“Can you take me to Emergency, please?” I asked my husband one early morning ten days ago. Since this was after four days of on and off fevers and ineffective antibiotics, excruciating mouth pain that prevented me from eating, and vomiting that extricated the imaginary food and medicine that couldn’t even settle in my stomach – he wasn’t surprised. We checked in, thinking I would spend a day receiving some IV fluids, maybe a stronger dose of antibiotics. But like all things in life, nothing ever works out the way you expect it to.
With a blood count at almost zero levels and an unidentified infection, I ended up spending eight days in the hospital. These are the eight days that will forever change my life.
After staring at the wall from our living room couch for days, too sick to move or talk or even occupy myself, I moved that same process to a hospital bed. I was too unfocused to read a book, too much in pain to have any interest in any one TV show. Meal service was room service on a menu. I couldn’t eat anything except tomato soup and mushy, canned sliced pears. Day 1 became Day 4, with the same fevers, same night chills, same low blood count, same baffled doctors. These times were the most physically and emotionally challenging times I’d ever experienced. It wasn’t just the fact that I had an IV needle inserted in me nine times before they found a vein that didn’t collapse. Or that I had twice daily injections in my stomach to raise my blood counts and keep blood clots at bay. I’d always been a healthy person. My checkups have always yielded good results and my hospitalization experiences had been limited to the three C-sections I had when delivering my children.
During the first few days of this ordeal, there was so much activity around me – an outpouring of words and action and a flurry of movement, swirling around and about. Blood and cancer specialists, sitting by my bed, trying to figure me out. Flowers flooding the nursing station, emails and texts from well-wishers and friends. People stopped by to see me, waved at me ten feet from my door, wearing masks and plastic gowns because a sign on my door told them to. By the time I entered the hospital, I’d missed five days of work. Being in the middle of leading a huge roll out, there were many things going on, a thousand emails screamed for my attention. I laid in bed, trying to focus on the words that just kept scrolling through my phone. I picked and chose what to respond to, jumped in to comment when needed, reviewed data despite the fogginess in my head. There was a juggling act going on in my brain, how to fend off the pain, the nausea, the overall malaise in varying degrees so that I could continue with what I needed to do.
The CDC kept coming back to ask me – “what did I do in Paris? In Madrid? Could it be possible that I picked up something there?”
“I shopped.” That’s what I told them. Repeatedly.
One brave, cheery young nurse barged into my room one night and tried to cheer me up.
“Just want you to know that we’re talking about you on this floor,” she said with a giggle. “We’re all talking about how great you look for 53, how pretty you are. My gosh. And you don’t even have make up on! We can imagine what you look like when you’re normal. And also, we want to know if you’re someone famous or important because the floor is filled with your flowers!”
“Thank you,” I answered. “I just have wonderful friends.”
Late at night, I’d turn on my side to watch my husband toss and turn in the middle of the night on this plastic lined couch, his neck crookedly hanging from a lopsided pillow, his feet peeking out of a makeshift blanket that was really just a bedsheet.
It was Day 4 and we still had no answers. My jaw was still swollen. I still had fevers. My blood count was still next to nothing. The doctors had deepening concerns. Apparently, these blood count levels were indicative of something worse, something impeding your bone marrow from creating blood cells. Cancer. And so, we went from an infection to complications from the flu to Cancer.
On Day 5, I had a Bone Marrow Biopsy.
And that’s when it got real. There was a 48 to 72 hour waiting period. No changes were made to my care until the results would arrive. It was a waiting game.
I also needed to make some changes. This was my future we were talking about. I needed to think. I needed to plan. I needed to reel myself back in and face the fact that the results could come back positive and that my life would be different from that point on. You see, this is where the game change happens.
All that flurry. All that noise.
No words of comfort are enough. No one can know what’s in your head, or in your heart. No one can help shut off the thoughts, memories, scenarios that are looping through your mind. There’s an uncanny feeling of déjà vu where your entire life flashes before you. When faced with mortality, there’s a sudden realization that what you have to contend with, IS YOU.
On Day 6, the silence settled in. The emails stopped. The calls and texts went quiet.
I asked my husband and kids to come only in the evening. I wanted to be alone during the day.
What happens when a chief exec gets cancer? Is it announced? Is there a press release? What happens to my job? Do I work? Do I quit? Do I go on chemo and get super sick, I won’t be able to do anything else? How do I go from being on top of the world to this? What about my family? My husband is a wreck. He tells me every hour how he isn’t whole without me. My son isn’t even in college. My daughter just fell in love. I’m already refusing the blood thinners. I’m already resigned to having the biopsy. Would I even fight if I had it? Am I even a fighter?
And if I asked for more time, if I asked for a second chance – what would I change?
We never really said anything on social media. Until the day of the bone marrow biopsy. I told my husband – we need prayers – think we need to post for friends and family. And when he did, we received an even stronger outpouring of love and support. My sister sent me some bible verses to say repeatedly. I did that too. Even if I knew that nothing I could say, nothing I could do would erase what the results were meant to be, I wanted God to know that I placed all my trust in Him.
On Day 6, I tried to answer the questions in my head. Clearly, I would beg for more time. But I didn’t just want this request in generalities. I wanted specifics. More time for what? One by one, I laid them out. It was a long list, but a heartfelt one. It focused on living more and thinking less. It focused on drawing the good out of every little thing and walking away from the heaviness of the past.
Late night on Day 7, my husband and I prayed the rosary together in the dark. And right after that, the silence became my solace. It didn’t freak me out anymore. I became filled with such a sense of peace and acceptance. The biggest lesson I learned during this time is that all things, all people, all situations have a way of settling down. Slowly the noise begins to dissipate. Only the persistent ones remain, sending texts everyday for updates. You try to bury yourself in all that support. But at the end of the day, there are feelings, thoughts, decisions that are left up to you. In the end, you’re all alone. And let me tell you, if you are not comfortable with yourself, with what you want, with who you are – this time can really make or break you, traumatize you, leave you hopeless and lost.
It was a thirty second conversation, with my doctor dashing into the room excitedly and me falling on my knees to cry when I was finally alone. And in true life’s form which is the end of my story, Day 8 was the day that I was cleared of cancer, my blood counts shot back up to normal and I was told to pack my things and go home.