They took Suzie to Imaging through a maze of halls where she quickly became lost. It didn’t matter much because she was just a passenger. She allowed herself to be wheeled to her fate without complaint. It couldn’t be stopped or wished away now, only faced. She felt numb.
She barely noticed as she rolled by plastic sheeting and clanging noises. The hospital’s perfect exterior hid a construction zone. The hospital areas were completed but the new doctor’s office building was just starting interior construction. The two areas overlapped in places. The fixtures and furnishings beyond the public areas were more utilitarian but still radiated newness.
They opened a door to a small room which was almost filled with a mammogram machine and squeezed her wheelchair in. A man and woman in scrubs were crowded against the right wall. There were empathetic smiles as the technicians moved her into the frame and locked down her wheels. As they adjusted the clamps she saw that the chair gave her just enough height to lock her firmly in place against the mammogram machine. Naked to the waist in the black sci-fi chair, her right breast was clamped into the steel frame so tightly that she couldn’t move an inch. It was eye-wateringly painful.
They took the first picture and the man carried the black plate down the hall to be developed. The woman was extremely pleasant and talked to take Suzie’s mind off the fact that she was totally immobilized. If she shifted position they would have to start over again but there was no chance of that. It was hard to breathe. Her breast throbbed.
When the man returned with the developed film they studied it carefully, comparing it with Suzie. The woman pulled out a large diameter needle six inches long, took one more studied look and stuck it deep into Suzie’s breast. The pain was excruciating. There was no way to look away. There was no way to make it stop. They took another x-ray to confirm that the needle was located correctly.
They had to repeat the whole process; move the needle, take a picture, develop the picture and move the needle until it was right. Later, during surgery, the dye would be injected to mark the tumor exactly for Doctor Burns to remove so placement was critical. It was excruciating to sit motionless while they used her for a pincushion.
Somewhere around the second needle, the woman made the developing trip down the hall leaving Suzie sitting, naked and alone, with a strange man in a room that, by this time, felt like a closet. He was obviously uncomfortable and eventually tried to make conversation to pass the time.
“Would you like to see what the pictures look like?” he finally offered.
“Sure.” She answered. At this point, any form of distraction would be better than just sitting exposed and in pain. He snapped on the light, slid the dark film into the clamp at the top of the fluorescent display and pointed.
“Here they are.” He indicated three dark circles that looked like sweet gum balls, round with spikes sticking out in all directions. “They’re spiculated.” he added, motioning to the points. “This kind is usually malignant,” he finished quietly as if he hadn’t intended to say it out loud. They both grew quiet again as she studied the image on the screen.
To Suzie, it was like meeting the enemy face to face for the first time. Before, there were only reports and rumors of tumors. Now she had a photograph – and they looked mean, like some evil Pac-man figure eating away at her body. It was like discovering aliens were living inside you, only it wasn’t a movie. An intense loathing came over her and she suddenly wanted those things out of her as fast as possible. She didn’t care what it took any more, she just wanted them out – now!
Anger helped her resolve but not her patience as time dragged on. After the initial adrenaline rush was over, the pain began to throb again. The technicians were having some kind of discussion about marking the third tumor but Suzie couldn’t focus on their conversation. She began to feel light headed and the room began going black.
“I think . . . I’m going . . .” was the last thing she could get out before her head dropped to her chest and she passed out.
Walking seemed to clear my head as my feet wandered aimlessly, deeper into the hospital. The tension seemed to be winding down instead of up. Because the complex was built on a hill, somewhere along the way the ground floor became the second level. The hallway opened out onto a massive space below. Once again I was startled by the magnitude of the place.
There was a wide, brass-railed staircase curving down to the ground floor. It looked more like the entrance to a grand hotel than a hospital. There was a large waiting area with groupings of plush sofas, tables, lamps and exotic plants all sitting on gleaming marble and carpet.
Through a two-story glass wall, I could see another circular, covered, drive-through entrance. A gift shop was guarded by a massive reception desk. Well dressed people with luggage were moving to and from elevators with brass sculpted doors. The only thing that gave away the fact that it was a hospital was an elderly woman dressed in white at the desk instead of a concierge.
