Friend’s Throat Cancer, then Death, Leads to New Medical Device

Posted By Mike Padgett

March 24, 2009

The newlywed couple’s brush with death began at 30,000 feet in 2001. They were on an airliner, returning home to Florida from Boston. The eventual death of one of them led to the creation of a new medical device. 

Their adventures started more than a year earlier when Vivian Gates, a secretary in Scottsdale, Ariz., received a call from Dean Wright, a long-time commercial pilot friend and former football player living in Florida. Wright attended Duke University, where he played halfback when the Blue Devils won the Cotton Bowl in 1961. He later played one season for the Houston Oilers. An injured knee ended his football career.

Wright was 59 when he called Gates in the fall of 2000 for help. He was battling cancers wrapped around arteries on both sides of his neck. The hideous cancer had also moved to the base of his skull and into his nasal cavity.

“He just said, ‘I need you,’ and I said, ‘That’s all you’ve ever had to say to me,’” Gates says.

They had known each other for years. Wright had retired after 35 years as a pilot for commercial airlines and for charter companies. They met when Gates was a flight attendant.

The day after Wright called her, Gates gave her notice at Honeywell Aerospace in Arizona. Gates says she also put her home up for sale, “and I never looked back.”

Gates relocated to Florida to help Wright through what became months of radiation and chemotherapy treatments. Then came the tracheostomy, an opening surgeons cut into Wright’s windpipe, or trachea. A port was placed under his skin to administer chemotherapy. A feeding tube was inserted into his stomach.

Tracheotomies are performed on patients suffering medical problems related to a variety of health ailments, including tumors, allergies, chronic pulmonary disease, cancers, and cerebral palsy, to list a few. A tracheotomy is the procedure of cutting an opening in a patient’s trachea. The opening is called a tracheostomy.

In Wright’s situation, he needed to nebulize, or moisten, his nose, mouth and the opening in his trachea several times a day, using a special plastic mask. It was five times a day for his nose and mouth, and another five times a day for his tracheostomy. Each of those 10 processes every day, using saline or medication solutions, lasted 30 minutes.

The laborious process 10 times a day frustrated Wright, who eventually reduced the treatments. The result was thick mucus that clogged his mouth and his trach, Vivian says.

Less than a week after their marriage in June 2001, during an airline flight from Boston to Florida, mucus began clogging Wright’s trach.

“He was complaining that he was having trouble breathing,” Vivian says. “That mucus plug was starting to come up into the trach, and there really wasn’t much we could do.”

Wright, even though he had started choking, resisted his bride’s pleas to have a medical team greet them at the airport.

“The announcements had been made and we’re coming into Miami, and it started getting worse as we were descending,” Vivian says. “He was gagging. He was choking. His skin color was changing. He had gone to like a gray. And his eyes seemed to bug out of his head. And he’s looking at me as if to say, ‘Help.’”

A flight attendant, aware of the situation, offered to get a medical team ready for them. Gates says her husband refused. Vivian says all she could do was offer reassurance to her husband.

“I just quietly talked to him. I said, ‘You’re going to be okay, baby. Don’t worry about it. We’re going to get through this.’ But in the back of my head, I was thinking, ‘This would be awful for him to die on a plane when he was so passionate about flying.’ It was the irony. So I just stroked him and talked with him.”

Then, “just as the tires hit the tarmac,” and the pilot shifted the plane’s engines in reverse thrust, Wright’s blockage cleared, Vivian says.

“And then he just took this incredible gasp,” she says.

The Wrights were in a cab on their way to their condo when Vivian ordered the driver to take them to the local hospital. There, Wright was admitted for 48 hours of humidification. Vivian slept in the chair next to his bed.

As soon as they returned home, Vivian began designing a new mask. She used twine, electrical tape, masking tape, elastic bands, medical tubes, hoses and extra tracheostomy masks. Her goal was a dual-purpose mask that would allow Wright to simultaneously moisten his mouth, nose and opening in his trachea. That would reduce the 10 daily treatments to five.

Wright’s appreciative response was a tearful request. He asked for Vivian’s promise to patent her design, a promise that she has kept. She says she has made and donated about 1,000 of her masks to patients and medical personnel across the country.

Until his death six weeks after he returned home from the hospital, Wright slept much of the time. Their home in southern Florida is near the beach. Vivian and a sister cared for Wright. Vivian remembers her husband’s last day, when she went to the balcony for a few minutes of mental rest. He had complained that he couldn’t feel his body from the waist down.

“It was hard,” she says. “I didn’t want to let him go. He fought so hard, and he didn’t want to go. But I know I gave him, and he gave me, the best 16 months of our lives.”

Wright died in March 2002. Soon after his death, Vivian, now 53, began spending her free time fine-tuning her Wright Mask design for other patients. And since August 2008, when she left her job in Florida, she has focused all of her time on marketing her invention.

The Wright Mask became available to other patients earlier this year. Vivian says the mask reduces by half the amount of time patients spend each day keeping their nasal, mouth and tracheo tissues moist and medicated.

To familiarize the medical community with her mask, Vivian has donated about 1,000 of them to patients and medical staff across the nation. Clinical trials for the mask are under consideration by the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, says Lisa Worley, media relations director.

As terrible as her husband’s death was, Vivian sees the development of a mask to help others as a silver lining.

“If the only thing that comes out of all of this is that some other Dean out there has a little bit of relief from using this mask, then I guess it was meant to be,” she says.

For more information about the Wright Mask, visit


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Mar 24th, 2009

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