cancer journey, cancer survival, journaling, stories, Uncategorized

The Story Continues

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I like hospitals best on weekends. The weekly hum of diagnostic staff, nurses and doctors is replaced with a quiet hush throughout the halls. Things slow down as the ancillary staff takes the weekend off.

As I went through the glassed walkway to the cafeteria I could see the dreary skies outside the Deaconess Hospital in Billings, Montana. It had been overcast and raining on and off for a week now. It mirrored the darkness I felt on the inside. The only bright spot was when we were able to take Darrell out for a small ride with his sister and brother-in-law. Darrell grew up primarily in Billings, so I had listened, with a smile, when he related different childhood stories. He pointed out places that were still there and their history and other places long gone. I got to see where he had started his own business as a young gas station owner until he figured out it was a lot of hard physical work for little pay.  But still, I admired his entrepreneurship.

Now, we were back in the reality of life and death. The breaking of the monotony of staring at four sterile walls was only done by lab tests, preparing for tests, and procedures.

For instance, he had to drink a gallon of a thing called “Go Lightly”. His bowel needed cleansed before surgery. “I don’t who came up with the name for this stuff,” Darrell joked, “it should be called ‘Going Tsunami’.” This was after about his twentieth run to the bathroom in less than a half hour.

The next adventure was when the student nurse came in to place the IV for the blood transfusion he had to have before surgery. She was a trembling, quiet little blond-headed girl that I thought looked more like fifteen than the twenty-five she said she was. Darrell had notoriously small veins, like his mother, and it was a nightmare for anyone to get an IV needle in his arm.

Patiently he stared at the ceiling, as she tried, failed, blushed and stammered an apology four times. On the fifth try, Darrell did something I had never seen him do. He grabbed her wrist and quietly said, “Enough. Find someone who can do this.” I know I had a dumbfounded look on my face as she fled in tears.

The room door flew open next to admit a tall, Amazonian looking woman in a helicopter life flight suit. Her voice boomed in the small room. “I hear we have a problem in here.”

Darrell growled back. “Yes, I need someone who can put an IV needle in the first time instead of poking me five times.”

The Amazon smiled. “You got an expert here Mr. Gabel. Let’s see what the problem is.”

Within seconds they were best friends. Darrell had that ability to connect to people in a warm, gregarious fashion. Joking around, she proved her expertise by getting it in with one try, while tisking about the new crop of student nurses. She apologized for the little blond, stating that she should have come and gotten someone after the first failed try. Darrell apologized for scaring her by grabbing her wrist. In the end, all was forgiven. The Amazon even checked back before his surgery the next morning to make sure all IV’s were done to her standards.

Meanwhile I was busy making phone calls and dealing with nervous family. In times of stress, we all say things that are slightly, well, off. Take for instance my father. He was always a man of few words, very smart and yet socially clumsy. I grew to understand this, take his wisdom and not be offended. This was one time I failed.

After a long description of Darrell’s health problems, my fears and the impending surgery, he tried his best to comfort me.

“Well honey, you are still young enough if something terrible happens, you can always remarry.”

It floored me. How could he even think that? Didn’t he understand Darrell was my soulmate? I hung up and fled for my stainless steel sanctuary. On the way a beveled glass doorway winked at me in jeweled colors. I held the storm of tears long enough to be able to read a sign that said, “Chapel.”  Cautiously I entered the quiet sanctuary. No one was there. I let loose the flood.

The chapel was  simple and non-denominational in appearance. Wooden pews glowed with a warm polish. A Bible lay open on a podium. One wall was lined with books of all faiths, and pamphlets filled with hopeful words.

My heart cried out in desperation, asking for healing, wanting more time. In situations like this, you sometimes bargain. I asked simply for fifteen more years. Why that number was important, I don’t know. It just was. But slowly I realized, it didn’t matter how many years, it would never be long enough. I never wanted to be parted from him. I wanted it to last forever.

