The Illness Experience

My outpatient physical therapy office is located in the Eskenazi Clinic on 38th Street. Whitney is the (permanent) designated driver these days, which I enjoyed more when she was DD for pregnancy and a restaurant had a strong wine list, which includes reasonable price points. I will curate your dinner with $38-$43 bottle selections, and you’ would thank me when receiving the check. Give me a $1 oysters at a raw bar on a slow night, I’ll order Cava or a bright Txakolina, and we’ll be satisfied and “relaxed” for under $50.

Not much drinking these days.

South on I-65. Whitney is driving. This year I have effortlessly slipped into designated passenger mode. It is unfair to Whitney. I do not drive because I suffer from near-daily partial seizures that are controlled well enough on two seizure medications, but I have lost consciousness before, and God forbid that happen while driving our children or crashing into someone who is driving theirs. Hence my abstaining from driving is a safety decision, but it shifts the burden for providing transportation services for our family of five solely to Whitney. School, doctor appointments, swim lessons, “Little Ninja” classes, work, errands, grocery trips, pharmacy runs–this is not a small task.

She is my primary caregiver, my wife, my best friend, and that is before she even gets home to be mom to our three young sons.

South on I-65, Whitney speaks into her cell phone, “We are on our way. See you in 10 or 15 minutes.”

The lazy storm clouds roll their 1,00-mile-stare eyes deeply back into their cumulous heads while heavy drops of rain drizzle from their gaping mouths.

“He’s going into emergency surgery,” Whitney says, “we’re meeting his dad outside.”

Exiting onto 21st Street, my eyes fixed toward the sky, my body is pressed firmly into the passenger-side door. The storm rolls behind the foreground of a flagpole.

“Look for him. He’s wearing a dark t-shirt and khaki shorts.”

“Hm?” I murmor. I am lost somewhere amidst my short-term memory deficits, my wandering mind, the rain drops rolling down the window, and my Smashing Pumpkins Melancholy and the Infinite Sadness looped album playing the score to my life.

“His dad!” Whitney barks, “Do you remember?” [pause] “Adam! Do you see him? Do I drive around the roundabout? I can’t park here. Do you see him?”

When our story hit the Daily Journal we received an email to include us in a fundraising event to benefit families battling brain cancer. I had a bad day, and my seizure kept us home that evening. His dad knew our families are connected by glioma, and his fundraising efforts would benefit both of our families. “If this was his last public appearance,” his dad tells us through the open front-passenger window, brake lights refracting in the raindrops, patients sneaking out to smoke, “If this was his last public appearance, it was good to help another family, too.” He hands me a well-worn check from riding shotgun in his shirt front pocket. “We have been blessed,” he looks right at me, eye contact lock, only you know what you are going through, but we get it, even if just a little bit.” He reaches through the open window and pats my leg.

I fought tears riding home. Whitney and I both, silent.

His son died the following week.

 

There were no clouds to be seen on the morning of the Race for Hope D.C. “May I push for a while?” asked our (newly acquainted) friend, walking beside his wife. “I have a big left visual field cut, so you’ll have to warn me if anything is coming on our left side.” “Me too!” I reply, “we’re in trouble now!”

He pushed me for at least half of the 5k as our champions, our heroes, our caregivers, our relatives of those lost to brain cancer race beside and in front of us, running at brisk paces, stooping low to high-five me in my wheelchair, cheering me on, “SURVIVOR! WOOO!”

My  temporary designated driver, my new friend, my survivor model, looking strong after five years of surviving glioblastoma, and the scars, wounds, deficits, and pain that comes with it, his MRI scan was just returned reading progression. Tumor growth. In an act of biblical prophecy he posted earlier in the week about his anxiety. It proved a validated intuition. He is stuck in limbo between clinical trial ineligibility and inoperability, which is the better bet?

I sobbed. Whitney and I, silent.

 

I rode as designated passenger again today to join Whitney at work. I am immersed in medical culture. I read endless articles, press releases, Morning Rounds from STAT News, and I navigate the hospital with ease these days, peaking into patient rooms, and wandering by the trauma rooms wondering if I could earn a white coat before I die. Whitney found me outside the Starbucks typing away at my keyboard synthesizing weeks of research into competing theories of carcinogenesis. I am rarely pulled away from my computer with ease. Whitney knows this. She’s my designated driver. She says, “I’m finishing a note upstairs, going to the bathroom, then we’re having lunch. After lunch we’re going to see this couple I told you about.”

“Remember?”

I look up slightly with one eye raised toward Whitney. “Yea, I remember,” I say. “We will go after lunch,” instructs Whitney. I nod.

Our most recent of recent friends connected by glioblastoma are in an isolation room. Whitney helps me “gown up” and wrestles gloves on my hands as I’m still internally processing the paper I was working on twenty minute ago.

“You ready?” Whitney asks. I nod.

“This is the worst time you guys could have visited. The neuro doc just left, and we have a big decision to make whether we continue treatment… or don’t.”

I place one blue latex gloved hand onto the other, I tug at my quarantine gown and notice a glance of my wrist showing like I have violated an ancient biblical modesty commandment. I lock eyes with the patient’s wife, I dart back to the patient, I look to Whitney.

I think of the father in the rain. His son, back then, in emergency surgery.

I think of being pushed in a wheelchair on a 5k.

I think of my own road ahead.

Whitney helps me stand, and we de-gown outside. I fight back tears on the way toward the elevator.

“You OK? Whitney asks. I nod.

Often the illness experience has nothing to do with you as a patient, but it has everything to do with your insight gained by your patient experiences, and imagining what is to come.

I nod. I sob.

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