There is a long hallway on the backside of St. Joe Hospital’s Reichert Health Center. It runs like a tunnel to various rear sections of the medical center complex at St. Joe’s: there is Pain Institute just inside to the right of the wide sliding doors that whoosh efficiently and quietly aside as patients walk or roll in on wheel chairs. If you go straight and then left you enter the broad main lobby of Reichert, which pulses with the comings and goings of the ill and relatives and doctors and nurses throughout the day.
Past the Pain Institute, tucked into the back of St. Joe’s, where the massive infrastructure needed to contain furnaces and air conditioning is packed like patients in a busy ER, are the MRI and CT labs. These huge pieces of technology, which allow doctors to see deep into our bodies, seem hidden, almost deliberately so, as if the work done here is best kept hushed, either because the results of the x-rays and magnetic pulses often signal major medical catastrophe for those that lie in their electronic clutches, or to shield the rest of the hospital’s visitors from a sense of dark foreboding.
These huge pieces of technology, which allow doctors to see deep into our bodies, seem hidden, almost deliberately so, as if the work done here is best kept hushed
At least that is how it has felt to me each time I pull into the miniature parking lot designated for this back entrance. Maybe the stuff was just put here because it makes the most sense logistically. Each time I walk from the little parking lot that seems placed as if by accident or afterthought, like so many employee lots behind shopping malls, through the doors and down the long hallway, I meander past the paintings and prints donated by students from the area’s elementary, middle and high schools. The artwork seems often to depict endangered or rare elephants, monkeys and eagles, or mythologic dragons and sea creatures and it feels like I am passing into a deep chasm into the heart of a medical system designed to diagnose and treat disease but not necessarily allow one to depart.
The tunnel extends to a heavy automatic door to the CT/MRI waiting room. The room reminds me of an artificially bright cave. An administrative assistant greets me from behind the large glass window, a transparent wall marking the zone between the sick and those who are charged with managing one’s journey through the system of health care. After I check in and I’m given an ID bracelet, I sit and wait. A quiver of people of all ages and in various states of infirmity walk in or are wheeled in by red-scrubbed orderlies. Each of us will have our time in the machine, the big plastic doughnut that surrounds the “bed” we lie in as it whirs. Two little green happy faces on the inside of the doughnut light to a robotic voice that says “Hold your breath” and then “breathe”.
I have been here many times the past five years, the equivalent of once every six months or so. My post-kidney protocol. This has involved drinking over the course of two hours two large glasses of ice water mixed with a contrasting agent that reacts to the x-rays from the CT scanner. Occasionally I have had IV contrast, which my oncologist has limited because it severely taxes the good kidney I still have. The IV fluid courses through my body, flooding my abdomen with a kind of nuclear warmth that, by the time it makes its way to my bowels, causes me to panic a little that I will empty myself right on the bed and in front of the radiation tech.
The IV fluid courses through my body, flooding my abdomen with a kind of nuclear warmth that, by the time it makes its way to my bowels, causes me to panic a little that I will empty myself right on the bed and in front of the radiation tech.
This is my last time here and I am less worried about any bad result. I am confident this final scan will be as clean as the others have been. The routine is familiar in an odd way. I am no longer put out by being surrounded by so many people whom I view as on a different medical trajectory than me, which I realize is unfair because I don’t know their stories. I chastise myself silently as I sit among them for being so smug. This is my psyche protecting me: You don’t belong here with these cancer types, it says, to stem the opposite notion, that I am in the same boat with all of these poor souls, sharing the cancer bond as we share the same waiting room.
It’s my turn: I am ushered into the CT room and before I know it, I’m lying on the platform that has been dressed with some pillows, sheets and a blanket. There is a large photograph of a peaceful mountain lake on the ceiling designed to draw my focus while the tech pushes some buttons and the bed slides into the doughnut, which feels a little like packing a full-grown adult into one of those playground slide-tunnels meant for kids. But I am not worried. I’ve been here before. I see the little green face light up and as the centrifuge-like scanner comes alive. I close my eyes and wait for the voice commanding me to “Hold your breath”. A couple cycles of sliding in and out of the doughnut scanner and the commands. Then, just as quickly, I’m done. The lights, which had been turned off, are blazing and the tech is by my side.
“All set,” she says.
I walk back across the hall to the changing room, which I do quickly, relieved to be done. Back out in the tunnel, I am struck by a thought. I am walking out of this place, past the kids’ artwork and other people headed to the CT scanner, out into the warm sun. There are people on hospital floors above me who will never leave. This is their final place. I think to myself that I am one of the lucky ones. I am humbled by a sense of being alive, of having more time on this earth, of being someone who beat cancer (knock on wood), while others won’t.
There are people on hospital floors above me who will never leave. This is their final place. I think to myself that I am one of the lucky ones.
The tunnel feels now like it has released its grip on me. Allowing me to depart. I’ve served my time in the medical system.
I have this thought too: how profound the impact of time. Five years ago I was in this same place, having just had surgery to excise the fist-sized tumor and my left kidney. It was all about cancer then. My fears were palpable–I sensed cancer in every little ache. Malignant cells ran somewhere in my body, ready to pounce ferociously to take over my body. Every six months I was back here, and though in the interim I was able to push morbid thoughts aside, all my fears rushed right back in the moments before and during my time in the CT. And for a few days afterward, until my doctor called with the “all clear”, my wife Elin and I were on edge.
I have a responsibility now; the responsibility of the survivor
Not true today. Today is different. Each scan has been a benchmark I pass, like mile markers in a 10-kilometer road race, to a finish line around the corner on some bright horizon. As I walk out to the parking lot and look toward the sun and its warmth, I feel more peace. This cancer episode, with its doctors and CT scans and fears about my health and the doubts about how long I’ll be around, is done. I am alive. Cancer-free (for now). More like the rest of the people around me than those back in that CT waiting room.
I have a responsibility now; the responsibility of the survivor, to appreciate the joy life gives us, in each moment, to be grateful for being here with the opportunity to worry about more mundane details that fill our heads most of the time. Free to make the choice to be happy for each breath, happy that my body has fought and killed any rogue cancer cells the surgeon missed. Free to enjoy the smile on my wife’s face or the simple pleasure of eating ice cream on a summer day and so many other simple things that I might otherwise take for granted, things which people deeply embroiled in their own chemo and radiation therapy battles don’t.
This time has been my friend. These five years have served up a basic but profound lesson that I either forgot or never knew: life is how we live each moment. Lest we forget that all we have in life is the present, cancer offers a huge and often fatal reminder.
I’m one of the lucky ones who has escaped and gets to pass on its lesson.