Medical Tuesday Blog
Richard Wesley Rowland
Richard Westley Rowland | 1943 – 2017
Served as a Navy Frogman in 1960-61 (Which later became the Navy Seals)
Rowland was a warrior who survived the jungles of Vietnam, three bullet wounds, was captured, escaped, served time in America’s most notorious prisons and served on Big Oil boards. Abandoned as a toddler, Richard Rowland learned woodsman skills from the man who raised him in the California Sierra Nevada foothills.
Rowland was a war-baby born in 1943 in Oakland, CA. He didn’t know his mother; she abandoned him when he was a year old. She handed him over to the woman who babysat for her. Richard didn’t know his father either; he was away in the service. Richard was gone by the time he returned home.
Richard had no memories of anyone except for the man and woman who raised him. They are the ones he called Mom and Dad. When he was between the ages of 10 and 12 years old he lost a brother, he didn’t know he had. Then later he lost the women he called ‘Mother and Grandmother’ in a tragic accident.
In 1948, at fifteen years of age, he left school unannounced to anyone and hitchhiked back to California. He’d already killed a hostile bear and flew a plane solo beneath a bridge. Lying about his age, he joined the Navy at sixteen. He became a UDT ‘frogman,’ part of an elite group that was created August 15, 1942 during World War II. The UDT Frogman designation would later be changed to the Navy Seals by JFK in 1962.
He returned to the United States only to become a fugitive rather than to kill in defense or be killed by Marines who held a grudge against him. Arrested at nineteen, he was sentenced to eight years in prison and sent to one of the only two island Federal Prisons. This island prison was called McNeil Island Prison (the other was Alcatraz).
His first night in the Big House was hell. As he stretched out on his bunk, he still heard the words ringing in his ears “Hey, Look at that new fish, fresh meat. You’re going to make a nice girl.” Rowland also learned a new word – “punk,” which was short-hand for a male sex slave.
At McNeil he learned safe-cracking skills from an older inmate who had been in the trade since the 1930s. Richard transferred through the Federal Prison system to a Reformatory, from which he escaped. He was captured and held in solitary confinement (the hole) for ninety-three days eating only four pieces of bread and a cup of coffee a day. He was then transferred to a more secure prison. After doing three and one-half years there, he became an honor inmate and earned parole. Upon his release, being an ex-con, and having a hard-nosed Parole Officer, he was unable to hold a job and resorted to the safe-cracking trade he had learned in the ‘Big House.’ Greed and new technology was to be his undoing.
On the last burglary/safe-cracking job and he was arrested again in California. He was given two 1- to 30-year sentences, one for the Burglary and one on the safe-cracking charge, which the Judge made concurrent. This made the term of the sentence 2 to 30 years in the California Prison system. He expected to serve about ten years of the time. While serving this sentence he learned the brick laying trade and became a model prisoner. After three and a half years he made parole. He then had to face a Federal Judge in San Francisco to try and get the remaining five years on his Federal Parole reinstated. At twenty-six years of age, he walked out, promising never to commit another crime and he kept his promise.
After prison, he was successful in Arkansas and Oklahoma as a Master Mason in construction that later led to getting into oil development. Governor Reagan pardoned him in recognition of his successes. After the oil business collapsed, he went back to masonry contracting. It was the thing that had made him good money. He thought he could continue to do that and make a living until something else came along. He never wanted it to be a big company like the ones he had before, so he kept it small. Some of his jobs were featured in Better Homes and Gardens, as well as Architectural Digest. After starting over and after being away from it a long time he was glad that he was still good at it. He said he guessed it was like riding a bike, once you know how, you can always do it. He did this for about fifteen years by himself with only a few guys he’d hire from time to time depending on the size of the job.
