For two days, I have been sitting with men and women in skimpy gowns — and even skimpy shorts — many of them literally afraid for their lives.
There we were, our breasts crammed into mammogram machines one day, drinking barium the next, hoping to rule out this and that and walk out with one of those get-out-of-jail cards that means you're free for another year, or that there is no blockage, or that the scan didn't show anything "unusual."
Some of the people there, lucky ones like me, didn't know exactly what to expect or how long things would take. Some, less fortunate, had been there many times. The staff, of course, does this every day. This terrifying place is where they work.
My sister had cancer more than 25 years ago. "How do you do it?" I've asked her more than once. How do you deal with all the tests and biopsies and false alarms and, in one case just a few years ago, real alarms? How do you sit reading a book while someone is reading life-or-death scans? You just do. What is, is. What will be will be.
I am not so serene.
I can deal with pain, no problem. Discomfort, A-OK. This is going to taste pretty terrible, the kind technician said to me yesterday. I laughed. A bad taste in my mouth is not something to complain about. Six hours back and forth to the X-ray machine is a piece of cake. But every time a doctor, nurse, or technician looked at one of the scans, I was on their shoulder, looking too, as if I even knew what to look for.
Pain is not my problem; fear is. And it isn't even fear for myself, or at least not so much. I sit in those little rooms, dressed in a scanty gown and making small talk with the others, thinking of my children and how they still need a mother.
I used to go to chemotherapy with one of my friends. I would sit in the big room and tell stories, make jokes, kid the nurses. I was very popular in the chemo room.
One day, a woman was wheeled in by her husband, with her mother carrying her new baby. They had waited until the baby was born to start chemo. The new mother was clearly very ill. Even I, the jokester, could find nothing to joke about that day. A baby needs her mother.
Yesterday was better. Yesterday I tried to comfort the young man sitting in the skimpy shorts waiting for the scan of his brain. You'll be fine, I told him, as if I had any idea of it.
Something very similar happened to me, I said, as if either of us was in a position to judge what was similar and what wasn't. Don't worry, an older woman said to me the day before, as we sat in our skimpy little tops wrapped in blankets against the cold. I had breast cancer 15 years ago, and here I am.
Rosie, my nanny/housekeeper/closest friend of the past 25 years, had lung cancer two years ago. Every time she turns around, they seem to order another scan. Today, she had the contrast scan of her kidneys and pelvis. Cancer, her doctor told her, often comes back in different places. I worried all day for her. How was it, I asked when she came over this afternoon. How was what, she said. What is, is. She'll get the results next week. Please, God.
I know there are technicians and doctors who are cold and impersonal. I know that even the most caring have bad days. But in two days, one after another, I met men and women who treated each of us with kindness, who touched my arm when I needed reassurance, brought me extra blankets, made sure I knew what was going on.
I met men and women, both those wearing the uniforms and those in gowns, who were accepting life's challenges and disappointments, dealing with discomfort and fear, with the kind of grace and kindness that you don't find in so many places today.
Our healthcare system is under assault on almost every front — too expensive, too wasteful, too many tests, not enough tests, too much interference by insurance companies, too many long waits. Most of the doctors I know have children who want to be anything but. They've seen too much. I don't blame them.
But there is something about being in a place where lives are on the line, something so intense and human and vital, that puts everything else in perspective. It can bring out the worst in people, but in my experience, at least, it more often brings out the best.
There are all kinds of heroes in the world: the men and women risking their lives in Japan, our soldiers fighting in Afghanistan, the police officers and fire fighters who put their lives on the line every day they go to work.
But after two days of tests (so far, so good, knock on wood and keep the evil eye away), my heroes are the people like my sister and Rosie, who look death in the eye and don't blink, and the men and women who not only run the machines and read the tests, but bring the blankets and — even more importantly — affirm the dignity of those in skimpy robes and skimpy shorts.
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