Former surgeon general faces his wife's cancer - and the 'Trump Effect'
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Former Surgeon General Jerome Adams and his wife Lacey often talk about what they call the "Trump Effect."
It followed them from Washington to their home in the Indianapolis suburbs. They felt it when he looked for jobs in academia, where he received polite rebuffs from university officials who feared anyone serving in the former president's administration would be ill-received by their left-leaning student bodies. They felt it when corporations decided he was too depraved to hire him.
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Now, two years after Adams left office as only the 20th surgeon general in US history, the couple is feeling it as acutely as ever. When Donald Trump announced this month that he would run for president again, they had hoped that would all have settled down by now.
They would rather talk about public health in a very personal way. This summer, Lacey Adams was diagnosed with a third recurrence of melanoma. Both Adams have shared their experiences on social media and in public appearances, hoping to spread a message about preventing skin cancer. But the stigma of his association with Trump remains, though neither are supporters of his political campaign.
Trump is "a force that really takes the air out of the room," said Adams, 48. "The Trump hangover still affects me in significant ways." He said the 2024 Trump campaign "is going to make things harder for me make".
The former surgeon general's predicament underscores one of the realities of today's political environment: the association with Trump is becoming a permanent blemish, a sort of reverse Midas touch. Impeached, shunned, or marginalized, a cavalcade of former Trump World figures have perished after one of the more chaotic presidencies in modern American history.
Lacey saw it coming. She said she "hated Trump" and didn't want her husband to leave his comfortable life in Indiana, where he practiced anesthesiology and was Trump's vice president under then-Indiana Gov. Mike Pence when Jerome became physician general. Lacey, 46, was concerned about permanent "stigma" but her husband persuaded her to support her move, saying he thinks he can make a bigger difference inside the administration than outside, particularly when it comes to his efforts to combat opioid addiction.
Now, Jerome balks at his perpetual label as "Trump's surgeon general," an image sealed by his very public role during the White House's much-criticized early response to the coronavirus pandemic. Other surgeon generals, he said, felt less strongly identified with the president who appointed them, allowing them to slide into lives of prestigious and sometimes lucrative opportunities, unencumbered by partisan politics.
Not him. “Finding a landing spot was a lot harder than we thought because of the Trump effect,” Lacey said. Eight months after leaving office, Jerome was unable to find a job. The couple began to worry about how they would support their three children, especially since Lacey doesn't work outside the home.
"People are still afraid to touch anything associated with Trump," Jerome said. Though he was quick to add in the interview that he "isn't complaining." He added, "It's the context."
Finally, in September 2021, Purdue University President Mitch Daniels, a former Indiana governor and staunch Republican, hired Adams as the school's first executive director for health equity initiatives.
Even as Adams tried to define the next chapter of his life, he was locked in an almost constant battle on social media. His frequent tweets about everything from his private life to public health issues have invariably drawn attacks from both right and left. Instead of ignoring his critics, he has often hit back, bickering on Twitter for days.
He has campaigned on social media over his recommendation that people continue to wear masks in crowded indoor settings, his criticism of President Biden's end-of-pandemic declaration and his advocacy of coronavirus vaccinations for children and for adults to get booster shots. He is being fired by the left for a pro-life stance on abortion and by the right for his opposition to laws that dictate what a doctor can say to a patient about abortion.
"I get mad at him because he's addicted to Twitter," Lacey said. "People hated him because he was part of Trump's administration. Now the Trump people hate him.”
Carrie Benton, an Ohio medical lab scientist who has clashed with Jerome Adams on social media, has slammed what she sees as "blanket statements" he's now making on issues like masking. But she also believes he should continue to be held accountable for mistakes made by the Trump administration early in the pandemic.
The pushback did little to dissuade Adams. He invites you to debate. He wants to argue, friendly. He's looking for ways to use his platform as a former surgeon general that don't degenerate into politically charged spats.
"It's hard to find a problem," he said.
An issue found him in August, and it was exactly the subject he had hoped would no longer feel so personal. During a routine follow-up, doctors discovered tumors on the outside of Lacey's right thigh.
"Here we go again," Lacey said to herself.
She was first diagnosed with melanoma 12 years ago, in 2010, when she discovered a "strange mole." She had it removed. She thought she was in the clear.
"No big deal," she said.
