All That and a Flu Shot
Deja vu. I once again awoke at 4:30 in the morning. I showered and dressed and gathered up my materials for my 6-9 p.m. class out at the Naperville campus. I walked out the back door into a light rain. I got my car and headed for Stroger Hospital. I had not slept well, although I was nowhere near as nervous as I was on Monday when I attempted to see the doctor and still teach a 10 a.m. class. I managed to get a parking space on the second floor of the hospital’s parking garage. There were only three spaces left at that time. There is an immense empty parking lot next to the garage, but it is for staff. Staff still can park in the structure in which I parked. They don’t park in the uncovered lot.
I waited in my car until after 7:00 a.m. to avoid the lines for the elevators. My appointment was for 10:15 a.m. I graded papers in my car by the dim light of the streetlight near the parking lot structure. People kept circling in search of parking spaces until about 8:00 a.m. when a few people came out to collect their cars and go home. Then the patients and visitors resumed the endless circling as they searched for a place to park.
When I went inside the elevator lobby I encountered someone’s little granny wandering around in untied gym shoes. She was looking for Clinic H, which is where I was headed. So she came with me. I could be someone’s granny, but I’m not. But you know the kind of lady I mean to describe. She had white gym shoes. My brother Danny says the seniors all buy white gym shoes so the rest of us must wear black ones. He’s right. These were white and she had white support hose on under her navy, velour track suit. She had no hair and wore a headband with a jaunty crocheted flower on one side. It was the sort of thing new moms give their baby girls when they get tired of saying this is my little girl.
You cannot check in more than an hour before your appointment unless they want you to do so. I took a seat in the waiting area and went back to grading papers. There was an empty space next to me. A chatty woman of about my age came over and took it because, as she said, “I want sit with two ladies–no dirty men!” The woman who sat on her other side knew her. They compared notes on drains from mastectomies and A/C chemotherapy treatment side-effects.
I waved to a woman I recognized from treatment last year. She did not acknowledge me. After I checked in with the same receptionist who helped me on Monday, I stopped by to say hello. She told me, “I’m sorry. I don’t remember you. I am forgetful, see?” She tapped her head. “Chemo fog.” I have heard that some breast cancer survivors have this condition after repeated doses of chemotherapy. I was saddened by the thought that you could forget someone you had a nodding acquaintance with for five weeks, five days per week.
There was a young Indian or Pakistani woman in her twenties there with her father. He wore his cotton pajama bottoms complete with some stains on the back of them, his house slippers, a winter jacket, and a ski hat with a pom-pom on top. His daughter had to use her entire body as a counterweight to drag him to his feet when the receptionist demanded that he come answer questions. He probably weighed about 100 pounds. His daughter was shorter and more delicately built, but she was the master of her father’s care. She had a binder filled with notes and test results. Her father never spoke loudly enough for me to hear him, but her little voice rang out like a bird’s whenever his name was called. “Come, Daddy,” she would say in heavily accented English as she cajoled him one more time to his feet. She had a water bottle squeezed into the waistband of her jeans. Every once in a while you could hear her say, “Open wide, Daddy. It’s time for spritzing.” Then she would squeeze the water into his open mouth the way a mama bird feeds her young.
A woman my age accompanied her mother to the clinic. They were African Americans. The daughter groomed her mother the way a mama cat might. Several times she licked her fingers and smoothed her mama’s extensions’ curls. I am so careful not to touch my own face while I am there. It feels like germs surround me. It did not bother her. Several times as she touched those silky black curls a small chunk of hair detached from her mother’s scalp. She brushed them off her mother’s back. You could see that the patient’s hair was in speedy retreat due to chemotherapy treatment. The woman’s scalp was the creamy color of cafe au lait and unmarred by even a mole. When the receptionist wanted the patient to come to the counter, this daughter was stalwart. “No. My mother must conserve her strength,” she said loudly. The receptionist backed down.
My blood pressure was high by the time I made it back to the nurse’s station. 156/74. At least the machine worked on me this time. I went back out to the waiting room to wait my turn. There were no seats. I stood by a half wall and used it as a desk while I continued grading papers. The receptionist with the legal problem from Monday summoned me to her desk and thanked me for emailing her some ideas and information she could use to protest some cell phone overcharges. She had quite a bit to say on the subject, so much that I did not hear the doctor calling me. It was the resident who was just starting out when I first came to the hospital for treatment. Now she manages my case for Dr. H.
We talked about my hair. Everyone is amazed that it is now so dark, so wavy, and so short. We walked back to the examining room and she had me get on the examining table so she could look at my scar, palpate my stomach, press all my lymph nodes, and listen to my lungs and heart. We talked about my bladder, but not for long. “You look younger,” she announced. “Chemo is not good for much, but your hair is beautiful. The gray is like expensive highlights now. You shimmer.”
