The saddest news last week was word that Charlie Norwood was calling an end to his cancer treatment, returning to Augusta for hospice care.
It's impossible to sugar-coat it. Our congressman is coming home to die.
Norwood has been battling lung disease that required him to receive a lung transplant two years ago. It is a sad irony that the drugs he takes to prevent his body from rejecting the transplant also made him more vulnerable to cancer. In effect, the medicine prevents one fate and causes another, with doctors on guard to balance the two.
The balance tipped in cancer's favor, and Norwood has declined further treatment for a tumor in his liver.
"Even though I knew this was coming, it still takes the wind out of your sails," says state Rep. Barry Fleming, one of the likely candidates for a special election when the unwelcome time comes to replace Norwood. "If you could write up a description of what a congressman should be like, that would be Charlie."
Indeed. Honest, principled and hard-working, Norwood won his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in the 1994 Republican Revolution, and easily won re-election every two years since - including the two most recent elections in which he was too sick for much campaigning.
Norwood, until recently an Evans resident, easily won re-election simply because he is one of us. He grew up in south Georgia and then volunteered for the Army after graduating from dental school, and never forgot his humble, grass-roots background. Norwood remained refreshingly personable and approachable, greeting constituents like old friends.
Behind Norwood's affability was the fighting spirit that won him the Combat Medical Badge and two Bronze Stars during a tour in Vietnam when he could have been enjoying a lucrative dental practice back home. Upon his discharge from the Army, and after his retirement from dentistry, Norwood took his no-nonsense, can-do attitude to the halls of Congress.
On issues ranging from health-care reform to illegal immigration, Norwood carved out a reputation as a straight-shooting conservative who believed in standing up for the values of his district. The boundaries of that district shifted repeatedly during his six terms because of reapportionment - but Norwood never shifted in his principles. During an era in which the term "situational ethics" defines too many political efforts, Norwood's constituents appreciate his clear-cut values perhaps more than all else.
Just as Norwood's star was rising in Congress, idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, first diagnosed in 1998 but not publicly revealed until September 2004, attacked his robust health and eventually required him to undergo a lung transplant a month later.
Yet backed by a rock-solid staff, with mobility provided by an electric scooter (which he'd often joke about using to run over liberals in Congress), Norwood barely skipped a beat. If anything, he worked even harder on congressional duties when his health issues forced him to cut down on travel.
"One of the more impressive things about Charlie to me was the fact that he was very diligent in calling and discussing the needs of Columbia County," says County Commission Chairman Ron Cross. "There was never any doubt that the welfare of Columbia County was always foremost in his mind."
Punctuating that praise, Norwood never missed a single visit to Columbia County's Red, White and Blue Veterans Celebration. Each Memorial Day weekend since 2001, Norwood electrified the crowd in Evans with passionate speeches defining his ongoing battle for the heart and soul of America.
That toughness makes his surrender to cancer all the more disheartening, though it certainly is understandable. "There comes a time where he doesn't want to be poked and prodded anymore, and he's decided he's had enough and it's time to go home," says John Stone, Norwood's long-time spokesman.
As much as his constituents might want him to keep fighting, Norwood can't be begrudged such a prayerful decision - especially when he was fully justified to retire from his seat when he was first diagnosed.
Even now, Norwood's decision to decline further cancer treatment hasn't ended his service. His current term coincides with his first in the minority party since the Democrats took over Congress in the recent elections, so his individual votes are far less critical. And he continues to direct his staff in working on important issues as hospice staffers keep him comfortable.
Charlie Norwood has earned the respect of Columbia County and beyond, and deserves to draw his treatment and his service to a close under his own terms. Just as he has been in Congress for us, so should we now be here for him and his family.
Welcome home, Charlie.
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