Doctors have developed an ability to deliver news with the calmest of voices, (do they teach that in med school? Don’t you wonder what they are really thinking?) and my radiation oncologist, Dr. Taylor, is the best at this. He was gentle in his delivery of the need for radiation, and sooner rather than later. A tumor on L4 was pressing against the nerve that runs down my right leg. The other spot that needed radiation was on the top of my right hip. It was weight bearing. Though I could see how busy he was, he made me feel like he had set aside the entire day for me should I need time to process the news. Choosing whether to have radiation or not wasn’t a difficult decision, really. “OK.” Perhaps the reason for agreeing to radiate those two spots came from the space of wanting to die so, "who cares that my body will receive more radiation, just get me out of pain now.” Or, perhaps the reason came from a deeper desire to live. I don’t know…Maybe it was easy because it felt like there was no choice at all, really. “OK.”
Saying, “OK” started a chain reaction, similar to putting the key in the ignition of a car…or nowadays, pushing a button. Dr. Taylor went into drive. I met with the nurse who explained what was to happen; she had me sign release forms. I was then wheeled over to radiation therapy where they “map” you, a process where they figure out exactly where the radiation beams need to be focused. Simulating an actual radiation session, they discuss the best course of action as they look over your laid out torso.
“Coming at the spot from this angle will minimize tissue damage…”
“If we go straight down from here it is best for…”
“We can bypass…”
Snippets of conversation and I understood the term "mapping". An image comes to mind of army personnel, generals, looking over a map of a battlefield, planning their strategy. Fortunately, I had a very good general on my side. Mapping also involves tattoos. I’ve never had one, but I can now boast of at least 1/2 dozen pin sized dots around my right hip and belly button. Hardly noticeable, I was glad for their permanence as they allowed the technicians to align me exactly to the equipment for maximum precision and accuracy in each treatment I was to receive. I’m usually not a stickler for perfection in others.
I then met with the scheduler. I was to have 10 treatments, the norm when it is bones being radiated. I was fortunate. Others we met in the waiting room were there everyday for five weeks, maybe six weeks, depending on their circumstance. I saw a young woman with young children waiting with her. A tug on her sleeve, I imagined the child asking. “How long will we be Mommy?” My heart ached…at least my kids were grown. There was the crusty, gregarious older man who makes me smile thinking about him today. If you didn’t know the seriousness of his situation you might have thought he came there everyday because he enjoyed the coffee and meeting new people. We learned that the Costco parking lot in Kirkland used to be where he grew up. I imagined him playing baseball with friends in a field, bald spots in the grass where the bases were naturally formed from all of the base running. Now, today, the field has become the gas station, the bases have become gas pumps, the paths are the lines of cars waiting to fill up. There was always a partially solved jigsaw puzzle on the table in the waiting area should you want a diversion while you waited. It seemed like the ones who came in alone were apt to make their way over there. My first appointment was scheduled for that day, 6:30 that night. If I didn’t know better I might have thought Dr. Taylor wanted to get me scheduled before I could change my mind. Rather, it was an indication of the urgency. From the time we met Dr. Taylor and reviewed the bone scan to my first radiation treatment being completed was nine hours.
One of the benefits of having something taken away is that once you get it back, it’s never taken for granted again, or, at least, that has been my experience throughout this odyssey. Walking was the first one. Everyday I pinch myself that I can walk. If it weren’t for the routine of going to the radiation treatments, I’m not sure I would have had as dramatic of a shift in awareness and appreciation with something as mundane as “walking”. When home I could hobble to the bathroom, hobble up to bed, hobble to a chair if the nausea allowed; all giving me the illusion of mobility. The distance from the car in the hospital parking lot to radiation oncology was too far, unmanageable, painful. I needed a wheel chair.
We developed a routine. Wes pulled the car up to the entrance of the hospital, helped me out, and got back in the car. While he was parking I hobbled through the hospital doors over to the nearest available bench, sat, and waited. He walked in, always with a smile for me and the blue-vested volunteers. He would help me into a wheel chair, offered a “have a good day” to the volunteers, and off we would go to radiation oncology. The same path was traversed every time - straight away, turn right to the elevators, wheel the chair parallel with the up/down buttons. I would reach out and push the UP button and wait. Did you ever notice how it gets quiet waiting for an elevator? We listen for it as if we aren't sure its still going to be there....ahh, here it comes. Then, in the elevator we went, whirl the wheel chair 180 degrees to face the front. The doors closed, the elevator rose, it stopped, the doors opened. Forward, right turn, left turn, "hello's" to whomever we passed, weave around that person, "excuse us!", wait for the slower walkers, and onto the waiting room. Once there, he would turn the chair so I faced the entrance (my request) and he would engage the other patients, learning all about their lives, making their experience in the waiting room more…fun. Mostly, I was wondering how the hell I got here. I hiked the Grand Canyon in one day twenty years ago? I was still playing in a basketball league ten years ago? Doing Bikram Hot yoga five years ago? Running with my dogs on the Oregon Coast beaches eight months ago? And now, I can’t even walk the 25 yards from the waiting room to the radiation room? It was surreal.
I couldn’t take care of myself.