During his hard-working career in the oil fields of Australia, Rowland was smoking 5 packs of cigarettes daily for more than 8 years. He also had considerable masonry and cement exposure for about 30 years during which time he reduced the cigarette smoking to 3 packs a day. After 40 years the cigarettes and occupational dust exposure caught up with him and he developed coughing and shortness of breath. That was when his personal physician referred him to see me as his pulmonologist in 2001. His pulmonary function was about 10% of normal. After pulmonary cleanout, the pulmonary function was up to about 15% of normal. His oxygen was low confirming respiratory failure. He was placed on continuous oxygen at home. He was able to be seen in the office until 2007 when he collapsed and went into severe lung failure. He was resuscitated sustaining a number of fractured ribs. He was hospitalized, intubated, and placed in the intensive care unit on life support. He was discharged to hospice care. After surviving hospice for six months he returned home on continuous oxygen.
After this severe episode of lung failure, he no longer was ambulatory outside his home which precluded office visits. Home visits were made twice a year or as needed. Initially he could still walk to his door and to his front walk yard on his oxygen life line. After a few more years, he could no longer follow me to my car. He had lost over 50 pounds. In the absence of an appetite, he was placed on Marinol. He regained the entire 50 pounds.
He never lost his drive and when a customer of his part time pool business sued him, he requested a medical statement which he presented to the judge. Richard handled the case from his hospital bed at home on high flow oxygen. He was his own attorney and did his own cross-examination by phone. The plaintiff and judge were also on the phone. He won the case.
During this time, he also experienced an episode of severe pleuritic chest pain and coughed up blood. This was clinically a pulmonary embolus with lung infarction. (Blood clot to the lung with destruction of lung tissue). This normally required a lung scan, hospitalization, and prolonged anticoagulation. However, he declined hospitalization during which diagnostic studies such as lung scans would be obtained and requested I treat him using my own clinical judgement. So, in the absence of diagnostic confirmation, he was placed on a moderate dose of anticoagulant with monitoring by having the laboratory draw his blood at his home. He amazingly survived this life-threatening disease and his condition improved.
His wife was his sole caregiver from 2001 and was with him throughout these 16 years. Having closed my practice in 2015, I received a call from his wife in March 2017 stating, “Richard is dying and would like to see you and thank you for your care for all these years.”
I sat on the edge of his bed and Richard was alert and talking normally. As we talked for the greater part of an hour, I examined him. All his joints were quite normal with a good range of passive motion. He had very little muscle to do this on his own. I think he was surprised of his passive musculo-skeletal function. I told him if he wanted to work on rehabilitation, as a courtesy, I would make monthly home visits to supervise this for the rest of his life.
This interlude occurred because he had just finished writing and self-publishing his life memoirs: TROUBLES, a Trilogy: the Story of Life, Hope and Faith in which he outlined the Situations, Choices and Consequences of his life as he had lived it. This book which took him and his wife the greater part of a year to accomplish, made him feel as if he could now say goodbye to his life. This in turn, precipitated the call to his doctor of 16 years who had closed his office the previous year when he turned 80.
I also took this opportunity to talk about his life after death. He said his minister had been out the previous week and gave him Holy Communion. He expressed some doubt about the next life. Since I knew the life that he led, I was able to comfort him with the Crucifixion story of the two criminals that were crucified at the same time as our Lord. One expressed his sorrow and received forgiveness from Christ. “Verily, I say unto you, today thou shalt be with me in Paradise.” His life of crime was forgiven in the last moments of his life as he was dying. By Grace without any goodness or mercy on our part, he received salvation. I assured Richard, that in similar fashion, he was assured of salvation.
On a return the following week, he seemed more optimistic as I did the ROM on all his joints and I thought we could re-condition his muscles. I thought he was accepting my challenge as I left his home. However, a few days later, on March 31, his wife called and said, “Richard quit breathing in his sleep.” She was there with him. His dying was calm and peaceful as she caressed her beloved Richard.
ESV: Luke 23:43: Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Because of the Medical Content, this Obituary was approved by his wife, Jeffrie.
Del Meyer, MD