In 1996, according to CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, there were an estimated 10 cases of cervical cancer in North Dakota.
Joan Wigen happened to be one of them. It was the kind of information we didn’t know then, and even if we had been aware of it, it really wouldn’t have mattered. Statistics have nothing to do with hope, and hope was what we had when we left Dr. Bury’s office to wait for news of the next step, which would be going to Minneapolis, hope that an answer could be found there.
We didn’t have to wait but three days before we got the call from Dr. Bury’s office, but it seemed like three weeks. We were anxious to get on with it, and the waiting only contributed to our anxiety.
A nurse from her doctor’s office told us an appointment had been made for Joanie at the Women’s Cancer Center at the University of Minnesota Hospital in Minneapolis for Tuesday, May 21, 1996. We were to meet with Dr. Linda Carson. We didn’t know it at the time, but she was a physician who we would come to know quite well over the next 12 years.
We had five days to prepare for the trip to Minneapolis, and since there was a weekend included in those five days, a sense of urgency was felt by both of us.
First there were employers to inform we would need time off, and we didn’t know how much. Joanie was the executive director of the Schafer Volunteer Committee, the political office of then North Dakota Governor Ed Schafer. Joanie was told to go and not worry about anything. I was doing news at a Bismarck radio station. I was told by my boss, “Go and get her the help she needs and don’t worry.”
Worry however, was unavoidable. While our minds were put at ease by our employers, there remained the uncertainty surrounding the outcome of the trip and what it meant for her future. During the days prior to leaving, we tried to go about life as normal, even though we both knew things weren’t normal. Joanie, I was to learn, was really good about doing that. I don’t think she was denying anything, it was just her way of coping with her situation. My feeling was that if it worked for her that was what mattered.
Now that we knew where we needed to go, she preferred to leave details and arrangements for to me. I was put in charge of getting reservations for a place to stay, and found the Radisson on the campus of the university just a couple of short blocks from the clinic and hospital. They also had a medical rate, which is something I checked on in any motel we stayed at over the years near the clinic. Over time it did save us a considerable amount, and it was really convenient. We could just walk to the clinic from the hotel and not worry about parking.
Since the weekend was approaching all that was left to do before we left on Monday for her Tuesday appointment was for her to decide what she wanted to pack for the trip (something that wasn’t as easy as it might sound), and arrange for the care of Muffin and Peaches, our two Siamese cats. Joanie was really attached to them, especially Muffin, and I think the prospect of leaving them alone was harder on her than knowing what she was facing at the end of this trip in Minneapolis.
It in preparing for this trip there was a ritual that emerged that was to be repeated every time we left for another trip. Joanie had made arrangements with her sister, Ann, to take care of the cats while were gone, but on the day we would leave, we would place extra food in their dishes, extra water, and she would add some special treats for them just before we’d walk out the door. It became her way of saying goodbye to her two good friends.
Perhaps the most important thing I learned about helping Joanie during periods like this was to observe her demeanor, and react accordingly. As the day of departure neared, little things would set her off, she wouldn’t be as talkative, and would spend a lot of time on the couch with Muffin on her lap, the TV on and a book at hand. It was to become my job to ensure there were no surprises, that all was in order, and to let her know by just being there that she wasn’t alone. I would handle the details, and that’s the way she preferred it.
Joanie and I had talked over the weekend a couple of times about what lay ahead, and both were operating on the positive assumption that the radical hysterectomy, as major as it was, would be the answer we were looking for now. However, there was still the uncertainty involved with going to a new clinic, a new doctor, and now knowing what was in store. That uncertainty made itself felt on the day we were to leave.
Come Monday, the day we were leaving, everything slowed down. It was as if Joanie knew we had to leave, but if by slowing the process down, she could somehow, magically, make it go away. She would dally over early morning coffee, take a longer shower than usual and spend more time packing and agonizing over what to take, and that was okay with me. I just told her, “Take your time, we don’t have an appointment today, and we have all day to get there.” She would.
When the car was finally loaded and she knew it was finally time to go, she would look around the house, and before we walked out the door, she would shout out, “Treats,” and the kitties would come running, for they knew what that word meant. She would say good bye to them and we would be out the door and down the road toward Minneapolis, with uncertainty as an unwelcome traveling companion.