold-plated names on office doors to mahogany furniture, Franklin had it all. 

His high-flying lifestyle isn’t like some fish tale that improves with time. 

“Ever seen one of these?” Franklin asked, as he fished a Delta Airlines’ “Flying Colonel” card from his wallet. 

The card, which was phased out in the 1990s, came with perks for frequent flyers, ranging from upgrades to first class and free drinks to moving to the front of the line.

When Franklin was on the job, and in up to six or seven cities a week coast to coast, that card came in handy.  

“You know, ol’ J.T.’s got friends all over the place,” he said laughing as he winked. 

“Flew so much I knew all the flight attendants by name,” Franklin said. “In fact, I flew more than most of them were allowed to fly. I have a couple of million miles in the air. Shoot, a Hilton in Florida made me an honorary concierge for helping foil a hotel robbery. Man, I’m telling you, I had it made. I was having a blast.”

But Franklin was about to get grounded by another blast. On Aug. 11, 2005, Franklin was burned along the right side of his body while pouring gasoline on a brush pile at his home.

He was at a plastic surgeon’s office in Charlotte, N.C., about to have some dead tissue cut away from his burns to prevent his wounds from becoming infected when the procedure was stopped on the spot.

Franklin was called into the doctor’s private office after something showed up in a routine blood test. Franklin said the doctor told that he had an appointment to see Charlotte oncologist Dr. Wendy Brick, who would explain everything.

On Aug. 26, 2005, 20 minutes after stepping foot into Brick’s office, everything was explained to Franklin.

By all accounts, Franklin was told that day that he had no red blood cells, no white blood cells, a low platelet count and one more thing; hairy cell leukemia.

“She told me I shouldn’t even be sitting here and we need to do a bone marrow transplant right now,” Franklin said. “In looking at the numbers, she told me, ‘you’re dead.’ I told her ‘I drove here from work and when I leave here I’ll drive back to work.’”   

A rare, slow-growing cancer, it gets its name because its abnormal cells look “hairy” under a microscope. Fewer than 2,000 people in the world are diagnosed with hairy cell leukemia each year. Like others diagnosed with it, Franklin said he was given little hope of survival.

According to the Mayo Clinic, researchers have no idea what causes hairy cell leukemia and it has no cure. 

Franklin said before the diagnosis, he noticed a slight affinity for easily bruising and a little weakness, but it never dawned on him he had cancer.

He left the doctor’s office that day with a stent in his arm and was about start painful rounds of chemotherapy using chemicals that would eat holes in concrete, wood and marble.

Obstinate and hardheaded, Franklin refused to let the treatments interfere with his job and put up a brave front through most of it.

“He just worked all the time. He took chemo on the couch in my office.”  said Allan Barwick, owner of 586 Electric in Charlotte. 

“I was proud of the fact that I never laid out of work. I love life and told them I wasn’t gonna die,” Franklin said.   

Two years later, while still undergoing treatment for hairy cell leukemia, Franklin said Brick found swollen nodes in the right side of his neck. He was told to monitor them, which he did. 

By February 2008, the knots on his neck were causing a great deal of pain. Franklin said subsequent testing showed he had 13 lumps from his throat to just behind his right ear. All of them were cancerous. He was set up for 39 intense rounds of radiation therapy. Franklin said his doctors hoped radiation would destroy about half of the nodes.

Despite the pain that was wracking his body, Franklin never missed a day’s work that he wasn’t in the hospital.

“I walked into Dr. Brick’s office after all of that was over and she said, ‘it’s a miracle. We got ’em all.’”

However, that’s not the end of Franklin’s brush with death by any stretch.

On April 8, 2009, while driving on Camp Creek Road, Franklin swerved to miss a deer and crashed head-on into a utility pole at an estimated 60 mph. 

“I busted my forehead, eye and mouth,” he said. “One of the paramedics stated that it was a good thing the air bag didn’t deploy although he couldn’t understand why it didn’t. He said the air bag would’ve pushed my feeding tube back into my stomach, causing almost certain death.”

Massive heart attack  

Franklin’s close calls with life and death didn’t end that day. He suffered a massive heart attack on Sept. 4, 2009, while at work. He calls it the worst pain he has ever been through, and compares it to being stabbed in the chest numerous times.

“I lost my breath, my eyes rolled back in my head and I felt someone picking me up,” he said. “Then there was no pain, only joy.” 

Franklin said he was awakened by a nurse who told him he wasn’t going anywhere while a doctor was telling a friend to get his wife, Eddie (Edwina), and daughter, Olivia, there immediately if they wanted to see him alive again. He was taken to Carolinas Medical Center where doctors told his family twice that they had lost him.

