How many times in our respective lives has a parent hugged their healthy child when seeing another with severe handicaps and said, “There, but for the grace of God, go I”? We’ve all said it at one time or another. We’ve said it when we see homelessness, poverty, weakness, illness, and a whole slew of other things.
And even though we say it with compassion, we need to acknowledge that we also say it with relief. I have.
I was waiting for the subway at Penn Station one night and, just out of the corner of my eye, I saw a frail old woman crouched in a corner of the station. She was chameleon-like; her dark and dirty clothes melted into a dark corner and she was almost invisible. Indeed, she was so cloaked in this dark cloud that I bet hundreds, if not thousands, had passed by and were never the wiser. And I kind of said that phrase as I looked at her and realized how formulaic it was. I don’t even believe in a supreme being, but there I was saying it. “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”
I didn’t do anything about it. I didn’t ask her if she needed help. I didn’t offer her money or food. I looked at this tiny old person crouched in a corner and was relieved it wasn’t me. I boarded the train and went on my way, but part of me is still in that station. I am not entirely sure if it is the old woman that I can’t get out of my mind, or if my mechanical acceptance of her life at that moment in time keeps me there.
This morning I experienced the same haunting specter. But it wasn’t the old woman.
Yesterday I met with my oncologist. I first met her two weeks ago when she consulted on my case. Consultations are odd in any profession because you are asked to evaluate a situation based largely on black and white facts exclusively. You haven’t established a relationship that further informs that evaluation. And in the case of a physician, they’re evaluating the clinical, not the personal.
When she recommended chemotherapy I was rendered speechless. You can probably deduce from this blog that I’m not the type to run out of words very easily. Although it does happen, it’s got to have some significant punch to it for me to have some kind of comeback—sarcastic or no.
Robotic movements followed. I waited for two hours to see my surgeon after that consultation. No one told him that I was there. Had I been my usual self, he would have known I was there, alright. I would have waited no more than 30 minutes without pushing back. But I just sat there. Thinking.
I always bring my knitting with me to pass the time, but I started to run out of the ball of yarn that I had. So I could only sit. And think.
This isn’t me, I thought to myself. This doesn’t apply to me. It’s a localized tumor, no lymph nodes are involved. She doesn’t know what she’s talking about. She’s making money by pushing these drugs. I’m going to be sick and lose my hair and feel bad and look ugly. I’m not going to do it. No. I’m not doing it.
When I went home I researched. I have access to the database resources of a world-class university and I mined them to the point of exhaustion. I sent her an email: “I get the hormonal therapy. By why Taxotere and Cytoxin? It’s a localized tumor. You go in with all guns blazing when one semi-automatic will do here?” And I pushed some more, “Why aren’t we doing any baseline testing? All we have are some tumor chunks in a lab. No liver function tests in advance of the Tamoxifen?”
I was business-like, but I wanted answers. She called me and suggested that before we do anything we should sit down and talk in more depth. We would meet when I returned from vacation. Because we had met initially in my surgeon’s suite of offices, she told me that we would meet in her office this time. Her office is in the main hospital building.
I took the elevator to the 11th floor and quickly found a door with the names of doctors, including mine. “Oh yes, when you leave this office make a right, go through the double doors and all the way to the end of the hallway to reception.”
I saw the double doors and, above them, the words: Oncology Suite.
This was not the Oracle of Delphi. I wasn’t in a suite of offices. I was in the hospital.
There, at the end of a very long hall, was a sign for reception. But to get there you had to walk the gauntlet.
Past a closed door with a sign: “Do Not Enter. Patient Being Tested.”
Past a sign with an arrow to the right: “Infusion Suite.” People were in there.
Past the nurse’s station. Past exam rooms. Past a room: “Blood Draw.”
Then into reception. Jarring. From the hospital setting to a reception area with a flat screen television blaring LIVE! with Kelly.
I scanned the room and went into my own consultant mode. The chairs need to be replaced, too many ass-dents. Too many signs, no one will read this many signs. Pens. You need to provide an adequate number of pens for this paperwork. Fucking clip boards, you should provide a counter area so that people can provide this information in a more professional and dignified manner. Why are doctors discussing medications with patients in here, isn’t this a violation of HIPAA laws? I’m sorry, I don’t answer to my last name until you place a Ms. in front of it. Where the hell is the doctor? You people need to work on your customer service. What is it with this sappy yellow paint? The wallpaper border is not scaled to the size of these rooms.
The oncologist arrived, finally, and we began to talk. No longer a consultation, it was time to forge a relationship. She’s smart, she’s compassionate, and she’s a great listener. I had a slew of questions about hormonal therapy, timelines, benchmarks, tests, chemotherapy, and support networks and she patiently discussed everything with me. She didn’t just answer questions, she welcomed a discussion. It’s important to build a relationship of respect and trust (but never blind trust) with a physician with this much influence over your life. Indeed, when she began to talk about chemotherapy she made it clear that anytime she comes to that decision it is not without some modicum of regret because she sees first-hand the short-and long-term effects of a treatment that she prescribes for her patients.
My questions answered, I handed in my paperwork and had to walk the gauntlet again. I was getting agitated and annoyed. Oncology Suite. The “suite” is not making this a better experience. Infusion Suite? Lipstick on a pig, I thought.
“Suite.” that stayed with me all day. It has annoyed the living daylights out of me. But I know what is going on. I am not one of these people. They have cancer and are sick and may die. I am not one of them. I didn’t ask to join their stupid club. I don’t want anything to do with them. They’re sick and . . .
There. There was the moment. In a way I had passed through those doors into the Oracle of Delphi. Indeed, it was time to know thyself.
“There, but for the grace of God . . .”
No. Here I am.