After a sleepless night and a frustrating, nervous breakdown-inducing, Baltimore-rush-hour commute, Alan and I arrived at Johns Hopkins Hospital with several minutes to spare and quickly registered. I was immediately sent to the lab, where I scanned my ID card and was preparing to take a seat when a young girl in scrubs appeared. "Donnelly-Emery?" she yelled. "Wow," I responded, "You're quick!" She seemed confused. I was brought to the back area and told to sit in one of those chairs with a built-in "shelf" for one's arm to rest. A sweet, older African-American woman appeared sporting a teddy bear scrub shirt. She went about her duties of wrapping the rubber band around my arm and swabbing it with alcohol, chatting away and calling me "Baby" about seventeen times. After finding a vein that actually hadn't been poked yet (yay!), she inserted the IV port with ease, filled enough vials of my blood to nourish the entire cast of "Twilight," then gauzed and taped the still-inserted port to my arm. She sent me on my way with a friendly wave and a cheery, "Bye, Baby. Good luck!" I liked her!
Next we ascended the stairs to the radiology/CT scan waiting room. We actually got a little turned around at first and ended up in an unfamiliar room. Alan quickly sensed this, saying, "I don't think this is right." That's when we noticed the sign over the receptionist's desk: "Chemotherapy." (YIKES!) We quickly and quietly backed out of THAT room, and found the appropriate desk. I tried to reassure myself that this wasn't some kind of weird, foreboding sign of things to come.
After I scanned my ID and signed-in, a friendly woman behind the desk, sporting a gold front tooth and sharp business suit introduced herself, checked my insurance card, and fastened a white paper bracelet around my wrist. "Wow, jewelry!" I exclaimed. She gave me a smile and said, "Yes!" then quickly retreated behind her desk. This was the point last time where Alan and I waited upwards of three hours before I was actually scanned. So, we both got comfortable, me with my Runner's World magazine and Alan, inexplicably, with a People he found sitting on the end table. He had just finished the first paragraph describing "Jessica Simpson's heartache over Nick's new love" when a new woman appeared carrying a clipboard and two large styrofoam cups. "Donnelly-Emery?" she yelled to the room. "NO WAY!" Alan quietly exclaimed. We had only been waiting a few minutes! I raised my hand and said, "Here!"
I knew the two cups contained the Kool aid-like substance that is the contrast I must drink before the scan. I knew this, but I still said, "Yay, refreshments!" when she handed them to me (don't ask me, I make jokes when I'm nervous!). She didn't respond to my hilarity, only placed the drinks and clipboard in front of me and said, "Drink these, and fill out the top three forms." So, Alan continued his Simpson/Lachey drama while I daintily sipped my swill and tried to remember and document how many milligrams of fish, flax, and borage oil my daily vitamins contain, then signed by the x's.
Soon, she came to collect me, my completed forms and empty cups and we headed to the scan area. She asked me to wait in a chair outside the scan room, which was near a break area where three nurses were leaning on cabinets, arms crossed. Their easy talk about car trouble, commutes in the snow, and cell phones expertly served to lull my nerves, and soon I was whisked away once again. I dutifully laid down on the "conveyor belt" that would insert me into the machine's "mouth" and watched as the radiologist hooked me up to the IV bag. I held my breath, raised my arms and exhaled with great expertise as I rode back and forth on the moving belt. Before I knew it my radiologist chirped "All done," removed the IV port and wrapped my arm in a hot pink bandage. I was on my way to the next stop.
We had some time to kill before my appointment with my oncologist (the guy I've nicknamed "Dr. Toast" to match his personality!) who would read the results of the scans. We descended the stairs, sat down in the waiting room, and I pulled out my writing pad. Here is what I wrote:
"Blood drawn. Scans complete. Pink gauze around my arm. Now, more waiting. Alan and I sit in a large, long waiting room. Almost all the chairs are taken. So many people with cancer. I look around at all the faces, they all appear so old and sick. I don't belong here. There are three separate doors, one on each end, and one directly in the middle. Different men and women carrying clipboards intermittently appear in the doorways. Everyone looks at them hopefully. "Smith?" one of them shouts loudly, perusing the room for acknowledgement. "Smith?" she repeats, louder. In the corner, a feeble hand is raised and the rest of us gaze enviously at Mrs. Smith as she disappears with her "scrubbed" companion behind the door. The rest of us return to our magazines and books, pretending to read them, trying not to acknowledge that the results we are about to hear could drastically change our lives.
