Soft yellow walls and a beautiful light oak reception desk greet patients and visitors. Large, well manicured, healthy, green plants are strategically placed to provide beauty and privacy. A huge tropical fish tank filled with live plants, blue and honey gouramis and vibrant red and gold mollies, doubles as a room divider between the reception area and waiting area. Off to the left is a small alcove offering water, assorted chilled juice bottles and a fresh brewed pot of coffee for patients and their companions. The chairs, too, are oak and are soft, with large comfortable arms for relaxing. Their muted shades of gold, green, brown and blue compliment the walls, the wood and the blue and maroon carpeting. The floor-to-ceiling windows are covered with translucent ivory shades, allowing daylight in but obscuring the hustle and bustle of the city streets. A flat screen television provides distraction. Hmmm, what a nice waiting room.
I settle my husband into a chair and begin the sign-in process at the Cancer Center. We are here meeting with the radiation oncologist and the chemotherapy oncologist to work on plans for George’s radiation and chemotherapy treatments. The receptionist takes all the information she needs, hands me a notebook containing George’s chart and instructs us to take the elevator to the basement, make a quick right through the door and then follow the hallway to the double doors. There, we are told, we will meet the radiation oncology staff.
The elevator doors open at basement level- we make the right as instructed – and walk through the doorway of hell.
I AM STUNNED. I cannot breathe. George is squeezing my hand so hard I’m sure it’s broken. We look at each other, reading each other’s mind...“Oh My God – what are we doing here? This is awful! Surely, this can’t be where we are supposed to be?”
The hallway and alcoves are filled with people in various stages of illness. A small, elderly woman gingerly weaves her way to a treatment room holding onto an IV pole overloaded with clear hanging bags and blue digital machines. IV lines run from the bags to her skeletal arms. Wrapped in a blue hospital gown and shuffling along in yellow “footies” she passes others who mirror her image. Wheelchairs with oxygen bottles hold some of the sickest human beings I have ever seen. There are people with braces, people with total hair loss, partial hair loss, missing limbs. They are so sick. Their skin tones are various shades of green, yellow or grey. Loved ones sit at their sides, holding hands, offering tissues, comfort, hope. I see no one unable to speak – no one with a tell-tale hole in their neck – waiting their turn. Are we really supposed to be here?
We reach the double doors, George gives my hand one last squeeze, and into the labyrinth of Hell we walk…
…And immediately discover the worst is still ahead. Here there are patients on stretchers, patients vomiting, patients moaning. Here is pain, disease, destruction. I feel guilty being healthy.
In a daze, we are ushered to an interior exam room to speak with the oncologists that will be George’s lifeline. We are told he will be given 6 weeks of chemotherapy in conjunction with daily doses of radiation for 38 to 42 days. A special mold of his head, neck and shoulders will be made and this mold will be placed over him each time he has a radiation treatment. The mold will then be bolted to the table so no movement will interfere with the radiation. I am given a booklet, a DVD, instructions on how to treat radiation burns to the skin and am asked if I can bring him back tomorrow afternoon to have the mold made. His face is alive with questions but he cannot vocalize them. He does not like closed in spaces or anything covering his face. I can see the idea of being covered and then bolted to a table is causing him great anxiety. My mind is on spin cycle again -- How sick is he going to be? Can I take care of him when he gets to the stages I just saw in the hall? Is he going to be able to handle this? How am I going to do this without losing my job?
Tomorrow’s appointment is made. Chemotherapy will start before radiation so a port will need to be inserted. Now we have to schedule surgery for the port.
We were told before the first surgery that George will have to have skin grafted from his thigh on to his arm to replace the skin, vessels and veins they took from his arm to make the new esophagus. That surgery is coming up very soon. Maybe…if we are lucky…we can schedule the port and the graft at the same time. I know that will be so much easier on George. If it can’t be scheduled that way he will end up with 5 surgeries in less than 2 months. I don’t think he is emotionally ready to deal with that.
Time to get in touch with the plastic surgeon and see what kind of magic he can work for us…..