Seven days later, Franklin walked out of the hospital with a pulse of 45, a damaged heart that was only 39 percent functional and a pacemaker.

After regaining his fading strength, Franklin started another round of  chemotherapy for hairy cell leukemia. Part of the treatment was outpatient and part was done at CMC. Franklin said his bone marrow was so bad and his blood count was so low that his family was told he would never make it back home alive.

But, somehow, Franklin did. However, his chances of survival were almost nonexistent. In early February of this year. doctors gave him six months to live at the most and he was referred to Hospice Community Care in Rock Hill. His mind was strong, but his body wasn’t.

“I’m not saying there wasn’t a time I didn’t break down a little bit,” Franklin said. “I cried a lot when I was by myself. I just never told anybody.”

Some things, Franklin said, you just don’t forget. He immersed himself in Scripture to find a little comfort, but he said it was slow in coming. But at 7:45 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 10, he found the peace he was looking for. That day Franklin realized that no matter what happened, God was on his side and for his good.

“I was sitting there watching an episode of ‘Gunsmoke’ that I had never seen,” he said, laughing. “Shucks, I’m 58 and thought I had seen all of ’em.”

Franklin said suddenly he felt what he compares to a wave of water covering his body, inwardly and on the outside.

“It started washing me down, I don’t know... like you’re standing under a shower, or something,” he said smiling. 

“Everything drained toward my feet and then to the floor,” Franklin said. “All I could do was cry. Tears came pouring out of my eyes and the Lord Jesus was washing my sins away.”

Franklin said he called the Rev. Bobby Joyner, and told him to “heat up the tub” (the baptismal pool at High Point Baptist Church).

“In his own words, the Lord Jesus said you can’t enter heaven ’cept through the spirit and water,” Franklin said. “He (Jesus) had just took care of the spirit and I was ready to take care of the water part.”

Franklin was baptized three days later, on Feb. 13.

“People have seen J.T. at this lowest when he just dragged into church because he was so weak,” Joyner said. “But through it all, his outlook has been so positive and encouraging.”

Franklin’s health was the only thing that was failing. So was his marriage. In February, Edwina, left him.

“I can’t say that I blame her for all that I had put her through,” he said. “You know, it’s gotta be rough living with somebody eat up with cancer who only has about a quarter of his heart, knowing he could die at any minute.

“All I can say is God is good, God is great,” Franklin said smiling. “She‘s called hundreds of times to check on me. I can’t find any bad feelings toward her.”

Hurting and healing

Franklin may have been grounded, but he wasn’t about to give up, despite the odds.

In early March, he ended up in the CMC emergency room after getting lost.

While Franklin had found his way spiritually, the radiation and chemotherapy he had endured for so long had destroyed a portion of his short-term memory and motor skills. 

By May, Franklin’s weight had dropped from more than 200 pounds to 119 pounds. 

He said reality sank in when he was standing in front of the bathroom mirror. When he lifted up his shirt, he could see his backbone from the front side of his 6-foot-tall frame.

“I was looking at a big hole that used to be,” he said.

All alone and somewhat depressed, he went to work. Although he was no longer on the job, Barwick had retained his friend as a consultant.

“I was gray, in pain and everybody who saw me that day knew it,” he said. As soon as Barwick realized what was going on, he rushed to a nearby nutrition store to get some body-building supplements and started force feeding them to him.

Franklin smiles at the gesture of his friend.

“They were determined that I wasn’t gonna die of malnutrition,” Franklin  said. Slowly his mind cleared and within three weeks his weight was up to about 150 pounds.

“I don’t know if I would’ve made it out of that without Allan, Bill Butler, my church family and a whole lot of other people,” he said.

“Dying is no problem for J.T.,” Joyner said. “He knows where he is going. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody handle death the way he has. It’s been very uplifting for our entire church family.

In late August, Franklin said he got a phone call from Hospice Community Care that his six months to live deadline had passed. Franklin said they released him from hospice care Sept. 2.

“While it’s not usual, we do have patients who recover. Once people say I’m gonna accept it, live life, become more accepting, less fearful and not worry so much, things happen that no one can explain.” said Jane Armstrong, executive director of Hospice Community Care. 

“It’s got to be for reason. There is no other way to explain it, with all I’ve been through,” Franklin said.

Joyner has no doubt why Franklin is still around. It’s to share his story of faith, blessing and overcoming the odds. Franklin has already been invited to speak at another church. 

“The only thing I know to say is I’m the most blessed person on the face of the Earth.

“God sure is God, ain’t he?” Franklin said.

J.T. Franklin is still smiling and for good reason.

“I’m still here,” he said.