10 years? Yes 10 years ago this weekend–Memorial Day Weekend, 2001 was a life-changing experience for me. I had struggled all month with rather unique symptoms. In early May I thought I had flu and an ear infection. After going to the doctor and getting some antibiotic, the ear infection was gone, but the symptoms got weird and the overall effect was odd and disconcerting to me. I still had cold/flu-like symptoms. But now my muscles seemed weaker. I had shortness of breath walking on level ground for only 30 feet. I battled general fatigue no matter how long I slept. I had serious night sweats where I would wake up completely soaked from head-to-foot. And fevers and chills continued to worsen. Lastly, I experienced unexplained weight loss the last week of May. I lost 8 pounds without dieting at all or exercising.
I did have a tick bite from late April that had left a mark under my left arm. I feared that I had contracted lyme disease. I didn’t understand what was going on but I certainly knew that something was truly wrong with my body. Early during the third week of May I went back in to see the doctor. I had some blood work done. A week later I got a call from my doctor requesting that I return for a redo on my blood work. He mentioned that my platelets seemed low and wanted to do the tests again to make sure. My symptoms had gotten worse, too. I was struggling mentally to keep the fear at bay. The not knowing part was hard to handle.
Just two days after my last blood test–Friday, May 25, 2001–I got a call from my doctor. At work. He called me at work. Have you ever had your doctor call you at your job? It struck me immediately that this was of the kind of importance that is not of the pleasant kind. My fear juices clicked in. I was wired. Then the doctor gave me these instructions:
“You need to leave work and go to the hospital. Check into ER. They will be expecting you.”
It’s Friday afternoon on a holiday weekend. My mind is racing. I need to have something to help me understand what is going on.
“So what were the results of my blood numbers? Why do I need to go to ER?”
“The first test showed that your platelet count was at 39–very low. Now your platelets are at 27.” (I found out later that normal platelet counts run in the range of 150-400).
But what did all this mean? What did platelets have to do with anything? And why did he call me at work? This all sounded a bit fishy to me. Something wasn’t right and I didn’t know what.
I did a quick Google search before I left work. I found three things associated with low platelet numbers: 1) aids, 2) hepatitis, and 3) leukemia. I ignored them all. I didn’t have any of those I thought. I left work in a haze. I was numb in my head. I felt incredibly weak. I had symptoms I didn’t understand. And now I’m going to ER and I’m not sure why.
I drove directly to the hospital and parked. With great difficulty I walked into the emergency room and told the folks at the desk what my doctor had said. I waited for 2 hours before I got to see anyone. A nurse drew some blood from me again for hospital blood tests. Then I went to a room to wait on a doctor. After another hour a doctor entered the room and asked more questions. Then he left again.
By now they had me laying on a table in the room. I was staring up at the ceiling with an empty gaze. My mind was whirring at a million thoughts per hour. I was wondering why all the fuss? I just wanted to go home and enjoy the weekend. How hard could it be to fix platelets? Platelets, after all, are just a part of the blood, right? Couldn’t I just get a transfusion or something and go on my merry way? And if I did have lyme disease then there wasn’t much they could do anyway I thought.
But my thoughtful musings were interrupted by something. It was almost like a voice inside of me. Actually, it was a thought. But it seemed to be clear and prominent. It seemed out of place. You will live and not die. Hmm. Interesting I thought. Where did that come from? And why now? Lyme disease is ugly but the risk of dying from it is not so great. I didn’t know much about low platelets but I didn’t think it would be deadly. I was more in the mindset of getting a quick fix and getting out of this place.
But the clear thought stuck inside of me. As a Christian, I recognized it as part of a verse in the Bible. But I didn’t know the reference off hand. (later I had plenty of time to look it up–see Psalms 118:17) It wouldn’t go away though. Again and again it rolled over inside of my head. You will live and not die. I wanted to believe it was nothing. Why should death or dying even be a part of my thinking right now. I was just frustrated at all the time this was taking. Can I please just get out of the hospital?
Finally the doctor returned with some hospital workers. I was going to be transferred to the 7th floor. I was getting a room. At the hospital. And during a holiday weekend. Rats. The doctor had little to say other than my platelets were low. But this I already knew. Duh. What were these doctors really saying? Was this some kind of doctor-speak that I am supposed to understand somehow?
When they rolled me into my room I found some of my family there from 100 miles away. I had kept them abreast of my health concerns. Their faces were covered with the kind of cares that weigh heavily on one’s soul. The hospital workers left and we all waited again for more news. But we already knew part of the bad news. The 7th floor at Riverside Hospital in Columbus is the Oncology Floor. Yeah. Cancer floor.
