Hospital Food

As a hospital patient, I am finding that the best meal of the day is breakfast. After all, it’s hard to mess up breakfast. Corn Flakes, Raisin Bran, hot oatmeal, cream of wheat — you know what you’re getting with cereal. Order a bagel and a fruit cup; it’s hard to go wrong. Better to stay away from anything more adventurous. French toast or an omelette comes pre-packaged and is asking for trouble and the risk of inedibility.

Lunch and dinner are more problematic, particularly if you don’t eat meat and have medical restrictions as well. Choices are somewhat narrowed. I have now eaten something called vegetarian stew with rice twice (it’s mostly banana squash, zucchini and garbanzos). Likewise, an egg salad sandwich twice. Cottage cheese and fruit has become a go-to item. Fortunately, the hospital kitchen offers tomato soup and vegetable soup daily. A small dish of soup with a roll and margarine is something I’m grateful for when the rest of the meal is ick. Take tasteless mac ‘n cheese with bland baby food carrots as a case in point (I ended up with that on my tray twice). Or so-called vegetable lasagna, clearly a figment of someone’s demented imagination.

Dessert depends on whether I get the nice order taker lady or the Dietary Enforcer. In the former case, I might score a lemon bar. In the latter, it’s another fruit cup for sure. My ace in the hole is my discovery that the nurses on this floor do have a stock of tiny ice cream cups in a freezer. Wake me up to take ten pills at 3:30 am and you can guarantee that I will be asking for one. Chocolate, please.

Of course, to have any chance of receiving a reasonable meal in a hospital, you have to order it first. This can be a challenge, particularly if you happen to be sleeping or out for a procedure in another department when the order takers come around with their iPads. You can always call your order in to the dietary department, if you can get through to them. Most of the time, I can’t. Last resort is writing my order on a meal form and asking a nurse to fax it in. Failing that, a patient can ask for whatever meal happens to be an extra on the cart. I imagine I’d have to be pretty hungry to settle for that.

But, as I mentioned, I am lucky enough here in the cancer wing to have that little something up my sleeve.

Chocolate, please.

Smile Therapy

😊 I have long been a bottom-line kind of guy, a value instilled in me early and often by my mother. Among her favorite aphorisms was “the operation was a success but the patient died.” I interpreted this to mean “don’t sugarcoat your failures.” You either reach your goals or you don’t, and you’re fooling yourself if you think there’s any in between. This is the way the world works, and the seriousness of the situation warrants treatment of the pretty scenery along the way as a dangerous and unwelcome distraction that may lead to never reaching your destination.

😊 In my school days, this meant ignoring my friends (“They’re not your friends, they’re your playmates!”) and their fads and fashions, and going my own way. Who cares if they fail, my only concern should be my own success.

😊 This type of goal-oriented worldview makes it difficult to focus on the present. From what I’ve read, “living in the moment” is essential for good mental health even in the best of circumstances. As hard as this has always been for me, a cancer diagnosis has made it nigh well impossible.

😊 I seem to be confused as to which stage of grief I should be in. My natural tendencies are to skip over all the denial and bargaining malarkey in favor of going straight to acceptance. I am always saying “it is what it is.” Facts are good.

😊 Except that the experts say this cannot be done. You have to do the steps. I may be engaging in an effort as futile as riding a self-actualization catapult to the apex of Maslow’s pyramid while perishing of hunger and thirst.

😊 This in no way inhibits my “acceptance” stage pull toward making arrangements. My wife and I recently made wills. I found the cemetery where I wish to be buried and talked with them about a traditional burial and the costs involved. I just want to go down there, sign the contract and hand over the money. I want it done.

😊 My wife accuses me of having given up, and I see her point. While that is not my intent, I don’t want any truck with dishonesty games either. The problem is that not all the facts are in yet. I am still undergoing tests. I plan to do whatever treatment is recommended. And the thought of being a cancer survivor brings a smile to my face. Indeed, the very act of smiling has begun to take on meaning of its own for me. This is no small thing, as my natural disposition might best be described as “grumpy.” Insert ghosts of Lemmon and Matthau here.

😊 So, at least at this point, I cannot agree with my wife’s assessment that I have given up. I pray daily and have others pray for me. And I practice what I have dubbed “smile therapy.” Eye roll, I know. I smile at myself in the mirror every day, just to remind myself that I still can. That anything is possible. Smiling as an act of defiance.