Looking down from the balcony, I scanned to try to take it all in when I glimpsed a tasteful brass sign. My mind rejected what my eyes were seeing. There, in the hospital lobby, gleamed the international symbol for food – the McDonald’s golden arches! Actually, in this case, they were brass. After all my jokes about it, there really were people from McDonald’s working at the hospital!
I couldn’t help but laugh out loud. My next thought was of Suzie. I couldn’t wait to tell her. Maybe this would cheer her up a little. I walked down the grand staircase, past the brass arches, and into the cafeteria. I ordered, settled into a window booth and realized that I wasn’t very hungry. It was early for lunch but I forced myself so I would be in the room when Suzie got back.
A wave of loneliness swept over me and I began to think. It was the last thing I wanted to do. A picture of her in that chair flashed across my mind. I knew it wasn’t healthy so I did what I’d been taught to do all my life. I tried to find something good about my situation.
It was my father’s game. When I was down or angry, he’d remind me of what we had to be thankful for. It was frustrating at the time but I guess it rubbed off along the way. It started as a game of naming things we had that were unquestionably good – a bike, a roof over our heads, a mother that loved us. He’d remind us that he didn’t have toys like us when he grew up. As a boy, during the Great Depression, he and his brothers played with rocks, sticks and empty spools of thread.
We didn’t believe him, of course, so he told us about the fun they had setting up sticks as cowboys and Indians like the movies, or maybe two armies with earthworks and forts of dirt and more sticks.
Then he taught us how to make a car out of a matchstick, a rubber band, a piece of candle wax and an old spool of thread. We couldn’t imagine that either, so he sat down at the dining table and made one for us.
We were soon amazed to see a spool crawling across the table under its own power. By the time he got through describing it we thought the depression was an absolutely wonderful place to grow up.
Now I realize his stories weren’t about a place or a time, but about a way of looking at things. If they could find fun struggling through the depression then maybe I could find some way to make it through this. It was going to take a little time though.
The food and memories had put me in a better mood. I was determined to find a way to encourage Suzie. Armed with more jokes about the McDonald’s actually in the hospital, I walked back to the room at Same Day. I was relieved to find that she wasn’t back yet. I wanted to be waiting with a smile when she came in
When the door finally clicked open, I was all prepared with my most positive attitude. The nurse backed through the door first, bent over and talking to Suzie on her level. An orderly, followed by another nurse, carefully eased the wheelchair in.
As soon as I saw Suzie’s face, I knew at a glance that something was wrong. She gave me a look I had seen on her face only three times before – when she was in heavy labor with each of our children and on the verge of panic. It was a mixture of pain, strength, fear, and bravery. My smile wilted.
“What’s the matter, Darling?” I asked through the crowd.
“I passed out . . .” she answered, wincing in pain as they helped her move to the bed. On the right side of her chest, the blue gown protruded with the shape of two paper cup bottoms showing through.
“She had a rough morning.” One of the nurses explained for her. It was obvious from their attention that this was no run of the mill move of another warm body. They wanted to do everything possible to make her comfortable. I had to control my urges to ask questions. After a lot of pampering, tucking and soothing, the nurses finally left us alone.
“What happened?” I could finally ask. As she filled me in on the details, my positive outlook faded like a sunset. I’d been nonchalantly eating fries and swilling Coke while she was in a torture chamber. Guilt snuffed out my last spark of encouragement. I could find nothing good in this. She stopped talking long enough to catch her breath.
“I’m sorry sweetheart.” was all I could come up with to say during the silence. Big help. I struggled to find something else to say but came up blank. “When did you faint?” I asked after a long pause.
“Sometime during the second needle,” she answered. “I looked down and it was hurting so bad and there were two long needles sticking out of me and it made me sick. I tried to tell them but everything blacked out. My head fell forward because there was nowhere else to go. The next thing I remember was smelling salts and they were both there trying to get me to come around. I don’t know how long I was out.”
“Were you OK? What did they do?” I felt utterly helpless.
“They were very sweet. They got a wet cloth for my face and tried to reassure me but they had to keep going. They got the second needle done and started on the third but gave up.”
“After all that, they didn’t finish?” I wanted to get angry at someone.
“The third tumor was so small and close to one of the others that they decided the dye from one needle would mark it too.” Somehow, that didn’t quite qualify as something positive.
“How do you feel now? Does it still hurt?” This was just supposed to be a simple biopsy.
