Chapter 11: Pins and Needles
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The anticipation was rising… My counts were finally (once again), back on the climb. Round two of chemo was nearing its cycle and that meant… going outside.
Every blood test inched closer to a new hope: “cleared for take off.” Back in 851 after the week and a half of that medical sidestep, things changed outside. It was nearing October. People weren’t wearing summer clothing anymore. Older folks had near-winter jackets; others had windbreakers and sweaters. The cold crept its way into our typically rapid autumn commencement.
Still, the light weather fare made me smile. That moment of the year was one of my favorites as it brought a rare balance to the weather of Maine; it wasn’t so humid outside like the summer months, but it wasn’t freezing like the impending arctic chill either. The wind hit your skin and provided a subtle tingling, like a minor version of that “pins and needles” feeling you get when your arm’s asleep.
Wow, I’d have to wear pants. I hadn’t worn them since I had arrived over a month ago. Instead, I wore these soft fabric shorts and a faux silk dress shirt so they could still access the port-a-cath: the epitome of comfortable. With the heat being controlled so well on the floor, all I needed to worry about were minor tweaks of the thermostat in my own room. It was kind of nice not having to worry about the drastic shifts in temperature or inclement weather in which we Mainers were so accustomed.
Every time I had my blood drawn to check my counts, my smile would brim from ear to ear. Well, normally I didn’t mind it all that much anyway, but this was different. My brother on the other hand… When I got my blood drawn I’d always be brought back to when my brother would get his blood drawn as a child.
He would squirm and cry, all the while some phlebotomist patiently waited for my Mom to hold his arm down. I couldn’t imagine having to draw blood from any kid. I’m not one to watch little kids cry. It’s never been my forte. But at least I could tolerate the needles. Or so I thought.
Naturally being nonchalant regarding needles and having “beautiful veins,” I had always been a human pincushion/guinea pig for the nurses and nursing students. Plus, I was easy-going and everyone knew it.
There was a nurse who was covering a shift up here on Grant 8; one I hadn’t had the pleasure of working with before. She had to draw blood from an IV because my Port-a-cath was tied up at the moment (that happened more times than I care to remember).
Now, again, I’d always been told that I had “beautiful veins” and even during my drug-filled days here in the hospital, they still had no issues with my IV insertions. This nurse… she tried my left arm ten times. TEN TIMES. And she was an RN!
I had been patient at first, but this was getting way out of hand. I gave her the benefit of the doubt as my veins may have changed their “appearance” since chemo. She tried once on my right arm and was unable to get it again. I had had enough: “I need someone else to try.” She apologized profusely, but I had little sympathy at this point as my left arm looked like Marv’s face from Sin City: bandages aplenty.
The next nurse came in and went through the first arm again. Got it the first time. Jesus Christ. I had been so uncharacteristically patient with the other nurse that the thought of running after her and rubbing her nose in it crossed my mind.
SEE WHAT YOU DID! Bad nurse! Bad! Look how easy it is! I had to dampen my internal fire, rising up like before. Good lord, chemo makes you moody.
The next day, the unthinkable happened. My counts were at a level that was safe enough to take a stroll outside. I wouldn’t have to walk circles up on the floor, seeing other. No, today, I would get to hug that fucking tree like a long-lost brother.
I ran to the front window, eyeing that tree. The people continuously swarmed around it, but not because of it. I was going to go out there, in front of dozens, and hug a tree. People would internally ask: What, is this some type of patient protest? National Hug-a-Tree day? Cancer Therapy?
Bingo good sir. It’s my therapy.
I hadn’t felt this excited since I had arrived– well aside from my stoned Wheel of Fortune watching, eating late night nachos from the Cafeteria.
It was a Wednesday, so there was no family around. In fact, my Mom and Stepdad had to jet back north. I was all alone… to revel in the glory of temporary freedom.
It was weird, I couldn’t get total freedom to go home because get this: I lived too far away.
Normally, as long as there aren’t any complications, a typical chemo patient can go home in between treatments. But… because I lived three hours away, I wasn’t able to come back in case of an emergency. So I was stuck in-house. Once, they had mentioned potentially staying at the Ronald McDonald house during the interim, but there weren’t any updates on it as of late. I began missing my family and home and painstakingly anticipated my return. But I instead focused on the small victory ahead: The Great Outdoors.