😊 Smile therapy has become particularly important to me in light of my twin bogeymen, pain and the narcotic medication being used to relieve it. My continued ability to work from home has been essential as well. As I explained to my boss the other day, work takes my mind off things.

😊 I thank God for small blessings. And I try not to fixate on those aspects of self-care that I could recently handle and that have become extremely difficult for me in a matter of just a few weeks. I refer to basic tasks such as lifting my right leg to climb into the car or into bed. Some days I can do it, but on others, my muscles go on strike and adamantly refuse. I would be totally out of luck if not for the assistance of my patient and long-suffering wife.

😊 I am tired all the time. Granted, I was never a high-energy person, even in my younger days. Now, however, I am learning to accept a new normal in which taking a shower uses up about every ounce of energy I possess. We ordered a shower chair, and I eagerly anticipate its arrival. I am able to work a full eight-hour day at my computer while seated in my armchair, getting up only to use the rest room. When 5:00 rolls around, I have just enough left in the tank to undress, get in bed, and be out like a light.

😊 Most of the layers of my onion have been peeled away. It makes for a much smaller world. I can only imagine that this will be exacerbated once I begin chemotherapy. I’ll just have to laugh while singing the “It’s a Small World” song from Disneyland (perhaps vomiting in between the repetitive verses).

😊 I do not believe that acceptance of all I have described means that I have “given up.” As I recently explained in decidedly terse terms, “it sucks, but it is what it is.” Denial would be pointless, and I certainly don’t have the energy to bargain as if this were some type of contract negotiation. No rageatar, por favor. For me, acceptance is where it’s at.

😊 But you know me. I need to have a goal. And I do. I want that Cancer Survivor shirt, size 4XL.

😊 Until I get it, I’ll keep right on smiling in the mirror.

😊 Just don’t tell anyone, please. I wouldn’t want to ruin my reputation.

A Tale of Two Hospitals (Mom’s Surgery – Part III)

Three weeks have come and gone since my parents left our home and returned to the Central Valley following Mom’s surgery.  Just when it all started to feel like a bad dream, Mom let me know that she may need to have a second surgery.

And finally, after avoiding the subject, in a phone conversation with her this week, we started to come to grips with the unholy trinity:  Surgery followed by radiation and chemotherapy.  This has turned into the dreaded nightmare from which you cannot wake up.

I’d rather not remember the details of Mom’s surgery.  My parents stayed with us a full week, Dad sleeping on a blow-up mattress in the living room, Mom sleeping on the couch before and after her hospital stay, everyone in the house stressed out to the max.  I had to stay out of work to play babysitter and chauffeur.  Attending services with my parents on the first night of Rosh Hashannah and leaving early because Mom didn’t feel well.  Ferrying them back and forth to Kaiser in Sacramento for testing, admission, post-operative doctor visits.  Mom crying on the phone to Kaiser because she’s being transferred from one office to the next, no one seeming to know what time she should report for surgery.  Meeting the surgeons after they put an IV into Mom.  Not knowing what to say to them.  Not knowing how to reassure Mom.  Not knowing freaking anything anymore.  Feeling dumb as a sack of beans.  Horrible pain for Mom, endless waiting for the rest of us.  Carrying around my laptop and trying to get some work done during the waiting.  Hobbling around the hospital with my cane.

Mom, pumped full of morphine and still in pain despite the drugs, begging the hospital staff to let her stay in post-op a little longer.  Request denied. Kaiser trying to send her home before she was ready, resulting in Mom crying and horribly abusing the nurses.  Mom being fitted with a catheter, but not before being shown a scary film about catheter care and the awful things that can happen if you mess up.  Mom yelling that the catheter felt like someone trying to forcibly have intercourse with her.  Going into the bathroom with Mom to assure her that she did not break the emptying valve.  First night back at our house, Mom waking me up by kicking my bedroom door at 2 in the morning, yelling that she was having an emergency and needed to go back to the hospital.  Carrying on about red streaks near her wound and how the literature given to her by the hospital said she should contact her doctor immediately if she experiences such symptoms.  Mom dropping her pants so I could see.  Um, a son isn’t supposed to do this, uh, right?  Me assuring her that it’s just normal bruising. Go back to bed, Mom.  Mom blurting out that my wife hates having her here and that she is going to divorce me.  No, Mom, she’s not going to divorce me.  Sigh.

