The title constitutes six of the most frightening words in the English language.
A week and a half ago I am rushed by ambulance to the ER. It is 6:00 am and I’m having a great deal of difficulty catching my breath. At first, doctors think it is a flare-up of my CHF (Congestive Heart Failure). I am admitted late that morning.
St. Luke’s Hospital in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania is where people like me–who hate hospitals–go to be treated. The medical staff is consistently reassuring and dedicated and the Personal Care Attendants and CNAs are as good as you’ll find anywhere.
Day three: pulmonary specialists are called in for a consult and rule out CHF, based on a loud expiratory wheeze and other factors, and began to lean toward a COPD-Bronchitis-Asthma problem. To get a clearer look they order a CAT scan.
A radiologist says the scan reveals a grapefruit-sized “mass” on my thyroid gland that appears to be pushing against my trachea.
Could this mass be the culprit?
I meet with a team of pulmonary/thoracic surgeons. They opine that the mass should be removed in the OR, but first, they want a needle biopsy. In this procedure, a lump of cells are aspirated into a long needle that is placed into my chest with ultrasound guidance.
I have the ultrasound procedure, but the mass is too well-hidden inside my rib cage and scapula. The ultrasound image is essentially useless.
Twenty-four hours later, a new team of surgeons from the Radiation/Imaging Dept. tell me they will retry the biopsy, but this time using a CAT scan to guide the needle.
The first week is now “the past” and a thick porridge of melancholy sets in.
The next day is medically unremarkable and I am unprepared for the knock on my door as I fold the last of a Sloppy Joe bun into my mouth from the dinner tray.
A dark-skinned man of medium height introduces himself as an oncologist. Nice guy; Syrian. We talk about the world-as-it-is for a few minutes, then both settle into the business-at-hand. “I know you didn’t come here tonight to talk geopolitics. What’s up?”
“The original CAT scan revealed two lesions on your sternum.” he said.
A bead of cold sweat begins its journey from my left arm pit to my waist. “And you think it might be . . .” The sentence hangs in the air awkwardly.
“Myeloma,” he says, with just the slightest tinge of sadness in his eyes.
“What’s the next step?” I ask in a voice suddenly two octaves lower.
“A full-body panel of x-rays and blood work.”
I lay my head on the pillow and take a deep breath. “What does your gut tell you on this one?”
“You understand I have to rule it out,” he says, “but do I think you actually have myeloma?” Again, his eyes soften. “No,” he says, a smile accentuating a beneficence unusual in bedside consults..
Late that night I practice a technique I call “fall away,” in which I allow my body and mind to fall away in a total act of surrender. In the eye of the storm there is stillness and peace and I have my first good night’s sleep.
The next day I have the x-rays and blood work. It is negative.
In the interim, my lungs and their feeder tubes began to respond to the antibiotics, steroids and broncho-dilation breathing treatments. Although I still have a nasty cough, I am breathing easier, with less effort.
The next day seems to jump out at me. I shudder awake at 3:00 am, nervous and irritable about the CAT needle biopsy. The Transportation Unit parks a gurney outside my door precisely at 2:30 pm. and I’m wheeled down to Radiation/Imaging.
Twenty minutes later I am introduced to the physician who will perform the procedure and he explains in detail what will be expected of me. The thought of being inside a CAT machine for thirty minutes has very little appeal, but I have no choice.
At that precise moment, the Universe intervenes.
“I’m not so sure I want to subject you to this procedure today, before first obtaining the results of the PET scan of your neck five years ago in New York,” the physician says. (I had completely forgotten about the PET scan). “Once we have those records, we can chart its rate of the growth just by eye-balling the two radiographs. It looks to me like calcification is present to some degree, which means it’s likely been there for some time. Let’s get the records. I still may end up recommending the biopsy after I see the PET scan, but in the meantime, there’s not a whole lot we can do.
The next day couldn’t get here fast enough. After almost two weeks, I’m going home.
Suzanne and Carol, the two senior administrators of the assisted living community I live in, along with a handful of residents, are there to greet me.
By most standards, a modest Welcoming Committee, but to me it’s like a ticker tape parade. Martin Bayne