The chapel would become my new sanctuary.

cancer journey, cancer survival, journaling, stories

How Heroes Are Made

I stared at the stainless steel walls. Stainless steel in a hospital made sense because it is a metal inhospitable to germs.  Nothing else at the moment made any sense.  On the inside I cried out to the Lord. I didn’t know where to go from here. Darrell and I had been together for such a short time. It was our fourth wedding anniversary and I remembered well running this very scenario through my mind the night before I got married, wondering if I wanted to marry a man six years older.  I reasoned then that none of us know how much time we have on this earth so it was better to love than to miss out on it. I knew anything could happen at any time. But in the vision I had, we were going to live happily ever after to the ripe old age of ninety something. Of course, there is never enough time when you love someone.

We never really think about our mortality until faced with it. And even now, I refused to accept it. There had to be something that could be done to reverse this. Hadn’t the Doctor said that they had made great strides in the medical filed in the area of cancer? Didn’t he mention experimental drugs, procedures, and surgery?  But my greatest fear, outside of losing Darrell, was the thought this might be a long, lengthy, lingering illness for him and I would have to nurse him through to the end. Could I do it? Did I have the strength? Would I spend most of my time cowering in bathrooms?

We all choose different survival tools. I had just recently returned to my spiritual upbringing. I had been praying all through this. I never asked why. It was a waste of time. I always thought, why not? Why not  me?  Everyone has to go through life experiencing some type of pain. So rather than ask why not, my motto had always been what now? How could we move beyond this moment? What would this journey teach me?

I pulled myself up by my boot straps. Wiped away the tears. Prayed to Father God to give me strength and direction. Most of all I prayed for a sign that things would be okay.  I had been gone for an hour and a half.

With new resolve drug up out of a reserve I didn’t know I had, I headed back to his room. His sister had come to see him while I was out. The lines around Darrell’s eyes relaxed and a tentative smile turned up the corners of his mouth.

“Are you okay?” he asked hesitantly.

I stared at him. How could he be asking me if I was okay after he had gotten news like that? I should be asking about how he felt, consoling him! His sister was staring out the same window I had just a while ago.  I could guess what was going on inside her head.

“I’m fine,” I said, “just needed a break, that’s all.”

“You ran out of here so fast you scared the doctor. He asked me if it was something he said.”

I laughed.

“Oh yeah, it was something he said alright,” I responded wryly. But I could feel the emotional storm rising again. “I just couldn’t stand the thought of him cutting into you,” I choked out.

His eyebrows rose, a frown crinkling the skin on his forehead. Puzzlement shone in his eyes. “What? Don’t you hear this stuff every day at work?”

“Well, yes, but when it comes to being one of my loved ones getting cut on, or hurting, I can’t take it. I have too much empathy for them.”

My favorite ornery grin transformed his features. “Nice to know you care. For a moment there I thought you might not be coming back.”

His sister turned away from the window. “He really was worried.”

The rising emotional storm turned into disbelief. How could he think I would leave him?

“Honey, I just couldn’t take the ‘cut you this way, or cut you that’ way statement. I’m not leaving you. I love you.”

“Well you better explain that to the Doctor. You really shook him up when you ran out. They are going to do surgery on Tuesday. But first I have to have a blood transfusion. ”

As we discussed the schedule for the next two days, I thought to myself how brave and calm he seemed to be in comparison to me. Darrell accepted his fate commonly and reassured us things were going to be fine. As he said, there was nothing else he could do about it, so no need to worry about it.

This was a side I had never seen of him. As his confidence calmed me an odd little thought crossed my mind. This was how heroes were made.

 

 

 

cancer journey, cancer survival, journaling

The Flight Response

The Flight Response

Yup. I was hiding in the bathroom again.

Don’t worry; it isn’t always going to start like this!  I eventually break the habit. This day was actually a turning point. The journey had its highs and its lows. Remember, this was all new to me. I had never faced the death or illness of a loved one before.  And even though I worked as a CNA, it was a lot different caring for other people than someone close to me. The responsibility and heart connection was a whole new experience.