“No, it doesn’t hurt much, now that I’m out of that machine. I’m exhausted though. I couldn’t relax or move anything but my head and toes.” Then her eyes got large and her voice lowered as she said, “I got to see the tumors!”
There was a faraway look in her eyes as if she’d seen a monster and was replaying it in her mind. There was a long silence before I said, “What did you see?”
“They weren’t small, round, blobs. They were big and angry looking and had these huge, ugly spikes sticking out of them. He called them spiculated. They looked like something out of a Pac-Man game – like they had big mouths and were eating away at me. They just looked mean.” When she looked at me there was fire in her eyes and she spoke in an ominous tone. “I want those things out of me!”
There was such angry passion and anger in her voice that it surprised me. I’d felt angry but I’d suppressed it to try to stay positive and now I realized that she had the same anger hidden inside. What was happening to her was not fair. She’d done nothing to deserve this. She felt under attack and now, for the first time, she was fighting back. What my positive attitude, jokes and encouragement hadn’t accomplished, her anger had.
“They’ll be out today, darling.” I said with grim determination. “No matter how the tests turn out, they will be gone today!”
A silence hung in the room and we were lost in our thoughts, replaying what had happened so far. What was yet to come? As it turned out, nothing. The door remained closed. No one came. We sat in silence. It was curious after so many interruptions earlier. Either they were giving her a chance to rest, or no one wanted to be around after she’d had such a bad beginning. Actually, it was neither. In a few moments a nurse came in and told us that surgery was running a little behind. Suzie was the second patient on opening day of a brand new hospital and they were already behind. Finally, the anesthesiologist came in with more questions. How many questions were there left to ask? Evidently, there weren’t any, so he asked a lot of the same ones again. They were double-checking, he said, being careful not to miss anything. I definitely didn’t want them to miss anything. A nurse came in with a pill in a white, disposable cup like a hamburger place uses for ketchup. I resisted the obvious joke to create the false impression that I have taste.
“This will help you relax.” the nurse said. Suzie took the pill without comment while the nurse waited to make sure she actually took it. Is there a big problem with surgery patients not wanting pain medication? I couldn’t imagine it but it was procedure and it had to be followed. There was a reason for everything around here, however unfathomable it may be to the patients. From here on at least, Suzie would feel no pain.
She opened the door to leave and Dr. Burns appeared, dressed in full surgical garb with the mask hanging loosely around his neck. He was clothed in white and green from the round cloth hat on his head to the disposable cloth covers over his shoes. It was the first time we’d seen him in scrubs and it took a moment to recognize him.
“How are you feeling?” he asked.
“A little sleepy right now,” she replied, ignoring the cup covered needles sticking out of her chest. It hardly seemed necessary to point them out.
“That’s good. The Versed is doing its job,” he said, patting her hand. “We’re just a little behind in O.R. My first surgery was a little more complicated than I’d planned and took extra time. You can never tell exactly how it will go until you get into surgery but we got it done. It won’t be long now before they come get you. Do you have any questions?” We both stared at each other with blank expressions. The question we really wanted to ask would be answered after the biopsy.
Dr. Burns turned to me. “You can wait in the surgical waiting room. One of the nurses will show you where it is. I’ll meet you there when I’m through. They’ll keep Suzie in recovery for awhile and then bring her back here.” I nodded and he turned back to his patient. “Well if you don’t have any questions then I’ll see you in a minute,” he said with a smile. It may have just been his practiced bedside manner but it worked like a charm. He made this seem like a common occurrence and it obviously would be no problem for him. I felt muscles relax that I didn’t even realize were tense as he turned to go. Yet another nurse was waiting outside the door with an I.V. bag on a pole.
“Time to get you hooked up,” she said cheerily. Hospitals make for strange conversations.
“I can’t wait,” Suzie said, playing along. “I have to warn you my veins roll.” After three children we’d had enough experience to know it could be difficult.
“Oh boy! Well, let’s see how we do today,” she said, cheering down a little. “I’m usually pretty good at this.” She proved it by getting it done in two tries, a better average than normal.
“If you’re wearing contacts or jewelry you need to take them off now,” she said. “I’m sure he’ll be glad to keep your wedding rings for you.”
