Monday, February 19, 2007

S.O.L. Enters World, Part II

Near Mammoth Mountain, 1999

As we return again to that fateful day in February 1990...

Right after the docs at the hospital decided to admit me, the ER nurse came in to take some information. One thing she wanted to know: why’d I wait so long to come in and see someone? I’d been sick, she figured, for weeks. She wasn’t judging me – she was just curious. Hell, she has no idea that S.O.L, is a glutton for pain and agony but still, it was an excellent question.

I explained that I had been to see a doctor at this very hospital, twice and he sent me home both times. Her look said everything.

I like doctors. I have to like doctors. My brother is a doctor. Without them, I wouldn’t be here today. But I continue to be astounded at how many times I have been shrugged off in ERs. I have heard similar stories from other people -- 100 percent of them women. Its a small sample yes, but I believe many doctors (particularly men) have a bias towards women. They think we’re making more of something then we should or we’re bring overly sensitive or my all-time favorite – it’s a “female” problem that’s no big deal. Again, it’s not every doctor (my brother sure isn’t like that) but my advise to my sisters” If you don’t feel well, and they keep telling you you’re fine, find a doctor who will listen to you. It may save your life.

Back to me in the ER. Would you believe it but as the nurse is taking my 411, the lights suddenly go out. I should say here that this was a small hospital near Fairfax, Virginia, a satellite to a larger facility. The big stuff goes to the main hospital down the road.

On that night, the weather was up, we were having a wind and rain storm and apparently it had knocked out the power all over the area. But was I thinking that? No way.

Its my fault, I said, starting to cry. Its my bad luck.

That nurse, whose name I’ve carelessly lost to time and distance, was such a comfort to me at that moment that even describing it warms my heart. While I can’t remember her name, I’ll never forget what she did for me.

The lights did go back on and I got sent up to a room and had a fitful, nervous sleep, happy at least to know what was ailing me. I figured the worst was over. Little did I know.

The first thing I did that morning was call my parents. Only a year earlier, they had sold our house in New York and retired to Florida. My Mother didn’t wait for the details, “Were coming to get you,” she said. And they did. Left within an hour of that call, which was a good thing I guess, cause the bad news hadn’t come yet and wondering if your child is going to die is not a good kind of companion on a 14-hour drive.

What we didn’t know (and for which I’ll always be eternally grateful for) was that they’re snap decision was incredibly prescient (to be fair, though, they’d been thinking of coming up in the two weeks I was sick). They left Sarasota for that 1,000-mile trip – and they only stopped for gas and the bathroom. Straight through. That’s my parents.

Seriously, how can you not love them?

Somewhere as they were driving north, a doctor who I didn’t know, came in to my room and started asking me a bunch of questions. Questions that raised my journalist’s antennae to a point where I had to stop him and ask why he cared whether I was having emotional problems, was short of breath or if my heart raced.

Big breath here, like he’s deciding how to word his next thought. And really, it doesn’t matter because whatever he’s about to say is bad. I can see it in his face, scribbled across it like a neon sign.

“There’s a shadow on your x-ray,” he says, finally, as matter-of-fact as if he was telling me there was a zit on my face.

Me processing: shadow on my x-ray. What does that mean?

He answers: Shadow that’s probably a tumor, he says. Its in my right lung. Yes, I have lung (can we even think the word?) CANCER. Whoa. What the fuck?

You can’t imagine what this moment is like unless you’ve gone through it yourself but its akin to talking to someone underwater, next to a waterfall. The world around you slows down to a crawl and there’s this rushing sound in your ears, your own personal white noise. And your life sort of passes before your eyes, everything you’ve done, every bad thing you’ve ever done and everything you wished you’d done but didn’t. Of course when you’re 26 years old, when you’ve just turned 26, its a pretty short film, your life.

And then you remember to breathe. And you form the words, which you never remember exactly, but which go something like, Will I survive? or How long do I have? or What the fuck did you just say?

And, if you’re like me and certain that the night earlier you caused the hospital’s power to go out, then before he gives any answers, your doctor’s beeper goes off and he excuses himself.

He leaves the room.

Let me repeat: The biggest moment in your life to that point and the fucker leaves the room.

I’m am so not lying. The guy left me hanging with “you have a cancer” and ... nothing. Dude wasn’t my doctor for very long.