It had started that morning.  Darrell had insisted on sleeping in the nice recliner they had in his room. It kept his side from aching as much. He always liked recliners. I stayed with him every night, so that left only an empty hospital bed or a plastic chair for me to sleep in. I was exhausted from almost a week of hospital living. He insisted I take the bed. We decided to ask the evening nurse if this was okay, and she said yes.

The morning shift nurse that found me slumbering in his bed was not amused nor a happy morning person.

“This is against hospital policy, ma’am.  This bed is for the patient. Get out of it now.” Of course this was at 6:00 AM.

Darrell growled back at her. “We got permission and my wife is exhausted. I prefer the recliner, because frankly the bed is hard as hell.”

She huffed and bustled off, giving me the evil-eye.  When she left the room Darrell and I giggled, feeling like we had won something grand.

Next in was his Doctor, who informed us tests had come back and the gastrologist would be in to see us shortly. Relief flooded me because we would finally have an answer.

The gastrologist got right to the point. His voice quietly washed over us as he pronounced the findings.  “You have a tumor in your colon that has perforated the bowel. It has come back positive for cancer.  The best treatment at this point is surgery. Your surgeon will be in to see you next. Do you have any questions?”

I held my breath to block the sudden wave of adrenaline that turned my blood cold and tears that threatened to pour out. I thought it was a death sentence. Looking at my pink-cheeked husband, who was in the prime of life, I couldn’t see the invisible specter of the enemy.  I thought they had made a mistake. It happens, doesn’t it?  A misdiagnosis?   There was a scrambling of thoughts crashing through my mind as I stared at the demure-looking man who had just torn my world apart.

I glanced over at Darrell. He was nodding his head, a blank look in his eyes. I suspected we were both experiencing something similar except for him it had to be far worse since he was the one who actually had the cancer. I knew I had to ask questions. Darrell just went with the flow of things and depended on my limited medical knowledge. I found my voice. “Is this where the bleed is?”

The gastrologist looked relieved for some strange reason. “Yes. From the looks of it, it has been going on for a while. Mr. Gabel, have you had any black tarry stools?”

Darrell’s eyes focused and his eyebrows rose. “Yes, but I just thought it was something I ate.”

“For how long?”

“Well for a couple weeks at least.”

The gastrologist went on to explain the body couldn’t break down blood so it came out colored black and sticky. I was thinking other things, like how I wanted to strangle my husband. Why hadn’t he said something? Why hadn’t he mentioned the tiredness, the pain, the change in bowel habits? I would have known immediately to get him to a doctor. Was it all men or just Gabel men who were oblivious to the fact they were not immune to disease or illness?

Silence filled the room after the gastrologist left. Darrell’s pleasant baritone filled the air as he stated, “Well that sucks.”

I turned away from the window I was staring out of while I forced myself into emergency mode and put the tears on hold. “You think, Sherlock?” I fired back.

He smiled. It was our way to handle stress with humor and sass. Anyone else would have expected my condolences and comfort. We just teased each other. It was where we were comfortable.  Besides, I was angry with him at the moment, but lecturing him now wouldn’t change anything.

The door opened again. For a room that had been empty of any medical personnel the last few days, but usually crammed to the brim with family and friends, it seemed suddenly Darrell was most popular patient on the floor.

A tall, boyish-looking surgeon strode in, offering his hand. “I’m Dr. Brown, and I will be doing the surgery to remove your tumor.  I need to do a brief examine and discuss your options.”

The usual litany of questions went on as he lifted Darrell’s gown. “Are you allergic to any drugs? How old are you? Any other health concerns? Do you smoke? For how long? Any family history of cancer? “

I watched him, wondering just how old he was. The shock of hearing the word cancer was wearing off. I wanted to hear reassurances. I wanted him to tell us that the surgery would cure it. That this was survivable. That all would be okay. Instead….

“Mr. Gabel, the surgery should take about two hours, depending how much the tumor has spread. We will be checking lymph nodes, and taking tissue to test to see if the cancer has metastasized. From there, after surgery, you will see your physician and discuss any further follow up of treatments including chemotherapy. Now…”

He stood back, staring at Darrell’s abdomen.  I had to know what was going to happen. I started asking questions. Absently the surgeon answered while still staring at Darrell.

