Several years ago, a few weeks before Christmas, I woke up with a new medical problem, one that had appeared literally overnight. The left side of my jaw was swollen and I had a lot of pain behind my left ear.
I did what I usually do when I have a mysterious medical issue, which is to ignore it and hope that it will go away on its own. About a week later it was getting worse so I went to see a doctor, who diagnosed me with an infected salivary gland. He gave me an antibiotic and said, “This should clear it up in about ten days, two weeks tops. You’ll be fine by Christmas. Enjoy your holiday.”
Ten days later not only had my problem not cleared up but it was much, much worse. I looked like Ted Kennedy and the pain was now bordering on excruciating. I went back to the doctor, who took one look at me and said, “We’re going to check you into the hospital right now.” That was a little alarming. But I was glad he was being proactive.
When I checked into the little hospital near my house they only had one bed available in the entire place and it was in the cancer ward. Staying in the cancer ward when you don’t have cancer is kind of weird. For one thing, everyone around you has much bigger problems that you do. For another, you have to tell every single person you meet that you don’t have cancer, which is a little awkward.
I had a shared room and when I was checking in the other woman in the room was just checking out. That’s not a euphemism, by the way. She was fine. Later that night I got my new roommate whose name was, I swear that this is true, Betty Smoke. Betty didn’t have lung cancer. That would be just too cruel an irony. No, she had advanced liver cancer.
Betty was a difficult roommate. She was 86 years old, hard of hearing and did not want to be in the hospital. There was always great drama going on over on Betty’s side of the room: screaming, ripping out IV tubes, falling out of bed. They had to strap her down sometimes.
When she first arrived I was still on heavy painkillers, flying on Percocet, so I didn’t really mind much of what was happening around me. But by the second day the industrial strength anti-inflammatories that they’d been pumping into me had started to work and I was able to come off the heavy drugs. At that point I needed to escape from Betty, so I took to walking up and down the ward several times a day, dragging my IV pole behind me, just to get a break.
By the end of the third day the swelling had started to recede. I was out on one of my hallway tours and I was thinking that, although they still didn’t know what was wrong with me, they seemed to be fixing it. So I was feeling pretty good about things. Things were looking up.
Just as I was thinking this a doctor came up and asked, “Are you Julie Threlkeld? Because I need to talk to you. Let’s go to your room.”
I started to say, “Uh, no. My room’s not great. I have this crazy roommate…” but there was an urgency in his voice so we walked to my room. On the way he asked me a series of increasingly bizarre questions.
“Where’d you grow up? Oh? California? Where in California? Did you grow up on a farm? What about work? Ever worked in a carpet cutting factory or around industrial solvents? How about hobbies? Do any spelunking? You know, cave diving?”
I told him that I knew what spelunking was and that, no, none of these things applied to me.
“The reason I’m asking you all these questions is because, you know when you first came in? And we did a CAT scan to see if you had an abscess in your head? We caught the top of your chest on the scan. And we couldn’t help but notice that the lymph nodes in your chest are nine times the size they should be.”
“I’m sorry. What?” Nine times? It was so exact. But never mind. That was too big. My mind reeled with the possibilities. Lymphoma? Hodgkin’s? Lung cancer?
“Everything else is coming up normal, so it may be nothing. The problem is, we can’t diagnose this new issue while the current one is still going on. So let’s get this one cleared up. Come back in about a month and we’ll do another CAT scan and blood work and go from there. In the meantime, try to enjoy your holiday.”
He left and right on his heels another doctor came in and introduced himself to Betty as her oncologist.
“Betty, I just wanted to stop by and see if you had any questions about what’s going on.”
“I want to get better,” Betty said.
“Well, I’m afraid that’s not going to happen,” he said. “Your cancer’s too far gone and the best we can do at this point is make you comfortable.”
Betty seemed to accept this. “Well,” she said, “I guess what has to be has to be.” But then she brightened. “But anything can happen!”
“That’s right, Mrs. Smoke! Anything can happen! Well, okay, kiddo. I’ll be seeing you again soon. In the meantime, enjoy your holiday!”
At this point I needed some air. So I left the room and walked down the cancer ward hall again, way down to the end near the entrance.
I don’t know about you but when I get a piece of bad news my first reaction is to have a totally irrational thought. The thought I had then was, “When I came in here a few days ago, I had something wrong with me. But I didn’t have cancer. Could I have caught cancer in this place?”
Just then the doors to the ward burst open and three strapping, handsome firemen strolled in, dressed up as Santas. They were so jovial and upbeat that I thought, “I don’t think they know they’re on the cancer ward.” Or maybe they did and they were overcompensating.
“Hey,” one of them said to me. “How are you doing today?”
The truth was, I wasn’t doing well. Not well at all. But before I could come up with a socially acceptable answer to his question he pressed a candy cane into my hand. It was one of those miniature, plastic-wrapped ones. I noticed it was broken in about four places.
“Enjoy your holiday,” he said, smiling, and walked away.