It never ceases to be an adventure. I had a 9:30 a.m. appointment at the hospital on Monday. I got there before 7:00 a.m. to ensure I would have a parking place. It was cold and rainy–one of those days when the concrete does not just seem wet. It seems to sweat the moisture. I sat in the front seat and waited for the time when the elevators would be unlocked. It was cold enough that I wanted to wear my coat indoors, but I ended up leaving it in the car. It does not feel good to get cold, but it feels worse to sit for hours in a coat once you warm up.
Once inside I went to Clinic H (Oncology Department) and waited for a while. The receptionists do not appreciate it if you check in more than an hour before your appointment. I took a seat in what seems like an airport waiting area. I had a set of student papers to grade while I waited. The usual crowd assembled. I have never been waiting when it appeared that I might have the worst case. On Monday I observed several wraiths wearing hospital masks. Chemotherapy lowers your white blood cell count to the point that you are susceptible to every form of infection. One man coughed incessantly. You could feel the reverberation of others’ fear each time he did. No one wants to become ill. Surviving cancer is difficult enough. Dying of pneumonia or some other opportunistic disease after undergoing such awful treatments would be cruelly ironic.
There were more African-American men waiting than I usually see. They were stoic in a manner few else can achieve. They did not react to the coughing. They did not suck on water bottles or hold their heads as if they pounded. There was no low buzz of chatter from them. They had not brought their wives or daughters. They dressed in grays and blacks and faded denim. They cupped their own elbows as if their limbs ached, but there were no loud sighs. The painful silences speak so loudly to me now. I can tell when the muscles in their necks are taut from the effort of holding up a painful head. One man’s nostrils flared for nearly an hour. He appeared to be in extraordinary pain each time he drew breath. When the receptionist called his name, then changed her mind and asked him to retake his seat he walked back from the front desk like he could feel every hair remaining on his rapidly emerging scalp. No complaints despite his visible suffering.
Actually, no one complained as we waited and waited and waited. It was about five and a half hours that I waited. I saw countless people come and go.
One man came in his pajamas with six or seven people in tow. When his name was called, all of them rose to lead him toward the desk. There were several young men in the group. When the nurse asked if one of them would translate for him, they all raised their hands. In the end, one man, a son, I think, escorted his dad back to the examining room. Everyone else waved as if he might not return. They hovered in a corner to wait for him to return.
Only one woman wore a wig on Monday. The rest of the women had some hair or little knit caps. One woman had a fresh tuft of silvery hair atop her head and nothing else. She wore dark clothes and a leather bomber jacket. She knew many of the other women who waited. Barely into recovery herself, the woman went from patient to patient offering others comfort. “You look wonderful,” she would say. When a receptionist asked for her appointment sheet she said very softly, “My doctor called and told me to come in. I think she has bad news for me.”
I choked back emotion at her bravery. I hoped it was going to be good news or bad news tempered with hope. She seemed like such a nice person. You don’t wish cancer on a nasty person, but it hurts to see so many ordinary heroes and heroines. When she raised her hand to wave to a passing nurse I saw the large flat fingernails on her hands. I could not help but think of my old cancer buddy Country Joe. He told me those flat fingernails were a sign of lung cancer.
A nurse took my vitals three or four times. She kept forgetting to write things down. She coughed a few times in my face. I did my best not to flinch. She apologized and promptly coughed again. I prayed that she was not sick and would not make me sick. When she was not watching I smeared hand sanitizer on my cheeks.
Eventually I saw the doctor who now assists Dr. H. She always wears her name tag in a pocket so I still don’t know her name. She claimed to have called me twice and asked if I had gone to the restroom. “No,” I answered. “I have been here the entire time.”
She asked me how I was doing and I told her that I had a new rash all over my shins, my legs and chest. She had me roll up my pants legs. She checked my stomach–no rash there. Dr. H came into the room and they called Dr. Z in, too. All three studied the rash and Dr. H scolded me for not calling her when it started. I did not defend myself. But I was amused at the idea. My appointment was changed without notice to me. I just got a letter in the mail. Don’t come 1/23. Come 1/28. Days are fungible at the county hospital. No one calls me.
The doctors described my rash as pitikia or petechiae. I think the word(s) mean(s) “rash.” But I came to understand that it could mean serious concerns. They called the pharmacist to ask why my prescription was changed from one color of pill to another–a different manufacturer. I used to take a dark blue pill. Now the pill is white.
I will go back to taking the dark blue pill as soon as the hospital’s pharmacy can prepare a new prescription–five or so business days from whenever I drop off the new prescription.
Petechiae is like my blood platelets are “committing suicide.” I not only have red marks all over. Some are joining into big red patches. As this happens the blood leaks out of my veins like bruises. When I mentioned all of this later to my friend Mary she thought of the petechiae discussed on NCIS. Apparently one finds it on the necks of strangulation victims.
The doctors eventually sent me for blood tests. Dr. H told me to call her Tuesday for results. She also said she would get me a referral to a gynecologist who will examine me for signs of cancer.
By the time I had my blood drawn I had been at the hospital for seven and a half hours. I waited quite some time for the blood test because the person who takes blood was on lunch break and no one fills in during his absence. The coughing man and a whisker-thin Hispanic gentleman and I waited for his return while the TV blared on with Anderson Cooper and Emmit Smith removing white stains from wooden tables. I still had to go to work after all this. As a result, I never made it to the pharmacy to drop off my prescription. I never made it to the Carelink office to apply for renewal of my charity status.
I called Dr. H today but she had not been at work and did not have my test results. Maybe tomorrow.
I made it to school at 3 p.m. for my office hours. I finished teaching a class Monday night. I probably graded twenty papers that day. When I got home I realized that I had eaten a protein bar, eaten a piece of string cheese, consumed two sodas, and swallowed a handful of pills and vitamins–what a day! I had to rush home to prepare for a brand new class I started teaching this morning at a different school. I had three resumes to review and fix for students for a resume workshop at school today. There was no time to eat dinner. There was no time to worry about my health.
I crawled into bed at midnight and set an alarm for five in the morning. The truth is that this is what passes for ordinary in my life now. I keep trying to simplify my life and it grows more complicated. I wanted to hear that cancer has not returned, but we somehow got distracted by new complaints that started out as rashes and became suicidal platelets. I got up early and did whatever I could to get in and out from my doctor’s appointment only to spend an entire day waiting to see, to be seen, to hear, and to be heard. I rushed to finish classes and rushed to start them. I pass by sick people every day who come and go as well. I find myself thinking quite a bit about those people because much of the rest of what is happening is just a muddle. What is happening to people all around me is so much more terrible to imagine, much less contemplate.
Life goes on even when it does not. Tonight as I set my alarm again for five in the morning I wonder if the muddle isn’t what saves me from getting lost in the fear that could so easily stop me in my tracks. I know at moments like this that, no matter how muddled life is, it is better than giving in or giving up. So here we go again.
Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take. Amen.