The he turned and looked at both of us. “So I can either cut down laterally between the abdomen muscles here.” His finger traced the path down Darrell’s stomach. “Or I can do what is called a ‘Mercedes cut ‘across the chest here…”

It was at this point I panicked and ran out of the room.

It would be the last time I sought out a porcelain sanctuary during his hospitalization.

cancer journey, cancer survival, journaling, stories

And Then….

I was hiding in the bathroom, crying.

Darrell had been admitted to the Oncology floor at the Deaconess. I knew this is where they treated cancer patients. I remember as they wheeled him into the room I wondered why.  I felt paranoid. What did they know they were not telling us?  Four long days of excruciating tests and they were still puzzled over what he had.  I was just plain scared at this point.

His room sat at the end of a hall which opened out into the nurse’s station. Next to his room was the family waiting area teeming with nervous people. Beside it were the bathrooms.

I was in what I called my ‘emergency mode”. Calm on the outside, ready to do what I had to do, but when it was all over I would flee to the bathroom to let the tears out. My family frowned on crying and I grew up seeing tears as a weakness.

And the tears were pouring at the moment. I had just watched and participated in the most excruciating test Darrell had gone through yet. They had taken a bone sample from his pelvic bone. In so many of these tests I knew what was going to happen, yet I stayed silent. Why inform him ahead of time so he could worry and fret? Wasn’t it just better to let it happen then console?

When the Doctor came in with the big burly aide, Darrell knew something was up, especially after he complied with the request to roll onto to his stomach and the aide held him down. I was in my customary place, clutching his hand, and soothing him with a quiet voice. I told him it was going to be okay, when in reality, nothing was okay.  After they numbed the skin, I watched as they bored into his back with what looked like a huge hollow needle. His eyes grew wide and I knew he was clenching his teeth. I smoothed my hand over his cheek and leaned in closer.  I had always seen him as a strong individual in both health and personality. I had thought I would die long before him, even though he was six years older. Now, he had a panicked look as his lips thinned into a straight line and a low groan slipped out of his throat.

“Just a few more seconds, Mr. Gabel, I know this isn’t pleasant.” Darrell’s brow furrowed, and if I hadn’t been wallowing in my own concealed panic, I would have chuckled. I knew that furious look well and what type of language was going through his mind.

Then I heard a soft crunch, my hand tightened on his. The bone had been penetrated. Darrell’s breath left him in a loud rush and before he sucked in another, a curse slipped from his lips.

“I know, I know it’s not comfortable. Just hang in there,” the Doctor encouraged.

Time can stand still. Really, it can. It elongates out and becomes sludge. Tears threatened to spill and I looked away, holding my breath.

How could they not be doing more damage than good to an already ailing body? He was low in blood platelets, yet they continued to take tubes and tubes of blood to test for various diseases. They interrupted his sleep at night to check to see if his heart was still beating and he was breathing.  He had a scope run down his throat and one up the other end, where nothing should ever go. And yet, they still had no answers. Now this procedure was definitely doing more harm than good.

I had thought the medical world advanced. I worked as a Certified Nurse’s Aide and knew enough to be dangerous. But even with all my head knowledge, it was my heart that hurt the most. I could watch any procedure done on someone I didn’t love, but to watch it done on someone I loved, the empathy nearly killed me. And yet, my loved ones depended on me to support and get them through. It was torture. But I was quickly coming to realize that the medical field ran on one part clues, one part knowledge and mostly pure luck.

The body only gives so many clues and if they are not read correctly, a whole myriad of diseases can be misdiagnosed or missed. So as they poked and prodded him, I clenched my teeth and continued to reassure him things were okay.

The procedure was done. They gathered their tools of torture and left after reassuring Darrell he had done better than most.  Tears shimmered in Darrell’s eyes and in a hoarse voice he said, “That was the worst thing I have ever gone through. Do you know how much it hurt? They said it wouldn’t, but they lied. It hurt like hell.”

I had spent a few more minutes consoling him before I fled to the porcelain sanctuary I now cowered in.