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Old Wounds and Family Scars

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He likes to talk at length about problem-solving and science. His wife, Diane, says, "he's always been into science. I swear, he's so good at research."

That thirst for knowledge served him well when he had to make decisions about his health. After he found out that his kidneys were functioning at 50 percent in 1987, he dove into medical journals, textbooks and anything else he could get his hands on. It was then that he realized he'd been receiving substandard treatment for the better part of his life. "The fact is that no one really knew all that much about diabetes when I was growing up," he says.

In 1955, when Curt was first diagnosed with the disease, current procedures for diabetics -- a carefully controlled diet, scheduled administration of insulin and accurate testing of blood-sugar levels -- weren't necessarily standard. At the time, his doctor recommended that his parents just change his diet a bit. Within two years, Curt was a scrawny boy in poor health.

Although another doctor later put him on insulin, over time the diabetes caused high blood pressure and vision problems and led to the eventual deterioration of his kidneys. But for many years, these things were the furthest thing from his mind. He was a young man with girls, cars, sports, education and employment on the brain.

Curt was born on April 4, 1946, in Omaha, Nebraska. His father, Willy, and mother, Delilah, eventually moved the family to Lawndale, California, a small suburb west of Los Angeles, where Curt took a job at Pittsburgh Glass and Steel. In December 1948, Curt's sister Sabra was born.

Curt was an active kid who didn't let his diabetes slow him down. He was a natural athlete who played baseball, football, basketball -- you name it. By the time he was in high school, he was a popular kid and had a couple of girlfriends, one of whom became his sweetheart. He was also a starting halfback and defensive back on the football team, an avid grease monkey with a hot rod, and a hell of a math student.

But during his senior year, he began to have vision problems. He went to the Jewel-Stein Center at UCLA for evaluation and treatment; doctors there discovered he had diabetic retinopathy, a condition found in diabetics and the elderly in which blood vessels behind the eye grow in uncontrolled patterns. Eventually the vessels can thicken, become brittle, grow through the retina and cause blindness.

In 1964, the only treatment for diabetic retinopathy was an experimental laser procedure called photocoagulation, which was used to cauterize blood vessels in the eyes. Although the process is no longer used on eyes, doctors still use it to destroy blood vessels entering a cancerous tumor to deprive it of nourishment. Curt underwent the procedure, which saved his vision, but he was left with tiny blind spots that Diane jokingly says cause him to be a crappy driver.

Curt attended El Camino Junior College for two years and finished a math degree at Humboldt State College, a small school about a hundred miles south of the Oregon border. In 1968 he was accepted for graduate studies at Syracuse University on a full-ride academic scholarship.

Within six months, however, he had broken up with his girlfriend of five years, left school and moved back to Humboldt to regroup and find a sense of direction. But he had student loans to pay, so he took a job as an aerospace engineer with Hughes Aircraft in late 1969 and moved back to Los Angeles.

For the next eighteen years, Curt did not experience any more major diabetes-related problems, but a long and difficult road still lay ahead.


Autumn Apperson has a picture of her biological mother that she reveals only to people very close to her. It shows her mother in a field in a sundress. With her face tilted downward, her hands holding her tummy, and her hair blown by the breeze, she's very beautiful. She has the very facial features that she would pass on to the daughter in her belly. "I don't remember my mother, except for feelings," says Autumn, who is Arron's younger sister.

Their father remembers much more. The first time he saw her, Curt says, "she was sitting by the pool in an orange bikini." He was smitten.

Her name was Kathie Houseman, and she was an eighteen-year-old Continental Airlines stewardess from Dallas, Texas, who had graduated from high school at sixteen. They met by the pool of the apartment building where she lived -- Curt was looking to rent a room there -- and began dating six months later. Their relationship was rocky at first, and at one point, Curt was transferred by Hughes to Denver and Kathie moved back to Texas. "We were talking on the phone a lot," Curt says. "We then decided we should have gotten married." They eloped in Colorado in the winter of 1970.

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Sean Neumann