Friday, November 18, 2005

The Waiting Game

Gail just wrote a very funny post about the many waiting rooms that she endures while I'm in my various treatments. I've been healthy enough to avoid hospitals most of my life until now, so my limited experience with the medical world has been a few stays in those same waiting rooms; and I know how awful they can be, since you may be dealing with the stress and worry about your particular patient. I can't thank her enough for going through all this with me, and keeping her sense of humour.

I thought I would add a few words about what lies beyond... since, in many of these places, there are layers of waiting rooms and recovery areas that Gail doesn't get to "enjoy" with me. I'll go along with her choice of the NROC as the best, even though I'm not a coffee fan (I know she loves the free, modern latte machine!) There, we wait together until it's my time to board "The Machine", and then I go straight to the table. My latest round of treatments include a very tight shot at my neck, so they have been strapping my head down; somewhat unpleasant, but usually over in ten minutes or so.

When I go for my chemotherapy, once a week now, there are several phases to my visit. We start off waiting together in the outer room of the Hematology and Oncology Clinic, which is devoid of magazines - only plenty of materials about cancer, smoking, medications and the like. You know what? By this point, I've read everything I care to about cancer; even Field and Stream would be better. But I usually get called out of this one quickly, and off to a row of phlebotomy "cubicles" where my eternally bruised veins are punctured for a blood test. After this I shuffle over to the next waiting area, which is well-stocked with magazines, including a few issues of my fave - National Geographic. (It's like a glossy little PBS to read!) Next comes the exam, usually by my main oncologist but occasionally an assistant. I'm impressed by how computer-integrated this process is; all of the medical staff carry laptops, wireless networked, and my whole medical history is available on them - even the current day's blood counts pop up, as soon as the lab processes them. The laptop displays not only the dry facts and medications, but all of the scans and imagery in full color, going back to my initial diagnosis!

Then I get walked into the chemotherapy room, a vast half-circle divided into rooms around the perimeter by half-height walls; each room is further divided into four cubicles, each with a reclining chair and individual television. The cubicles on the outer bank have broad windows, looking out on a dull view of a grassy embankment, but at least it's natural light. All in all, it's a fairly friendly place, but the careful planning falls apart in a few ways: First, although every cubicle has a television set, they DON'T have headphones... so that many of the chemo patients switch on, choose a station, and then begin the Volume Wars. To hear one show above your neighbor - who is just a few feet away, behind a half-height partition - you naturally have to turn it up a bit. Remember that most of my fellow patients are well-advanced in age to begin with, and you get an idea of the din in there on a busy day! Lately, the crowds have been light, and due to a technical problem the satellite TV boxes are not working; so everyone has to watch the same show, if they do at all. Better for me, since I never watch anyway, preferring to read or doze while I drip-feed. (Last week, though, I had to endure sitting next to a patient with an older woman companion - one who told long, pointless stories - in a loud, squeaky voice. Maybe I should carry some emergency headphones, just in case.)

Here I sit for usually about two hours, with a big needle in my arm and a blanket on my lap. (It's always too cold, whether my blood is thin or not.) Despite getting chemo every week, my arm veins are holding out, so I haven't heard any more talk about putting in a semi-permanent port in my chest. I don't mind the needles, most of the techs are skilled and set me to dripping without much discomfort. Gail doesn't have to wait for all these hours, our home is just five minutes away; or she can go off to do shopping or other errands. Lately my appointments are timed so that I finish chemo in time to walk through the corridor from the HOC to the NROC and get irradiated, and Gail meets me there.

I should also mention what goes on when I go to Mercy Hospital for any of my various MRI scans, since it's quite different on "the inside". Gail mentioned the MRI waiting area, and it is at least well-decorated - but when I go in, the scene is dramatically different. The trip is a long one, down many stark grey hallways to reach the MRI room; if I am sore that week, one of the techs will wheel me in a chair. (It's not unlike the opening credits in the classic spy sitcom Get Smart.) The MRI lab at Mercy is an all-male zone, and it shows; the guys who do the scans set me up with headphones and ask me what radio station I prefer; classic rock is the default. They are a casual, friendly bunch - one of them is married to one of my radiology techs - and all speak with rich Scranton accents. But for all the rough edges, they are a good crew; they take pains to make me comfortable, which can be difficult depending on my condition. I'm not claustrophobic, but the beige-steel tunnel is small, barely bigger than I am; and sometimes I have to spend 45 minutes or more inside. Often I am sore, and the platform is hard on my back; they try to pad me as best they can. Once I was overcome by nausea between scans, and had to be let out to lose my breakfast. At least I've learned to put my wallet in the locker - didja know that MRI machines will erase all of the magnetic strips on your credit cards? Whoops...

Anyway, a quick recap: I am currently getting a few days off from radiation due to a low platelet count. My shoulder and neck are much better, and my sore throat will be glad for the break; but my left hip is still quite sore. I just started those treatments. I have a good supply of my various pain meds, and I've sorted out the doses to control my overall level of pain, for the most part. I have, at my discretion, several narcotic painkillers and a steroid to use for pain; but none of them are perfect, and to be honest none of them make me feel good; the best I hope for is basic relief. I have many other pills to relieve other symptoms, mostly from the side-effects of chemo, radiation... and all the other pills. If I take too many of any of them, my stomach gets torn up, and other gastric troubles ensue, so I have been trying for minimalism.

Anyway, if you've made it this far, thanks for reading... hope it hasn't been too much of a wait.