By Keysha Drexel
A Mountain Brook author is using the release of his newest book as an opportunity to fund research that could help rewrite the life stories of children just like his 11-year-old daughter.
On Nov. 14–World Diabetes Day–Blue Jay Media Group will release the second medical thriller in a book series by Stephen Russell, with 100 percent of the author’s proceeds going to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation for the next three months.
“That means, for example, when someone downloads the e-book version of ‘Command and Control,’ $2 of the $3.99 they pay will go directly to JDRF,” Russell said. “It’s amazing to think that lives could be changed, all for less than a cup of coffee.”
Russell, an associate professor of internal medicine and pediatrics at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and his wife, Gretel, a pediatrician at Mayfair Medical in Homewood, first got involved with the Alabama Chapter of the JDRF about six years ago after their oldest daughter, Molly, was diagnosed with type 1, or juvenile diabetes.
It was a diagnosis that stunned the couple, Russell said.
In October 2007, Russell and his wife noticed that Molly was acting sluggish and was having trouble shaking a cold.
“We noticed that she had been more tired than usual and just not herself, so my wife decided to take Molly to her office and just run a few tests. We thought she had strep throat,” Russell said.
But the rapid strep test was negative, and a urine test came back indicating Molly’s blood sugar levels were abnormal.
“I was at home with the younger children at the time, and my wife called me and said that she must not be reading the test results correctly,” Russell said. “It had never occurred to us that Molly might have diabetes.”
The couple followed up with Molly’s pediatrician, who confirmed that she had type 1 diabetes.
“We just shook our heads. We wondered how something that we could have diagnosed with clarity in another child, we couldn’t recognize in our own child,” Russell said. “At first, we kind of drove ourselves crazy wondering how we could have missed it.”
Even though Russell and his wife knew a lot about diabetes because of their professions, the father said being a doctor didn’t make dealing with the diagnosis any easier in the beginning.
“In the early days after she was diagnosed, being doctors actually made it tougher in one sense because we knew all the risks and complications,” he said. “I could tell you what diabetes means out of a textbook, but I couldn’t tell you what it meant as a parent. That was the frightening part that every parent goes through, no matter what they do for a living – it’s the fear of the unknown.”
Russell said even though Molly was only 4 at the time of the diagnosis, he and his wife found themselves worried about not only her immediate health but how diabetes would affect their daughter down the road.
“We worried about whether she would be able to have kids, how this would affect her at every stage of her life,” he said. “Your instincts as a parent supersede any medical training or experience, because the bottom line is that you are worried about whether your child will be able to have a normal life or not.”
Russell said research being funded by the JDRF is aimed at making sure Molly and others with diabetes have less to worry about in the future.
And he said he hopes the author proceeds of his second book provide a big financial boost to JDRF research efforts.
“The book’s release is set specifically to coincide with November’s National Diabetes Month, and it just kind of worked out that it’s being released on Nov. 14, which is World Diabetes Day,” he said.
The book is a follow-up to Russell’s first novel in the Cooper McKay series, “Blood Money,” which is about the illicit blood trade.
“That story was actually inspired by a patient of mine when I was working in Cincinnati who was receiving a synthetic blood,” Russell said. “That got me to thinking about how far big business would go to make a profit.”
Russell wrote the first draft of “Blood Money” in about 90 days, working early in the mornings from his Mountain Brook home before going to work. It was published in February, garnering great reviews and reaching No. 8 on the Amazon Bestseller List for medical thrillers three days after its release.
In “Command and Control,” McKay saves the life of a man with flu-like symptoms and ends up embroiled in a government cover-up involving a deadly pandemic caused by an Ebola-like virus.
Russell said he started researching the book in 2010, long before the current Ebola outbreak in Africa.
Russell said it is not as odd as most people might think that a physician, a scientist, could also be a storyteller.
“I kind of feel like I’ve been collecting stories throughout my entire professional life as a doctor,” he said.
Russell said he’s always been intrigued by stories. He said his father, Dr. Richard O. Russell Jr., a cardiologist, was one of the best storytellers he’s ever known.
“My dad was a natural storyteller and I grew up hearing about all his stories from work, and I just remember always loving to hear the stories he collected as part of his job,” he said.
While Russell enjoyed history and writing, he was also fascinated by medicine. After completing his bachelor’s degree at Vanderbilt University, he decided to go to medical school and enter the family business.
“I’m a fifth-generation Alabama physician,” he said. “In some ways, this career path was expected, but I think I would have been drawn to it even if I hadn’t grown up around medicine.”
Russell kept journals for several years and wrote about patient encounters and interesting medical moments. He started turning those journal notes into short stories, and the more he wrote, the faster the ideas for stories came, Russell said.
In 2004, he challenged himself to write a book in 90 days and later that year, he completed his first manuscript.
“My first thought, of course, was to get it published, but I gave the 450 pages to a cardiologist friend who has published two books, and he read it and gave it back to me and told me I needed to find my story in all of those pages,” he said.
So Russell broke out his editor’s pen and carved out the story his cardiologist friend had known was somewhere in that first draft of “Blood Money.”
“I had to get over a little bit of an emotional attachment to what I had written,” Russell said.
After rewriting the story, Russell’s book agent shopped it around, and before too long the doctor had a three-book deal with Blue Jay Media Group.
It took him about 14 months to write the follow-up to “Blood Money,” and he is already hard at work on the third book that will follow “Command and Control.”
“Up until the first book was released in February, I had always viewed my two jobs as very separate and distinct from each other,” Russell said. “But I realize now that it is all connected. My writing started out as observations on my medical career, and those stories have now taken on a life of their own in a way that’s given me the opportunity to help my daughter and all diabetes patients. I’ve come full circle.”
Russell will sign copies of “Command and Control” at Little Professor Book Center in Homewood from 6-8 p.m. Nov. 20.