One week ago tonight, I was preparing myself to check in to the hospital for chemotherapy treatment for a rare cancerous sarcoma.
The process began Monday morning with a 7 a.m. check-in to get a PICC line (peripherally inserted central catheter) inserted. Ultrasound was used to create a hole in a vein in my tricep area, insert a tube and navigate it to my heart for the purpose of more direct drug injection. Not terrible, but not the most fun. Unfortunately, the stabby attempts to weave the tube through my right side were thwarted by the cancer in my armpit (did I mention I have cancer in my armpit now?). So, I got to have the entire procedure a second time through my left side.
Plumbing inserted, I was sent upstairs to receive my first of three bags of chemotherapy medicine that would slowly drip at about 47 ml/hour over the course of the next 72 hours. I was given a hospital gown to wear for the duration, but negotiated just before attachment to keep my black t-shirt instead. Between that and my primary concern of wifi instructions, I began to make my mark as an atypical patient on the unit.
The other patients on my floor rarely left their rooms. I was rarely in my room. I took up residence in one of the lounges with laptop, iPad and phone in tow. I was first discovered there when the IV pole and monitoring system that was now my dance partner began to squeal. Apparently it has a short battery life. The scolding staff let me know that if I was going to make camp, it would have to be near wall outlets. Fortunately, a lifetime of constant scanning for airport power outlets had prepared me.
Each change in IV bags meant what to me looked like full-on Monsters, Inc. hazmat suits for the staff with plastic poncho, big gloves and facial blast shield. While they were content to allow this poison to go straight to my heart, what they were very concerned with was where I would pee. I was assigned a specific toilet and no other toilet in the universe was acceptable. With my urine now containing isotopes of humanity-jeopardizing lethality, there were protocols for splashing and much documentation. Unfortunately, the one effect that the chemo had on me was to destroy my legendary bladder reputation and haul me into my lead-lined lieu about seven times a day. My urine seemed clear, but it did smell like it might be able to power a flux capacitor.
Lights-out on the unit took place at 9:00 p.m., though the staff smiled at me as I sat reading in the lounge as the clock rolled past. Shift change was at 11 p.m. and the sight of me sitting on the floor with an array of electronics sprawled over a coffee table lent amusement and curiosity to the staff. They didn’t have to wake me for meds or vitals and I did my best to make them laugh, so they played along until 3 a.m. each night when my nocturnal nature probably clashed with their night-shift quiet time. The second night, my nurse quietly took away the Starbucks coffee my parents had lovingly delivered to me and replaced it with apple juice. Each new nurse joked about odd notes in my chart about my behavior, but I felt well liked.
On the opposite end of the spectrum was my roommate. He was a 50-something man who did not speak English well. On top of his cancer, he had completely lost his short-term memory. He was constantly confused about where he was and ripped out his tubes, including those with the burning toxic chemo medication. When I finally did get to sleep, he would be crashing nearly hourly and the lights flicked on to deal with one emergency or another. My sleep was the last of anyone’s concern. The man’s brother, sister and father were with him constantly and gave him great care. I’m sorry that he is unaware of this and that he has such a long way to go. He made me feel I was greatly fortunate, as did most of the other patients.
As the last drops of poison dripped from the bag, through the tube, the machine, the other tube and into my heart, I was a considerably weaker man than the one who walked in. I had yet to feel the full force of nausea that was to greet me later at home, but even the long-awaited shower brought me back to only a shadow.
One last thing remained before I could leave the building… my first of ten doses of radiation therapy. Weeks ago, a team hand-crafted for me an apparatus meant to keep my hand still during this process. It has a custom form-fitted base, a fiberglass mesh cage that contours to my splayed fingers and locks down with screws, all topped with a centimeter-thick bee’s wax encasement. This is meant to allow for incredibly precise bursts meant to impact cancer cells and avoid the remaining healthy cells. Perhaps more on this later.
The radiation room looks a like something from an X-Men movie. The metal slab sits in the center of a circular space that allows for the robot appendage to spin and dance through the three-dimensional grid of green laser lights. If from my vantage point I could see it, I’m sure it would be quite impressive. But the awkward position I’m in lets me see only a sad low-tech bookshelf.
So, I quietly sing Weird Al Yankovic’s “The Saga Begins”. Partially because it soothes me, and partially because its 5:30 running time is the duration of each of my radiation treatments once the robot starts spinning.
I returned Friday for a second dose, then collapsed to sleep for 27 straight hours… a week’s worth all at once, for me. The time has been unkind, but this first week of my treatment journey has passed quickly with the thanks of many friends… some new, some old.
If you are to be believed, “I got this.”
With your help.