I can’t believe Labor Day weekend is upon us. It feels as though the past three months passed in a matter of minutes despite the fact that this summer has brought several profound experiences where I felt like time stopped altogether. The summer started off on a pretty rough note after tragically losing my uncle in a car accident at the end of May. Unexpected deaths are never easy to handle, but losing Brian was even more difficult, because other than my dad, he is the most loving and kind-hearted person I’ve ever known. Days later, my grandfather was hospitalized over Memorial Day weekend after he took a nasty fall down their driveway. Peeps has had more than his share of major health issues in the past couple of decades including a ruptured esophagus, multiple heart attacks, and a broken hip among others. Even though I am well-versed in receiving the calls that Peeps is in the hospital, the calls never get easier. This time I was on the other side of the country in Napa. After a dramatic twenty-four hours and discussions of putting in a pacemaker, they were able stabilize him, and it took the next seven days to elevate his health enough that he could go home.
Three days after Peeps was admitted, I was back in North Carolina, and after work I receive another call from Mom that she was taking Granny to the hospital, because she was vomiting a significant amount of blood. Partially from our many experiences with Peeps and from my experiences battling cancer, my approach was to be rational and not panic until we had more information. Despite trying to remain rational, I did not sleep well, because as soon as I would drift off, I would wake myself up to check my phone for updates. The next morning, I went to work, because Granny and Peeps were both admitted in the same hospital where I was born, and, at the time, they were both seemingly stable. During the morning, I received texts and short calls from Mom. I realized the situation with Granny was unraveling slowly. In my nature, which is complexly optimistic, but very analytical, I stood by trying to reassure myself and Mom that she had made the right decision the night before by getting Granny to the hospital and that everything would be okay, because she was in a hospital where a team of doctors could address whatever was causing her to vomit blood.
I had a noon meeting in the conference room next to my office. Normally I would leave my phone on my desk, because I could receive notifications on my watch since I was within bluetooth range; however, I had kept my phone either in my hand or within inches of it all morning. Within seconds of sitting down for my meeting Mom’s name flashed across my phone screen. I instinctively jumped up and walked back into my office feeling my breathing stop and my heart pounding out of my chest before Mom could even say a word. In some combination, the words “can’t control the bleeding”, “intubation”, “immediate surgery”, and “come now” dictated my every movement. Within six hours, I had gone from my office to my house and through two airports and landed in Birmingham. During that time, Granny had undergone one surgery to band varices in her esophagus and stomach that were causing the bleeding throughout her GI tract. She also had been transferred from St. Vincent’s East to UAB, so she could hopefully have a second procedure that would hopefully save her life. When I arrived in Birmingham, I had two hours before the UAB MICU reopened to visitors, so Dad and I first went to visit Peeps at St. Vincent’s. This was the first time in over eighteen months that I was walking into a hospital for a reason other than for my health. Walking in to see Peeps with cuts and bruises lying in the blue gown hooked up to IVs in a hospital bed elicited feelings and thoughts that would be amplified in the coming hours and weeks.
After leaving Peeps, I got into Granny’s car to drive to UAB with Dad following me. The few miles of a drive is somewhat of a blur. I remember talking to my brother, but only because of the understanding I gained and feelings I had during the conversation. Dan had talked to Granny’s doctors at both hospitals. In a similar way that Dan was by my side during my diagnosis and treatment and talked through numerous situations with me last year, he again exemplified the same insight, depth, and compassion in explaining Granny’s condition. I left our conversation aware the severity of Granny’s condition, but feeling comforted in our shared feelings and empowered due to the knowledge he shared with me. Before heading into the hospital, Dad and I stopped for quick dinner. Our words were limited in the same way I felt both of us trying to limit our emotions. After finishing our salads, we walked into the hospital and into Granny’s room. Upon seeing her intubated and unconscious, all I could do was push back tears and fears that she and I would never again spend hours FaceTiming while I cook. After a hug from Dad that calmed my fears and gave me the strength to settle into the MICU with a spontaneously and poorly packed carry-on.The next day started the first of the next eleven days and nights I would spend in the hospital with Granny listening to every beep of monitors and researching information from her doctors. After a night of uncertainty and authorizing blood transfusions, Granny stabilized enough for a TIPS procedure, which was successful and prevented further internal bleeding.
The next step was to face an unexpected diagnosis that had precipitated all of this and existed in Granny’s body and our lives undetected, but slowly killing her. I found myself again facing the delicate relation of life and mortality. Over the course of the next 11 days, I spent every day and night in the hospital by her side, with quick escapes to go visit Peeps. Watching her battle for her life, then struggle over several days to regain consciousness, and finally waking up to find out that she has non-alcoholic cirrhosis and has experienced significant physical trauma from the surgeries and the disease. During my time in the hospital with Granny, I gained an understanding of what it feels like to be the caretaker and the loved one watching someone you adore battle a horrible disease and circumstances. I oscillated between feelings of blind optimism that she would pull through and be able to overcome this to feelings of pure fear and despair watching her knowing she was in pain and sick with no guarantees that she would wake up. I had moments of where my breath stopped like when I saw her in the MICU on a ventilator and worried that I would never hear her voice again. One afternoon when I left the hospital to go out for a quick run, I realized that in some ways it was easier when I was the one that was sick, because when I was battling cancer, it felt as though I could be active in that process, which may have been more of a state of mind than it was an active physical process. As both the sick person and the loved one of the sick person, I felt helpless, fearful, angry and frustrated, but they felt differently in each situation. I was and am am able to empathize with Granny and how she’s felt battling a serious disease. More importantly, through this experience, I realized the great love, compassion, strength, and capacity my friends and family had to have and showed me through my battle, and gained an even greater appreciation and respect for that.
After many weeks of fighting to regain strength and me going back and forth to Alabama, Granny stabilized and returned home with Peeps, although she has the physical and mental challenges that come with such a serious health incident and ongoing disease. The day after my last trip to Alabama earlier this summer, I went in for another follow-up appointment and labs with my hematologist. My blood levels were good, and Dr. Park determined that I am healthy, so he feels comfortable moving me out to 6 month appointments, which was quite the surprise. I expected to continue three month appointments through late spring of 2017. After discussing it with him and a comment that he trusts that I am aware of my health and will call him if I notice any changes or symptoms (read: very type-A and maybe a little hyper-zealous, although I prefer to be called the gold-star patient), I knew this was a step in the right direction further into remission. Between this development and feeling and looking normal again, I have felt like I have consistently felt as though I view cancer as a past and not a current state for me: that I view myself as cancer survivor. This feeling was amplified a couple of weeks later when I had a friend and her family call me for advice as a lymphoma survivor because one of their family members was recently diagnosed and starting her battle against it. Shortly after those conversations, I had a week where I slipped back and found fantom lumps and imagined symptoms and had dreams all week of relapsing or developing secondary cancers. I recognized that those were coming from fears and because of this transition of not seeing Dr. Park for a few more months instead of in a few weeks like I’ve become accustomed. This is causing me to develop new coping mechanisms and teaching me how to feel secure in my health and confident in my body again. I still believe that from battling cancer I gained a greater appreciation for life and desire to understand myself and continue to expand my capacity. I have an even firmer belief that a life worth living must be examined and in the importance of being self-aware. Through my experiences this summer, no matter how painful, I gained greater capacity and understanding, and for that, I am grateful.