My friend Melanie - who babysat me from age 4 and whose family story is so deeply intertwined with my own it is inseparable now - was diagnosed with thyroid cancer last Friday. The initial biopsy report says papillary carcinoma (the most curable kind), possible spread to one lymph node; the primary tumor is around 1 cm (for reference, mine was almost 5 cm). The only comfort the fact that her outlook is - if the biopsy is right - much better than mine, much easier than mine. Today I am sitting in a hospital waiting room at Mayo in Rochester, waiting for the surgeon to come tell us what they found during the excision of her cancer.
To say I am horrified to have a friend this close join me on my most difficult path of suffering is an understatement. This morning, after a last hug, as she walked off down the hall in ceil blue hospital garb with her escort, the bile rose as I remember myself in her shoes 2 1/2 years ago. And now knowing all that has transpired since...errors in diagnosis, delays in treatment, everything that conspired to mean I am still a cancer patient in the active treatment phase, with no end in sight.
I remember what came after the walk down the hallway, away from family and friends. I was in the oldest part of the hospital, the historic part with the marble walls and the 12 foot ceilings, and the hushed nuns who went from room to room meting out comfort to the suffering. Everything took a more hilarious turn when I wheeled away down the hall toward "pre-op holding". (I'll forgive you if stockyards immediately come to mind.) I was instructed to stick my arm in a slot in the wall, which, by some computer magic, unlocked the double steel doors to this catecomb of the hospital deep in the bowels of the buildings. My name and a number flashed above the doors, and lighted arrows lit the path to my bay in a large, open room that held about 150 other sufferers. My bed was locked pneumatically into the wall, feet facing the room, foot to foot with a woman with a disfiguring tumor on the top of her head, marked in Sharpie for removal. Questions immediately swirled as I was abandoned wordlessly by my escort. "Should I make conversation with these people, literally within arms' reach of me? Where am I going next? Do I have a nurse here?"
I didn't speak. Just tried not to stare. Shortly, a nurse came, wheeling a little cart. She wordlessly stopped at the end of each bed, placed the sensor on her cart below the laser apparently glowing from the end of each bed bay. The computerized cart clicked, and out popped the medications for that patient. It took her a moment of confusion to answer when I asked what exactly I was taking. (Sedatives, thank God!)
As a dose of humanity, the surgeon I had met the day before popped in to speak to me before surgery. As a nurse, I always find it a bit grotesque when a doctor or nurse stands smiling at my bedside dressed in impervious, fluid-resistant garb meant to repel my blood, my guts. She spoke quietly about what they intended to do (probably a lame attempt at maintaining confidentiality), then asked my permission to sign her name on the body part she intended to remove (my thyroid gland, just below the skin on my neck, above the notch of my collarbone. Disturbingly close in proximity to my carotid arteries and windpipe, I thought). She signs my neck in Sharpie and smiles, pats my shoulder, walks out of the room. I watch her go, and realize, slowly, that everyone in the room is marked with Sharpie. Body parts slated for removal. A hack shop. Great! Not only a hack shop, but a high-tech one at that. The realization that I have apparently descended into some weird fulfillment of a sci-fi writer's dreams is slowly dawning.
A large screen in front of me shows last names and numbers paired with locations. They change color from time to time, from yellow, to orange, to purple and green. Finally, I watch my name begin to flash red and anticipate that something is probably going to happen. Two persons, only their eyes showing, come, ask me for my arm, scan my band, and my bed releases from the wall with an asthmatic gasp. They quickly wheel past the disfigured woman, past the man losing his leg and the girl losing her festering arm and the elderly man pregnant with tumor. Into a cold, stainless steel hall, past 20 operating suites, the arrows on the ceiling soundlessly guiding them down the hall and finally into a room.
To open the door, the same routine: insert arm in slot, doors sloosh open, cold green tiled walls greet the eyes under the nauseating flourescent light. The anesthesiologist nods, confirms my name and birthdate, asks me if I want some drugs right away. I say no, I'm okay. Pray with them. Then he busies himself at the end of the bed, cheerfully announces that they will shift me to the surgical table. They pad my limbs with warm blankets and pad me with many more to chase away the chills...a little from the cold, mostly from fear. Here is the moment of truth. The rending open of flesh to reveal the curse, the tumor that sprung from healthy pink tissue, the tumor that threatens to choke the breath from me. The man, still cheery, announces that they will undress me now, scrub me with the odiferous brown Betadine. I look up, and it is not a human I see above me, but a robot, pincers for hands, red LED lights almost like eyes glinting malevolently. I ask what the robot is for, and he calmly states, "Oh, don't worry, he just opens and closes." And in the next sharp intake of breath, he shoots the white milk of the sedative into the snaking IV line and into my arm. And my eyes, gratefully, drift closed.
And so, my friend Melanie today, goes through it, too. I pray, the guttaral, Holy-Spirit-in-the-holes begging kind of prayer. Asking please, no vomiting after surgery; please, let the pathology come back the "good kind" of thyroid cancer; please, no metastasis; please, no radiation, no chemo, no years of waiting to beat this thing.
Pray with me?
And this is why my eyes are closed
It's just as well for all I've seen
And so it goes, and so it goes
And you're the only one who knows
~ And So It Goes, Billy Joel ~