But he finally does return and tells me I have a good chance of surviving this. That’s the thing about getting Cancer. The first conversation is always about the probabilities of it not killing you.

He says they can’t know for sure until they find out if its malignant, how big it is and all sorts of medical shit you don’t want to know about. Or you don’t hear. You’re having trouble getting past the part where you’re being told you might have only five years to live. Holy fucking shit, you think, is this it? Twenty-six is the end of the road? In the history of cosmic jokes, this one takes the cake.

Believe it or not, hearing this is not the worst moment of my life. That was telling my parents I had Cancer. Don’t believe me – you try it.

They arrived in Virginia late that afternoon pretty much record time. I remember my mother, especially, how she was standing when I calmly said the words. I’m in the hospital bed, worn down by the mono, feeling it’s the end of the world and I’m concentrating on not crying. Even voice, I’m telling myself. Don’t upset them. Weird what you think of in times like that. My dad sort of looked stunned there for a second but my mom, she literally lost her legs. She sank back into the only chair in the room, one arm lashing out for some purchase and her mouth parted in an O. It was hard, the hardest thing I’ve done my whole life, but I didn’t cry when I told them. I’ve held onto that for years and I’m not sure why, but whenever I think about that moment, I feel good about myself.

There was a lot of waiting and hoping and fear the next month and a half starting with the biopsy (by the way the surgeon who did it and who said that he’d make the cut right on the bikini line, was full of shit. Its the worst scar from the four I have from the operations).

It was malignant, a slow-growing, Carcinoid tumor and it wasn’t the primary (there was another mass near my bronchial tube). We eventually left podunk for New York City and Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital.

The doctor there, the wonderful Dr. Patricia McCormack, did the surgery. Dr. McCormack was a force, not only one of the country’s finest surgeons, but she’s like six-feet with legs like a tree trunk and absolutely no sense of humor (she did laugh at my jokes though). A trained Jesuit nun who left the order to marry a Jesuit priest, she graduated from Georgetown Medical School. And oh yeah, if you needed major chest surgery back then, she was one of only a handful of doctors to go to. Thanks to my bro for finding her.

I owe my life to this woman, who has since retired and lives way out at the end of Long Island near the water, a nice place for a saint to live out her days. Listen, even she’s impressed I’m still around. I tracked her down a couple years ago because I needed some medical information. She came to the phone and I explained to her who I was and there was this pregnant pause on the other end of the phone. Later she told me she doesn’t get many calls from former lung cancer patients, not 15 years after the diagnosis. I’m glad I found her because I dedicated my first novel to her and wanted her to see it. I sent both of them to her and she read them and sent me the kindest note – I felt like school kid looking for approval from the toughest teacher in the room. I was beaming for a week after that note.

She’s the one who brought home the seriousness of my condition. “You may have only five years to live,” she said. “I want you to be prepared.”

I didn’t take it as badly as I thought I would, not as well either but shit, that’s not something I dwell on anymore. It was a long month of tests and more tests of poking and prodding and giving enough blood to start my own Red Cross, but you know how it ended up if you’re reading this.

On April 2, 1990, right around the time Duke was getting pounded into submission by UNLV’s Runnin’ Rebels in the National Championship game, I came out of surgery, minus my right lung.

The recovery wasn’t a cakewalk but it could have been a lot worse. No radiation treatments and I was back on my feet in less than a week and within two months, started exercising again. I had a set back two years later that required another operation, but Big Bad C didn’t return. Still hasn’t. Knock on wood.

I was lucky. I know I was lucky. Fuck yeah. Once in my life, too. I’ll take it.

A lot of people ask me how it changed me, having Cancer, facing the prospect dying before my 30th birthday. It did change me, but how is still sort of unclear to me, or at best, changes from year-to-year, even sometimes week-to-week.

It’s sobering to be let into “you’re really going to die some day” club when you’re too young to have those kind of thoughts. Motivation? Sure, but something more, something I’m not quite sure I can articulate. I try but it never, ever comes out right.

I’ll say this, you walk through the world differently. You get that veil of confidence that you’ve gone through the fire, to paraphrase Bukowski. Not everyone takes it, and many don’t make it. Whatever got you through, even if you’re sure it’s just luck, it’s something to hold on to. And you do, you hold on tight and you never let go.

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