Alan, God bless him, tries to distract me by pointing out potential hotel options in his Travel and Leisure magazine. I pretend to be interested. We talk about returning to Ireland. I try not to notice the "Wig Shop" located at the far corner of the waiting room. A man and his wife appear. He is hooked-up to a rolling IV cart. The bag contains clear fluid. Two young, hopelessly pale, bald people walk by with surgical masks on. It is impossible to distinguish if they are male or female. What am I doing here? Dr. Toast, please tell me I'm healthy so we can get out of this terrible place and I can get on with LIVING."
Finally, my name was called and we were escorted to an exam room. Alan tried to keep me entertained by pointing out the ridiculously long name displayed on the blood pressure meter (sphygmomenometer!!). I mentally prepared for Dr. Toast's personality-free entrance, reminding myself it's his BRAIN I'm here for.
Suddenly, a knock, and there he stood, SMILING!! He bounded up to me and shook my hand. "Hello!" he said, then asked, "How are you feeling? How was your Christmas? Are you enjoying the cold here, or missing your former home in Florida?" He remembered I moved from Florida? Neither Alan nor I answered, because our jaws had hit the floor and we were vigorously scanning his name badge, making sure THIS jovial man, in fact, was really my doctor. I think I managed "YES!" That's about it.
He sat down in front of the waiting computer to pull-up my results. OK. This is it. Instead of attempting to read the screen, I studied his face, trying to interpret his response to what he was seeing. "Hmm," he said, "They aren't posted yet. No matter, we'll check in a minute." He patted the exam table and I took my place on it. He proceed to palpate my neck, underarms and bikini area, listened to my heart and checked my throat. All the while, he chatted, "You're from Cleveland, right? My son was in Cleveland recently looking at schools there. He liked it very much..." When he turned his back to us at one point to write on my chart, I looked at Alan, eyebrows raised, making a "chatty" motion with my left hand and pointing back to the doc. Alan nodded, smiled and shrugged. When did Chatty Cathy posses my boring oncologist?
But then he sat back down at the computer and tried again to pull up my results: Not Available. Geez! He didn't seem concerned, but clearly didn't want to wait anymore, so he asked for a cell phone number and said he'd call later that day...or TOMORROW!!! No, no, NO!! No more waiting!! Defeated, I gave him Alan's cell number. Truth is, I'd rather hear bad news from him than any brilliant doctor, anyway.
But several hours later, Dr. Chatty Cathy DID call. I watched as Alan looked down, phone to ear, ingesting the news. Suddenly he looked up, smiled, and gave me a firm and definite "thumbs up." Apparently, my tumors have actually SHRUNK a tad since my last scan! I exhaled for the first time in five days. Alan thanked my doctor and hung up. We high-fived, hugged, and talked about how completely I am kicking cancer's ass!
But here's the thing, just like when I initially got my diagnosis, I haven't done a thing to physically defeat cancer. I've always exercised and eaten healthy, but I got it anyway. Now, inexplicably, it stays at bay. Although I'm absolutely not complaining and am thrilled with my latest results, I know cancer holds all the cards. However, so far, in this life-long war in which cancer and I are engaged, I have won all the battles. In fact, based on all my former scans, here's how the score stands: Joan - 9, Cancer - 0.
As I write this, I'm still wearing my Johns Hopkins paper ID bracelet. I twirl it around and study the writing displayed on it. I'm not sure why I haven't removed it yet. I guess it feels a little like a badge, a personal medal of bravery for having made it through today. It reminds me that cancer is scary and these appointments will most likely never become easier, but today, I am victorious. And THAT, as Dad would appropriately say, is "not too shabby!"
Thanks for reading!!