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Reflections on a Haven

Harpham, Wendy S. MD

doi: 10.1097/01.COT.0000303249.79062.f3
VIEW FROM THE OTHER SIDE OF THE STETHOSCOPE

You make me sick, y'know. So with giddy joy I'm about to bid you farewell. Sayonara. And hallelujah. No more IVs. No more pricks. No more nasty needlesticks.

Two years ago, after a deliciously long remission, my lymphoma recurred yet again. My best option was returning to you.

Now, with calculated coolness, I'm strolling by the nurses' station, hoping I can get my final treatment without letting it slip that today is my last day. Please, no shower of confetti for me. Let's just get this over with.

As usual, one of the nurses catches my eye and nods as if to say, “You're in.” Mothers may have eyes in the back of their head, but that's nothing compared with your nurses. They monitor computer screens, incoming and outgoing visitors and patients, vital signs, emotions and, most importantly, injections and drips where a misplaced decimal can decimate.

Figure

Figure

I watch one of the younger oncologists breeze through. I'm sure I walked with the same confidence years ago in my practice, not realizing I was as close to understanding my patients' experiences as prison guards are to their charges' behind bars.

Kathy appears out of the drug room, ripping an alcohol-swab packet with her teeth as she approaches. She tells a short story to serenade me during the slow subcutaneous injection.

Snap. Kathy's gloves are off. My throat suddenly tightens, and my salivary glands start tingling the way they do when I'm trying not to cry. I have never felt emotional like this when I've finished treatment before.

In 1991, when the nurse took out my last IV I felt dazed. And scared. Without you, how could I trust my body to keep the cancer at bay—the same body that had allowed the cancer to grow? Leaving you felt like leaping off a ship, with the shoreline far away.

Over the years, after each recurrence you served as the epicenter of my hope—ground zero for the match between science-based therapies and my cancer. And at the end of each treatment course, my thoughts focused completely on my future: What could I do to hasten my recovery? How could I pursue happiness now, after cancer? Would I beat the odds and stay well?

“Done,” Kathy announces.

I stand up and instinctively hug her. “Thanks for everything,” I say, while thrusting a bag filled with gifts in her hand. “Here. These are for y'all.”

“Oh! Is this your last treatment?”

I nod, feeling like a regular at a bar where everyone knows my name and “good-bye” means “until next time.”

But I'm not thinking about if or when I'll have a “next time.” I'm just glad I'm done, and I want to get out. Yet as I head straight for the door, my legs take me on a detour toward Brook, who's eyeing an IV and counting drops.

“Hey, Brook.”

She looks over her shoulder.

“Bye,” I say, my arms opening wide.

Brook falls in without hesitation. It's a nurse thing: No explanation necessary. Only after I let go, does she register today's “why.”

“Wendy!” Brook calls as I walk away. “We'll see you ‘round!”

“I hope not!” I blurt out without thinking.

“No, not here….” Brook stammers, swirling her pen in the air as if mixing cake batter in a bowl, “Around, with your lectures and books.”

“Okay,” I chuckle, choke up, and keep walking.

This doesn't make sense. I've learned to live well with the uncertainty. And with my youngest child now off at college, the primary fuel for my fear of dying has slowed to a trickle. I'm less anxious about tomorrow, so why am I more emotional about finishing treatment?

Maybe it's because I'm realizing what you've done for me beyond easing my hard times and nourishing my hope of surviving: You have given me reason to believe in a future where everyone treats everyone else with kindness and patience, love and caring, and mutual respect.

You see, lately I've been struggling with increasing worries about the world in which my children will grow old, given the pressing weight of global troubles that have no resolution in sight. Yet I've never lost hope. And I believe it is partly thanks to you. Each time I've come here, I've seen people under stress working and laughing together in perfect harmony, using knowledge and technology only for good. In this space, my hoped-for possibility is a reality.

Using a voice that won't startle Amy, who's sitting with her back to me beside the patient by the door, I whisper, “Thanks for everything.” Then, against my better judgment, I come up from behind and wrap my right arm around Amy's upper chest, careful not to contaminate her gloved hands. “Bye, Amy.” She reciprocates the only way possible, by putting pressure on my arm with her head.

Briskly I head down the short hall to the office exit. Hundreds of times over the years, without a second thought, I've pressed the little red button on the wall to unlock the door. As I reach for it today, it strikes me as funny. “What? Are you trying to slow down escapees?”

As if on cue, Amy grabs me from behind—“Was today your last time?”—and pulls me into her arms. I can't keep from wetting the shoulder of Amy's shirt before she returns to the haven I'm leaving behind, maybe—hopefully—forever.

Moments later, I am regaining my composure as the elevator's humming crescendos into a ding. The doors open. I step in and don't look back.

Yeah, you make me sick. That's how you get me well. And I love you for it.

Wendy S. Harpham, MD began her ninth round of treatment for indolent lymphoma in November 2005 and received her final treatment on November 2, 2007.

© 2007 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.
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