To be suddenly a patient is to be less of a person. We all know this. They take away your clothes and put you in the same grey robe everyone wears, with a colour that suits none of us in our anxious pallor. They send you from room to room, mostly waiting for something undetermined to happen, leaving you looking at the ceiling or counting pleats in the curtain. Then, in the flurry of activity, they ask you the same questions again and again: date of birth, allergies, procedure. They write on your body to be sure they will operate on the right side in the right place. Then they prick you, pump cold and mysterious liquids through your veins, strap you to tables so you won’t do anything so unhelpful as move.
All of this is for my own good, I know. They are on my side. They are trying to save my life. And there is something of my sense of my life that gets lost in the process.
Yesterday morning I woke in the comfort of a business class seat, where the flight attendants sought to make me comfortable and happy, where they called me by name and brought me tasty tidbits when I rang my bell.
Today I wake in a hospital room, where they have come and checked my blood pressure and temperature every few hours, where they help me out of bed to go to the bathroom, where they leave a convenient (if uncomfortable) port in my arm in case they need to put something in my veins fast. Still I can ring my bell and they will bring me a cup of tea, even now, before dawn.
Today I have come to see that the cancer has had the starring role, and I have been a bit player in my own play, learning that the surgery was much more extensive than I had first understood (not because there is so much cancer but because it is tricky work to try to get it all and the ramifications of not doing so are severe), that because of that it would take longer and be more debilitating, and I would miss out on the luxurious hotel Michael booked for us and instead sleep in this hospital bed, which has many of the features of my business class seat, but represents such a different journey, that the options on the path forward are more numerous and frightening than I had thought (and that I do not get to choose: the doctors—in consultation with the cancer—get to choose). I have been surprised at how quickly I have become the observer of the play that is my life, how easy and necessary it has felt to hand the pen to someone else for a while. And how that makes me feel like not me somehow, as I am suddenly patient QRF256.
I don’t know that there is a different answer. The people here at this hospital have been kind and helpful. They have offered me care that feels like it is the highest standard: gentle, thorough, competent. They have asked me the same questions and written on my body and kept me overnight because they are trying to keep me safe and do their jobs well. And at the same time, this is their job and I am mostly QRF256 to them.
And sometimes I am not. At the breast clinic yesterday, I got a radioactive shot in my breast that would help Stan later remove the sentinel lymph node to see if the cancer has (God forbid) spread there. The doctor, Ken (one thing they do here is have us call them by their first names which is oddly comforting), explained the procedure, gave me the unpleasant shots. He was kind and playful, joking that this time the radioactivity would make me glow and fly, particularly if it were matched by some excellent drugs at the hospital. As he was washing up to go he said, his back still to me, “I just want you to know that I think it’s totally unfair that this cancer came back. You did everything you were supposed to do and it makes me sad and angry that you have to go through this again. You didn’t deserve this.” My eyes pricked with tears as I realized he saw me as a person facing a bewildering moment in her life, and I felt suddenly less alone, less like a patient and more like a human being who had lost her way.
Today the pain isn’t so bad as it was yesterday. The toast with the plum jam is hot and crisp and the tea is dark and strong. I’ll fly back to Wellington this afternoon and cuddle with my dog and sleep in my own bed. And I will then wait again for the results of this histology, to learn what the treatment plan is from here (oh, some of the options are grim—less likely, but geez), and try to live my way into this Act of my life, perhaps learning to share the stage for a little while (please just for a little while and just this last time…) with this odd and unwelcome new starring character, Cancer.