Friday, March 14, 2008

Cancer man -ladies special

The weather was about perfect. When I got to her house, my patient and her husband were lushed out on the couch. The door was wide open, letting in sunlight and air, letting out ozone, cigarette ash and a heavier smell like perfume. Her husband was a tiny, scrawny guy wrapped in a thin blanket. She told me he was trying to kick the flu. She mentioned in passing, something about a drinking problem, but had nothing to do with him lying on the couch.

My patient was sitting next to him, fading in and out of consciousness.

"I've been up since 2," she told me. "I just couldn't sleep."

She was groggy when I came to the door, then horrified. She wasn't wearing her wig. She covered her head abruptly and asked me to wait a minute, while she got read to go out. She apologized. She hated for anyone to see her like this. It wasn't just the radiation treatment. Her hair had started falling out weeks ago. She couldn't stand to watch it go slowly, couldn't take pulling handfuls out every morning when she brushed it in the mirror.

"I got a pair of scissors out and cut the whole thing off."

She couldn't stand the wig either. She decided to wear a little hat that looks like a turban, but that only lasted for a few minutes. She couldn't get comfortable.

Her head looks like the first spring mowing made by a blade that hasn't been sharpened in years. It's ragged and uneven. Stray hairs as long as fingers stick out like weeds on a lunar landscape. Her skin sags, looks like it's starting to turn, bruise and rot. Her eyes are wild, a little frightened and angry.

The meds make her a little crazy, she warned me. They've got her on a bunch of pills. She can't pronounce some of them and she has a hard time remembering what she took and when.

On her way out the door, she reached for her cigarettes then looked up at me.

"Would that be ok?"

No, actually, it wouldn't.

I tell her I've been trying to kick the habit. I've been smoking on and off for twenty years, mostly off, and I really couldn't handle the smoke in my car. That's mostly true and it fits in with the organization's policy. It wouldn't matter either way. It's not the reason I said no.

I'm a little creeped out by the oxygen tanks scattered around her living room. There are more than a few. She needs to be smoking like I need to be gargling lighter fluid.

She didn't argue, just shrugged and left them. Inexplicably, I feel guilty about it.

My patient slept most of the way, but occasionally muttered something random to the window. She'd say something then become acutely aware she was talking to someone who was not there. Other times, she answered questions not posed by anyone.

"They warned my son I might see or hear things," she said. "It's the medicine."

How much medicine she's had later becomes an issue at the hospital. The technician isn't fully convinced she hasn't overdosed. Somewhere beyond where I'm sitting, waiting, watching a cooking show and listening to two women chat cheerfully about having vaginal cancer, she and a doctor argue about whether to admit her into the hospital.

The treatment, which usually takes about fifteen to twenty minutes, dragged on. The pair of women chewed more words, talked about their lost cervices and a procedure involving sewing a sleeve inside the vagina. Neither of them want to go that route, even though one of them has stage 4 cancer. They veered from the banal to the horrifying and back again with a terrible, practiced agility.

I have never been so grateful to have nothing to say.

There's nowhere to run. Even trying not to listen, you tend to trade one conversation for another. In another corner, a pretty, but hairless woman talks to another woman about having faith in god. The two maybe became friends coming for treatments. The one spoke in loving gratitude about the people praying for her. It sounded almost as if she was practicing a farewell address.

I watched the clock. With the round trip, I start sweating getting back to work from a lunch hour that is now closer to three.

Eventually, I got my patient back to the car. She's irritated. She misplaced a check for $700. I get the impression it's a social security check. She looked around for it, but it's not in the car. A few minutes later she's dozing off, muttering.

We didn't really talk. At the end of it, she offered a cup of coffee, if I could wait a few minutes, but I really had to get back to work. She thanked me for the lift. I walked her to the doorway. She stumbled through the still open door and back into her claustrophobic and oppressive little living room. I drove away. Turning the radio up as loud as I could, I screamed song lyrics and counted off the reasons why I didn't need a cigarette today.

1 comment:

Evil Twin's Wife said...

You can do it. No need for a cig. The Evil Twin quit cold turkey about two and a half years ago. Still wants one, but says food tastes so much better these days... He smoked for 16 years solid.