My sister has been driving me to my chemotherapy sessions. At Winona Health, patients have their own little room with a TV, huge recliner/lounge chair (people always say they feel like the Lily Tomlin character Edith Ann when they sit in it), side tables, a water bottle if requested, and a nice nurse to administer the drugs. At the Mayo Clinic, a chemo unit can accommodate up to six patients in two rooms in recliners, with individual TVs, and volunteers to come around with water and other drinks and snacks. If those rooms are full, patients are given an individual room with a bed. Another phenomenon at Mayo is that most people have someone ó family or friend ó come into the chemo room with them. The treatment usually takes between two and five hours, so I prefer to be alone with my book and to doze if I want, but I am the exception. Some people, usually foreigners, come with extended families who would all like to be in the chemo room, but only one visitor is allowed at a time, so families, after flocking to their patientís page nurse, disperse and hang out in the waiting room.
The real stories are in the waiting rooms of any place you go for chemo. Hats tell the tale. You can nearly always tell who is the patient and who the visitor by the hatÖand the bald head and lack of eyebrows. I think the eyebrows being absent add to the overall look of desperation and shock that I see on these faces.
On Thursday I sat waiting to be called and watched the people around me. Some are in wheelchairs, weakened by disease and chemotherapy. Some use walkers or canes. Many cough, and cough, and cough. Iím used to it by now, and my sister and I simply chat while we wait for my name to be called.
But Thursday, my heart broke. A mother, with a girl of about 10 years, had accompanied her younger child, perhaps about five or six years old and whose sex was not readily apparent, to the chemotherapy department. The little child, letís say it was a girl, devoid of any hair on her head at all, leaned her arms on a round coffee table, barely able to hold up her head. Her fatigue and weakness were so apparent ó unlike an adult, she didnít know she was supposed to keep up appearances, cover her bald head with a hat, put a little blusher on her cheeks and paint on her eyebrows. Soon, her little bald head just crashed down on her arms, and she appeared to be sleeping. Her mother arranged a stroller near her child in preparation for being called for chemo. The older girl looked on, expressionless. What must it be like, I wondered, for all of them? The mother, who is doing everything in her power to cure her baby of this disease that had attacked her through no fault of her own (what bad habits could a five-year-old have developed?); the older sister, accompanying her mother on a mission demanding a maturity far beyond her years. What fears does she harbor; what fears do they all harbor, and do they talk about it?
I was called in for my session, which went smoothly, as they all have. I have a month to go, and so far have not been required to have a permanent port installed, as my veins are holding up nicely. As I sat there reading my book (a big but good one, The Seamstress) I heard a child begin to cry plaintively, and then with vigor. I imagined her not understanding that if she could just relax and let the nurse put the needle in, just sit back and let the chemo run through her veins, just hope for a cure, it would be easier.
But how can a five-year-old understand? What experience does she have to understand that many times pain and discomfort must simply be endured, that others have been given many years of life after a cancer diagnosis by getting through these treatments. What does a child know of odds, of hope, of prayer, of positive energy and healing thoughts, of endurance? And what does a child know of impending death?
Is she lucky or am I lucky? Will either of us be lucky, is what we are both struggling to understand.