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Jim Gilliam sits with his back board-stiff against the headrest of his bed, his legs dangling off the end. That's life when you're 6-foot-9. He has no hair, and he's about as white as they make white guys. He's not making a fashion statement, not trying to replace the lead singer of Midnight Oil. The breathing tube under his nose might have been your first clue.
Gilliam is the 28-year-old producer of Robert Greenwald's Uncovered: The War on Iraq (2004), Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism (2004), Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price (2005), the just-released The Big Buy: Tom DeLay's Stolen Congress and, coming in mid-September, Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers. Gilliam's worsening fibrosis—he has only 17 percent lung capacity—has forced him to work on the latest Greenwald projects from his parents' third-story condo overlooking Newport Harbor. He's awaiting a donor who can provide two healthy lungs.
A single lung donation is rare enough, but Gilliam not only needs a pair, he needs a pair that will fit his long, thin frame. Even then, the long-term survival rate for lung transplants isn't what it is for other organs because of the difficulty in delivering medication directly to the lungs. For other organs, an injection or pills do the trick; inhalers for lung transplants are still in the experimental stage.
Out of his earshot, Gilliam's friends concede that they fear the worst. But Gilliam seems upbeat. He sounds like an upper-respiratory specialist when he talks about what's ahead, touting the high-quality care he gets at UCLA ("an amazing place") and how much better the one- and five-year survival rates for lung recipients are there compared to other hospitals.
The hospital that brought Gilliam into life was Hoag Memorial, just west of his parents' condo. But as a kid, he bounced around the country while his business-exec dad changed jobs. His parents were fundamentalist Christians who home-schooled Gilliam. When they lived in North Carolina, Gilliam wanted to attend community college and then enter the University of North Carolina as a junior, but his folks had other ideas: they pulled up stakes; moved to Lynchburg, Virginia; enrolled Gilliam's little sister in Jerry Falwell's high school; and gave Gilliam, against his wishes, just one choice for college: Falwell's Liberty University.
"I couldn't support myself, and it was the only thing they'd pay for," he said. "It started out a little rough, but it ended up being a blessing."
A self-taught computer whiz, Gilliam "was given free reign" of Liberty's "crappy computer lab. It took me from playing with an individual computer to having whole bunches of computers. It was a great learning experience."
"Then I got cancer . . . "
In March 1996, Gilliam came down with a cold. His mother, Kathy, took her then-18-year-old son to a Lynchburg doctor who diagnosed bronchitis. But an X-ray detected a mass, and specialists arrived at a new diagnosis: a rare and aggressive form of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. As he was being treated with radiation and chemotherapy, Kathy fell ill. At first, doctors thought it was sympathy pains for her son, but it turned out to be a fast-moving cancer that took her life in August 1996. Four months after that, doctors informed young Gilliam he was cancer-free. Six months later, they told him he now had leukemia, which required more chemo, more radiation and a bone-marrow transplant.
Gilliam had left school amid the treatments and mourning. The college dropout, figuring he knew all there was to know about computers and the Internet—because, well, he did—wound up wowing the Lycos search-engine folks in Boston. He moved from there to LA and eCompanies, a venture-capital incubator for five different Internet companies; Gilliam ran the tech side of all of them.
"He was this really tall, big, gangly guy with a swath of red hair," says Ramin A. Bastani, head of one of those companies and now Gilliam's best friend. "We just hit it off. We were the youngest guys there, by far."
It would be hard enough not to miss a 6-foot-9 skinny white guy with a shock of red hair. But Gilliam also found other ways to draw attention.
"He just loved to dance in his chair," Bastani says. "Even if people were not watching, he'd be dancing in his chair. It was an amazing thing. It's sad, too, that he can't right now. But he'd do these chair dances and get all excited."
When it came to actual work, Bastani says Gilliam "understood technology better than anyone—how to make it functional and user-friendly. I appreciated it."
After a few months, Bastani left to form his own business. He's about to launch a new Internet real-estate company, and he has no problems leaning on his friend for advice. "He keeps abreast of everything and has all these ideas about business. He's the first person I go to. He's incredibly intelligent, articulate. He's the smartest guy I know."
Bastani, who describes himself as a socially liberal moderate Republican, witnessed Gilliam's move to progressive politics. "When the Bush administration came in, his frustration grew and grew," he says. "He really follows it. It's what he's passionate about."