Suzie never removed her rings. Having to do it now made the whole thing seem even more ominous. Our last bit of contact was taken away. She was going alone to a place I was not allowed to follow. I tried to smile reassuringly as I slipped the gold bands into the watch pocket of my jeans. I knew it was unconvincing. More people in scrubs showed up at the door and I realized they were coming to take her away.
“I love you!” I whispered as I gave her a very public kiss. A line of people waited impatiently. They could wait this time.
“I love you, Darling,” she answered groggily as they grabbed her bed and began to wheel her away. I watched until she rolled out of sight.
I followed the nurse’s directions to the surgical waiting room. One complete wall was glass with a view of the hallway. It had the same upholstered chairs, love seats and short sofas as the lobby but they were packed more closely together. There was a TV hanging from the ceiling, complete with sound, tuned to a soap opera. At the opposite end, the room was a long, lavender counter with cabinets, muffins and a freshly brewed pot of coffee. The back wall contained a separate bathroom and several small rooms with couches and phones.
I used one to check in with the kids then grabbed a Styrofoam cup of coffee and a chair. I looked for a magazine to get my mind off things but all I found were medical journals, heavy on jargon, low on pictures. I suppose it was a doctor’s idea of light reading but I wasn’t up to it. If I couldn’t read then at least I could walk.
I had enough time to explore a little and burn off some steam. It didn’t stop me from wondering what Suzie was going through but it did turn down the volume a little. I went beyond the well decorated public areas to the utilitarian staff areas. There were classrooms, offices, security and maintenance departments, a loading dock, chapel, and gym.
I probably wasn’t supposed to be back there but there were no signs forbidding it. I prayed and walked, worried and walked and just mindlessly walked. I ran out of energy before I ran out of hospital. I headed back to surgical waiting, glad to have a place to sit down.
There were more worried people there when I got back. Business was picking up. I found a chair that gave me a good view of the doors at the back where doctors came and went. I stared and shifted for a while and out of mind-numbing boredom picked up an old copy of the Journal of the American Medical Association – JAMA for short. I scanned through mechanically until something caught my eye.
It was a study on prayer. It was odd to find it in a medical journal so I read on and was surprised. They had one hospital wing pray for another wing. Through all the big words and double-blind studies, one simple fact came through. They got better. Postoperative complications and infections dropped. Survival rates rose.
The scientists were skeptical that the word had gotten out and affected the patients so they tried something else.
They had the patients in the hospital pray for patients in another hospital where they monitored the results. The results were exactly the same. They increased the distances across the ocean and eventually to the other side of the planet. People who didn’t even know they were being prayed for suffered fewer problems than others.
They even tried putting patients in rooms shielded from electromagnetic radiation to block the effect. It didn’t work. They still did statistically better. No one was leaping from their beds but they did get better. There was no explanation, but they still got better!
Sitting in a waiting room while my wife had surgery, I was obviously interested. If prayer worked around the world then it should work from here to an operating room. I bowed my head and prayed as hard as I knew how.
I was still praying when Dr. Burns walked in. He came through a back door to one of the small rooms with phones. He looked around, caught my eye and waited. I got up and joined him in what I now realized was a conference room designed just for this purpose. He looked serious and a little tired as I shook his big hand.
“Everything went well and she’s doing just fine.” he began. “They’re finishing up now and she’ll go to recovery where they’ll watch her to make sure she’s O.K. It will be about an hour and a half.” I breathed a tentative sigh of relief before he continued. “I removed the tumors and we did a frozen section.” The biopsy had become a lumpectomy.
“They looked malignant,” he said with a sense of finality. “They’ll do a full biopsy and we’ll know the results in a few days. It will give us more information about type and growth rate, but I think it will only confirm what I saw.”
Something about his expression made it absolutely clear that it was true, as if he’d seen it all too many times before, as if he’d looked into the face of an old enemy. There was no room for doubt or argument in his eyes.
All of my hopes and rationalizations disintegrated in that moment. My future faded like a sunset, leaving only the darkness of the uncertainty. I knew for sure that Suzie had breast cancer and everything had changed. I’d prepared for this moment for years but I had never understood it. It had always been too difficult to imagine. Now, here I was, just beyond the worst I’d ever dreamed. Thankfully, I had no clue what lay ahead.