Cancer? I was totally unprepared for this. Cancer? My mind was racing so fast that everything was now a blur. My head actually felt empty of anything that made sense. I was shocked beyond belief.
Finally, another doctor walks in. He’s a hematologist. His specialty is blood. To this day, I have never met a doctor who’s been more honest or forthright than this man.
“I think you have leukemia. Your platelets are very low. Your symptoms seem to match. And from the initial slides of blood I looked at, I think I found some cancer in your blood. We are going to run more tests over the next few days. You are probably going to need to have chemotherapy as soon as possible. You will probably lose all of your hair…”
My mind checked out. Exit–stage left. It just couldn’t handle anymore. The family was there for the news, too. There were tears in their eyes. I could see they were visibly shaken. So was I.
But where do I go from here? What do I do now? My mind was totally weirded out. But a small part of me was strangely calm. Where was that coming from? Calm? Really? Yes. Really.
I can’t really explain it. It is sort of like putting on a jacket when it’s cold outside. You immediately feel more comfortable because the coat protects you from the chills of the wind and cold. Only this was like putting on a coat for my emotions. That comfort settled me enough to collect myself. If a person can feel prayers, I can say I think I actually felt them at that moment.
I was poked with needles more than at any other time in my life that weekend. Both arms were riddled with punctures wounds to the point of black and blue marks on both arms–just from drawing blood. And test after test was performed. And the diagnosis? It was leukemia. Specifically, ALL–Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia. It’s the kind that usually gets little kids. It’s a truly insidious disease that gets into the marrow of the bones and creates mutant cancer cells that prey on the body’s own cells. And many kids do survive. People my age? Well, the statistics were not so good. I was given a 50% chance of living beyond 5 years.
I was worried about my mom. She had just lost her husband of 44 years just six months before. Now the news did not sound good for her eldest son either. But she is a very strong woman. Her courage is of hero proportions. And she is generous and caring, too. Over the course of the next 14 months of chemo (cycles of 2 weeks of hospital stay–then 2 weeks at home in isolation to recover) she came to visit me every weekend. Thanks to my loyal brother Ned for driving the 200-mile trip–every single weekend without fail. They brought me food. They brought news. But most of all, they were just there to support me. I felt loved beyond what anyone could imagine.
Over the course of that first year-and-a-half I was in the hospital over 100 days. The chemotherapy for the blood was very difficult. I was on a Hyper-CVAD treatment plan that put me on two different types of cycles during my treatment. On one cycle I got a drug (methotrexate) that actually stops DNA production. This is to reduce the risk of any cancer returning and spreading quickly through the body again. But this is the treatment I found hardest to endure. It weakened me to a ridiculous point that at one time, I had to press my hospital help button. I was too weak to feed myself and had to have a nurse feed me. How embarrassing! Anyone who knows me knows that I am fiercely independent. I really like to do things myself. I like my freedoms.
And during this time I birded. But this birding was more therapy than it was normal birding. I have had a number of times in my life that birding has been both therapy to my soul and a distraction for my mind.
Hardly anything in life is worse than self pity. It offers a person an allure of immediate gratification–an immediate sympathy for one’s self. But it only seems to magnify the worst of human emotions–the kind that bring yourself down, and others, too. In the end it fixes nothing. It only promotes a subtle negativity in the guise of self help. It is something that I have learned to avoid like a plague. Run away! Do whatever it takes to keep the tentacles of self pity from encompassing your mind!
Birding helps me do just that–be distracted. Shoot. I can get so totally into birding that some might look at it as an autistic quality. I shall call it focus. haha. But really–it is a good thing to have something that grabs your attention with such gusto. I use birding for distraction–and therapy, too. It keeps my mind occupied. And during the chemo years between 2001 and 2003, two birders helped me immensely. They were Dan Sanders and Doreene Linzell. They transported me back and forth to the hospital for chemo or tests. They took me birding. In short, they made my recovery days a whole lot easier to bear. Thank you Dan and Doreene!
Although my immune system will probably never be as healthy as it was pre-chemo days, I certainly cannot complain. This weekend represents 10 years now since my cancer diagnosis. It is much easier these days to be happy and thankful than ever. It takes just two things for me to have a happy day. Want to know them? haha. I am going to tell you anyway!
1) I wake up and see that I am still alive
2) I am not in a hospital
Yep. That is all it takes to make Greg a happy camper nowadays. I am so grateful for all the prayers and support I had during those trying days from many, many people. And I am thankful to God for each day that I have to live. Now I’m going to go outside, plant some hot peppers, eat some BBQ, and celebrate my 10 years of living. I am wishing all you a happy holiday. I hope you all have an opportunity to spend some quality time with your loved ones. You never know how long anyone has to live. You should enjoy them everyday. And do something fun for yourself, too!