A full week after their arrival, my parents finally headed home.  Thirty minutes after they left, my grandnephew was born at a different Kaiser hospital, two months premature.  He weighed just over a pound and a half and went straight to neonatal intensive care, where he remains.  My wife and her sister drive down there about four times a week to be supportive of my young nephew and his wife.  I go about once a week.  You know me:  Have cane, will hobble down hospital corridors.  Hit the sink and scrub up to my elbows so I can see the baby in his incubator.  Hobble back down the hall to sit with family.

I think there’s an ancient oriental curse:  May your life be filled with hospitals.

As for Mom, she is recovering nicely, feeling better with those heavy teratomas removed, but feeling too tired to do much.  It will take time, I’ve assured her.  At least it isn’t cancer.  A blood test before the surgery reassured us of this.

Then one of the surgeons called Mom last week.  Um, we looked at the contents of the teratomas under a microscope and squamous cancer cells were found.  We were shocked!  We’ve never seen this before.  We have to do a PET scan in November to see whether cancer has metastasized to other parts of your body.

I now call Mom three times per week.  She vents and I listen.  Listening is good, I tell myself.  All you can do is be there for her.  I can only hope that I am doing this right.  For after spending a life as a writer, a man of words, I find that they have disintegrated into a meaningless babble of syllables, vowels, consonants.  The words, my trusty tools, my stock in trade, have deserted me.  And I don’t know what to say.

The Big C

Letter C

I work in a very small office, so it was nothing short of shocking to me when two of my coworkers recently shared with me, in the same week, that they had just been diagnosed with cancer.

Now, what exactly is the proper protocol for this situation? First, pretend not to be shocked so that you don’t make the other person feel worse than she already does. Then say something. But what?

“I’m sorry” just doesn’t seem right even though, of course, you are. That’s what you’re supposed to say when someone tells you her Aunt Mabel passed away in her sleep at the age of 92.

Gasping “Oh no!” and covering your mouth with your hand doesn’t cut it either. An overt expression of shock makes it all about you.

But it’s not about you; it’s about the sick person. Wait, now I’m using my coworker’s disease as a label. Suddenly, she’s not “my friend in accounting” or “Joan, the funny one from work I was telling you about,” but “my sick friend.”

You can ask your coworker how her doctor appointment went and when she’s having her next MRI and what kind of treatment they’re talking about. You can commiserate about what idiots the insurance company is. You can offer to drive her to her first radiation session.

You can also cry. I mean, how can you not cry, right?

No, no, you have to be strong. Only the sick person is allowed to break down. If you get all emotional, how do you think that will make her feel?

You can hug. Hugging is supposed to be healthy for all parties involved. Hugs can make both of you feel better. There is one little problem, however. Hugging doesn’t come naturally to men. Well, not to me, anyway. It kind of seems forced, like I’m doing this because I think I’m supposed to but I feel really uncomfortable so can we stop now? Also, when you’re a man, the specter of sexual harassment perpetually hangs over your head. Do the wrong thing and your job is toast.

As my nieces and nephews are quick to recognize, I am not a with-it kind of guy. (The very use of the term “with-it” shows how hopelessly old-fashioned I am.) So would someone please tell me what the manly equivalent of hugging is in the modern age? What I mean is, I don’t exactly expect to shake your hand when you’ve just told me you have cancer.

So I end up staring at my hands, staring at the floor and generally looking like a Class-A dork (or whatever term they use these days to refer to an oafish idiot with the social skills of a flea).

Inevitably, I return to my first instinct: Just be supportive. Lend a willing ear. Sympathize. Offer to help in any way you can. Ask about her family. Help to take her mind off her bodily woes by discussing her interests or joking around about office politics or funny things in the news or American Idol, like you always do.

Don’t pretend that nothing has happened, but don’t dwell on her illness either. As they say on TV, “you have cancer, cancer does not have you.” So whatever you do, don’t define someone by their illness. While it certainly looms large right now, it’s only a small part of her world. What she’s really thinking about is what to make for dinner and whether she’s supposed to bring cupcakes to her son’s school on Wednesday, or was it Thursday?

Emphasize the good stuff, the fun and the family. After all, that’s what’s going to get her through this. That and friends like you.