The hospital as library.
“A library is a hospital for the mind.” –Anonymous
Conversely, the hospital was becoming a library for my mind, as the learning curve about cancer and treatment began to steepen, and Joanie entered the hospital for the first of her two radiation implants.
Since my two weekend visits to spend time with her in St. Paul, life had been uneventful for us. Joanie had made all of her daily radiation treatments, and so far was not experiencing any side affects that we had been told might accompany the radiation.
I was working, taking care of the cats and spending time on the computer getting a crash course in the language of cancer, and the subtleties and variations of treatment that make categorical statements about it difficult. It seemed to me that every time I would stumble on something that I thought was a positive, and something we could latch onto, I would run across something else that would dampen that initial enthusiasm. That was true from the beginning. We found that there was something you could do if the cancer was Stage IIA, but couldn’t do if it was Stage IIB, with the difference being measured in centimeters and millimeters.
On the 27th of June, we found ourselves back up in a room on 7C the women’s cancer wing at the University of Minnesota Hospital. We had an idea of what was involved in this procedure, but I don’t think we understood all of it at the time, even though Dr. Dusenbery was there to go over it once again.
What we did know was that she would be put under anesthesia, and they would place tubes in her uterine cavity near the offending cancer cells on her cervix, and then they would take her down to x-ray to determine that the tubes, called ovoids, were precisely in the place where they would do the most damage to the cancer cells, without doing to much damage to normal tissue nearby. Were they not exactly where they wanted them, they would take her back and adjust them and repeat the x-ray process. Once completed, they would bring her back up to her room on 7C, where radiation oncology physicists, would place the appropriate dose of cesium beads in the ovoids and wheel in a lead shield that measured about 6 x 4 feet, and place it beside the bed. This shield was used to protect nurses and doctors who would be stopping in to take care of her. They would all wear badges that measured any exposure, something which gave me pause even though I figured they knew what they were doing. Then they would put up a sign by the door indicating that radiation was present in the room. During all of this, I was left standing in the hall outside of her room, and would not be able to enter it for the three days until the implant was removed.
Now then, a couple of other things we really didn’t understand, was that she would have to lay still for the entire time, not moving lest the ovoids be jostled out of position. That meant they had to put in a catheter to drain her bladder, and bowel. I didn’t get a chance to talk to her before about the fact she would have to be immobile for the better part of three days, but I knew she wasn’t happy about it. If it were me I wouldn’t have been either. You can imagine how slow the time must have passed for her having to lay still for that long. It was long enough for me, and I wasn’t the patient.
Another thing that made the three days of this first implant difficult was that I couldn’t be in the room with her because of the radiation. Her room was one of the smaller ones, and there was the lead shield beside the bed. What they did so I could talk to her when the door was open was to place a full length mirror near the foot of her bed, so she could see me as I stood in the doorway and I could see her. Not the most ideal situation if you are trying to be supportive and help someone get through an unpleasant situation. Consequently, our conversations would be short, though many, and she would spend a good deal of the time sleeping. I would spend my time, when not talking to Joanie, at the end of the hall reading old magazines, doing crosswords, or outside having a smoke.
I was learning something else from this experience, and that was how important it was to get know the nurses on the floor. Some of them had remembered me from Joanie’s surgery in May, and they were very helpful if I had a question, and one of them even brought me a chair one day so I could sit in the doorway instead of standing. What a curious sight that must have been for someone coming on the floor to see me sitting on a chair in the hall, amidst the hustle and bustle of 7C, talking to a mirror. When I think about it now, I can’t help but smile.
She had been admitted on Thursday, and on Saturday we happily checked her out. She was stiff and a bit sore, but really glad to be done with it. She knew there were only 9 more daily sessions left, and one unpleasant implant session. The light at the end was in sight, and she felt better about it, besides, she would be home over the 4th of July weekend, and was looking forward to being home with Muffin and Peaches and seeing her friends.
The hospital was becoming a library for my mind, and I was learning a lot, but I wasn’t the only one when I think about it. The University of Minnesota is a teaching hospital, and for med students, student nurses, interns and residents, a hospital is the library, and the patients are the books from which they learn some of what they must to become like the doctor they accompany on rounds in the evening as he visits patients and talks about their different problems and treatments.
For me, Joanie was my only book in this library, and there was so much more for me to learn.