The anticipation was palpable. In preparation for the stroll outside, I lapped the nurse’s desk, IV pole and all, announcing my eagerness. These laps around the floor weren’t that long, and I had always been a practical walker, so they were quite boring.
After the boredom won, I stopped in front of the desk. The saline drip from the IV was running low, and the machine beeped incessantly to notify you, and I figured that was the sign that now would be a good time to go out.
The nurse had me go back to my room. She plugged the IV pole in and took the needle out of my chest. Every time a needle slid in and out of my skin over the port-a-cath, it stung– like Wolverine, every time his claws came out of his knuckles, it hurt like a bitch.
When I asked the nurse if I would be walking down to the front, she had a puzzled look on her face. “You can walk, but we aren’t going out front. Your immune system is still too low, and we don’t want you to be at risk to get anything people coming to and fro.”
“Makes sense I suppose. So where to then?”
“Put your pants on, I have just the place.” She left the room, and I quickly and happily complied. I threw those pants on like I was the adulterer of some rich woman’s abusive husband and he just came home.
She was waiting outside the door, mask in hand. I put on the mask, yet stood tall– free from the casual wear, free from the IV, and ready to hug a tree. I stopped and furrowed my brow. Would I get to hug a tree? ANY tree?
She led me to the employee elevators, and as they opened, I felt like jumping in. My energy was at an all-time high. Instead, I calmly walked inside. She pressed ‘2.’ Hmm, that’s weird, why not the first floor?
With every floor lower, my heart rate steadily increased. Floor two dinged, and we got off to the right. We went down this long hallway that felt like forever. We’d pass by some atriums, full of foliage: ferns, flowers, and trees. To the right, I could see the river, unseen from either one of my rooms thus far. What torture.
We came across this dark entryway in the back of the hospital. The sky was overcast, but it was bright. The nurse hit the handicapped button and the double doors opened, but I forced them ajar faster, eager to get outside. Then the wall of fresh air hit me like a ton of bricks. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. In. Out.
In. Out. Oh my God, was it beautiful. Workers passed me by as if I was an attraction at a circus. Why is a patient back here near the employee smoking area entrance? Is that mask in season? I chose not to pay any attention to them. I was free.
I walked to the middle partition where the lawn combated against it pavement cage. And sure enough, in the middle of it all stood three large trees. I walked onto the grass and felt the give under my sandals. It wasn’t concrete, linoleum, or tar… it was nature.
I took each step carefully and sauntered over to the nearest tree like a fifth-grade dance partner, nervous yet excited. I rubbed my hand over the bark, just like I had imagined. Then I settled both hands on the tree trunk and pushed against it to prove this moment was real. I was so weak, but it didn’t matter, I was here.
My arms widened and I pressed my cheek against it. It was then, that I realized how silly this may appear, so I quickly turned around and broke the connection.
The nurse and I sat down on the nearby picnic tables as the wind blew ever so gently. It was chilling, but I felt a euphoric state. I sat there, eyes closed taking it all in. The nurse sat there silent, letting me embrace my surroundings.
After a half hour or so, it was getting too cold to stay any longer, so we made the long internal trek back to my room. But not before I rubbed my hand over the tree once more, popping off a piece of the bark as a keepsake of this experience. I carefully put it in my pocket, to ensure it’s safe placement.
I can’t wait to tell my family of this moment.
This is an ongoing story of my personal battle with Cancer. My hope is that it helps others who are currently experiencing their own battles (whether it be for themselves or a loved one) or to help with early detection.
The way I’m doing it is terrifying for a writer. I’m writing a publically available first-draft outline for an eventual book, chapter by chapter in weekly form. The only reason I’m doing it this way is to get the story out as soon as possible for someone out there who needs a survivor to visit them during their own treatment. If you’re reading this and need someone to talk to, tweet at me and I’ll give you a call. No questions asked. This story is for you and I’ll help any way that I can.
Stay tuned, as I will be posting a new chapter every Monday until the story is complete.
And remember if you experience any Anemic symptoms– get checked for Leukemia as well.