As a teenager growing up in the Midwest, she frequented tanning beds. She wasn't too worried about the sun, despite being very fair skinned. After the mole was removed, she changed her habits. Suncream. Long sleeve. She joked that her mother would chase her around in floppy hats. She began to have regular dermatological examinations. It was all good. Until it wasn't.
In early 2018, just as her husband, an anesthetist, was starting out as surgeon general under Trump, she noticed lumps in her groin as she shaved her bikini line. The doctor in her home, newly minted as America's doctor, was constantly on the move to get his job done, serving as a public health advocate and overseeing thousands of members of the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps. "The doctor in my house is my absent-minded professor who's always running in 100 directions," she said.
So Lacey called the doctor next door: her neighbor in Indiana and dear friend Amy Hoffman, an ER doctor. When Hoffman realized why her friend was calling, she put her on speakerphone so her husband, an oncologist, could listen in.
He only had one question: Was it on the same side as the melanoma from years ago? Yes, she said. She could hear the concern in their voices.
"Stop unpacking," she said, they told her. "Stop going to fancy events with your husband. You have to make that a priority.”
She was soon ushered into a special area at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center reserved for senior officers and their families. She received a fluffy robe with an embroidered White House logo.
"Suddenly it's like being at the Ritz-Carlton," she recalled, wondering, "Why do I deserve this special attention?"
A scan showed a tumor somewhere between the size of a pea and a grape. She had to have an operation. Doctors eventually removed 12 lymph nodes, some of which were cancerous. While she was recovering from the surgery, still groggy from the anesthetic, her husband came into the room with a request that she found difficult to understand in the fog of the medication: he wanted her Facebook password.
She had taken a selfie at the medical center and posted it on her Facebook page, and she also took a little jab at the administration. The White House is not happy, he told her. They wanted it taken down.
In the coming months she would believe again that she had beaten cancer. She underwent immunotherapy treatments for a year. She rang Walter Reed's doorbell, a tradition among cancer patients who completed their treatment after scans showed she was cancer-free.
"Cancer, Schmancer," she thought.
There were other things to worry about. Her husband had come to Washington hoping to focus on opioid addiction, a plague that had afflicted members of his family. Instead, he was pushed into a much more public role with the arrival of the coronavirus. While the Trump administration struggled with effective answers, the new surgeon general kept sparking firestorms.
He shared a Valentine's Day poem on social media that said the common flu was a greater risk than Covid and urged people to get the flu shot. He urged African Americans who have contracted the coronavirus in disproportionate numbers to take precautions to protect their "Big Mama."
In each case, he fiddled with the news and made incomplete or poorly explained statements. He asked people not to buy masks because there was a shortage. He said people were at greater risk of catching the common flu than Covid because Trump administration forecasts, which later turned out to be inaccurate, suggested more people would get the common flu.
He used the words "Big Mama," leading to allegations that he used racist Trump-style dog whistles because it was a term of affection in his own family that he believed would help him bond with African Americans connect to.
These missteps, which Adams has attributed to a partisan atmosphere, drew harsh criticism, which was to be expected. What he hadn't foreseen was how people would come to get his loved ones. On social media, trolls called his family ugly. They criticized Adams, who is black, for marrying a white woman.
While her husband tried to ward off critics and angry commentators by sharpening his messaging, Lacey, like many Americans, was postponing doctor's appointments and restricting her movements because of the risk of contracting the coronavirus. She had a clear scan in January 2020. It wasn't until July of that year that she returned for another scan. It showed a tumor on her back.
The cancer had returned for a second round: this time it was stage 4. She started immunotherapy. And again she hit it. For two years she passed routine scans with good results. Then, last summer, came the tests that showed the cancer had returned. His wife cries herself to sleep some nights. He marvels at their resilience.
She has spoken and written about the illness that lurks within her and threatens to rob her of so many things she looks forward to, like the days when her children, now 18, 16 and 12, graduate or marry.
Some days she is too ill to do much because of the side effects of her treatments. But sometimes she's full of energy and ready to go. People might look at her and not know she's sick, and that's one of her points: melanoma is a secret disease, doctors keep telling her. It can hide inside people without any outward signs. She had had a mole once, but sometimes there was nothing to show on her skin. The disease hid from her.
The story goes on
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