Then Dr. H came in. She looked at me and smiled. “I have that blouse,” she announced. “Have you had a flu shot?” she asked.
I was a little surprised at the seriousness with which she asked the question. I was hoping to get a shot at some point. “No.”
“We’ll take care of that today. How is the bladder?”
I ended up leaving with no new approach to the problem. I had blood drawn and will have my urine analyzed. I will continue taking pills for urinary incontinence (they work). But Dr. H is reluctant to do more about the pain at this time. I asked if her husband was okay. He has cancer and also has radiation cystitis. She told me that her husband recently had a kidney stone. “He’s quite a complainer,” she commented. I was thinking that the only kidney stone that I ever had was more painful and a more sustained pain than my bladder pain. “We women suck it up,” she announced.
I got the message.
“We will see you again in January rather than in April,” she said. “And we’ll have a CT scan then. Maybe we’ll look in your bladder at that time. You need time to heal.”
She was gone.
I really did not expect much more than that. I just hoped we could come up with a new approach.
“Drink water,” the resident advised. “Lots of water.”
The nurse gave me my flu shot. She said, “You won’t feel this. I’m that good.” I felt it, but I agreed that she was a painless nurse. She was so supportive on Monday. The pains that really matter are not the shots. They are the pangs of fear I sometimes experience when I hear about cancers that return. They are the stinging jolts of fear that assail me when I think I might not get to see the doctor at all. They are the deep aches that come from memories of treatment and my Christmas 2011 hospitalization. I can handle flu shots.
I headed next to the Infusion Clinic, Clinic J. I saw Leonard, the phlebotomist, who said, “Hello, Cheryl.” He must see hundreds of people every week. But he remembered me. He is the master of the painless injection. He took my blood without any sting at all.
I had to wait for the bathroom so that I could collect a urine specimen. An overworked nurse wanted to hop in there for a second, and I urged her to go ahead of me, but she was called away before she could get inside. Those nurses never get a minute’s break to address their own needs. Cherry recognized me sitting in the hall after I let a chemo patient go ahead of me. I remembered well how bad it sometimes was when I was tethered to a beeping I.V. machine and my bladder or bowel was about to EXPLODE!
When I had turned in my urine sample I went over to say hello to Cherry and Diane, two of the nurses who handled my chemotherapy infusions. I felt so much better after ten months of recovery. They marveled over my hair. The same old signs that said renovations would soon lower wait time hung in this area. I could hear Access Hollywood blaring from the TV. There were people parked in all the chemotherapy chairs. They looked frail and exhausted and many carried plastic grocery bags with medicine bottles and Gatorade bottles. The pharmacist with the size-too-big heels clomped around the room. There were people with one foot in heaven and the other in hell. One woman with wispy, snowy white hair was asleep in her chair. Her chemo drug was shrouded in a dark wrapper as it cannot be exposed to light. She was so tiny and shiny. It was like I was looking at a doll. She is still fighting though. She and the dozens of people who were there today were looking for their best chance at winning the war against cancer.
As I waited for the elevator to take me back to the first floor I teared up with emotions I did not allow myself to release when I sat in one of those chairs. It is no less terrifying to recall these experiences than it was to have them, but the ten months that have passed have given me a new appreciation for the numbing sensation of shock that accompanied me every day for months after my diagnosis.
I once packed my little bags of crackers, applesauce, yogurt, and pudding. I nibbled my dry cheese sandwiches. I sipped that nasty bottle of Gatorade. I waded through disgusting bathrooms. I smothered my panic through allergic reactions to Taxol. I undressed in filthy rooms and shuffled into cement rooms and let strangers poke and prod my naked body and cook it with radiation. I waited endless hours in the midst of my suffering and the suffering of others.
I made it. Maybe cancer will find me again. Maybe it will be something else. All I know for sure is that I can endure. One minute, one hour, one day–as long as it takes. Until I want to give up. That won’t be any time soon.
I ended my trip to the hospital in the CareLink Program’s office. I made an appointment for Friday morning to apply for continued eligibility. My current year of charitable status expires Saturday. So much has happened in a year.
I started this journey without a map or a destination. Where I find myself today is a better place. I did not make it alone. I made it with the help of family, friends, cancer buddies, coworkers, students, surgeons, doctors, nurses, phlebotomists, radiologists, pharmacists, hospital staff, my naturapath, American Cancer Society volunteers, charitable organizations and their employees, receptionists, my hairdresser, the woman who gave me a pedicure, the guys at the parking lot who cleaned my car of snow when I was too weak to do another thing, strangers who prayed for me, new friends on the Internet who cheered me on–no matter how lonely this battle felt at times, I was never alone. I had my faith that God stood beside me. And I had so much good company. Today I am filled with grateful emotion because of all that. And I got a flu shot.