Thursday, December 30, 2010

Image This!

I think it was a mistake when I requested to work on that assignment.  I survived cancer, I was (and am) doing well so I thought working on a project at a cancer hospital would give me a real sense of fulfillment.  It only managed to piss me off.

This cancer hospital in Florida was revamping its entire radiology department by converting from film to digital imaging.  I was there to help make that happen and to teach the radiologists to do their jobs by viewing images on a computer, instead of looking at a piece of film on a light box. We worked closely at the viewing stations, pulling up patient exams on the monitors, one after the other, configuring their settings and tools for maximum efficiency. “Throughput” it's called, in the “healthcare biz”.  The number of patients you can put-through the system in a given period of time-that's it, exactly.  My mind conjured up images of a train of endless patients sliding through narrow CT and MRI scanner rings. Yep, that's throughput. 

There were a lot of us cancer survivors in that place, which for me, includes everyone from the minute they are diagnosed.  Business was too good. 

Working with radiologists can be challenging.  They are a strange breed. Their work is vital but unlike other specialties, many of them do not actually see or touch their patients. They spend hours, in darkened reading rooms, quiet music playing, removed and insulated from the hospital's drama and chaos, manipulating images, measuring tumors or reconstructing damaged body parts in 3D.
Unlike standard hospitals where I spend most of my time, that place was a comprehensive cancer center, which means that nearly all of the exams we encounter have some sort of cancerous pathology, either newly diagnosed, or metastatic (cancer that has spread from its point of origin to somewhere else in the body).  I try not to visibly cringe or my credibility as a health care professional might be called into question, but it's tough not to react to the malignant images.  Occasionally the radiologist or I will remark with considerable understatement about something particularly gruesome we see- “Oh, that's not good” or “Oh, I bet that hurts”, but not much else.  I really have to struggle to keep from running out of the room when I see someone close to my age, whose breast cancer went wild and has spread to other vital organs of their body.  I am not sure which I dread more, the idea of it spreading to my brain, liver or my bones.  They say the best way to die is when it spreads to your liver because you are pretty out of it at that point and quietly slip away into a coma.  I know I fear the pain from metastatic bone cancer.  As for brain tumors and losing my mind, I can’t even go there.

Old medical joke:

Q. How do you hide a 100 dollar bill from a radiologist?

A. Put it on the patient.    Funny.  Sorta. 

It is said that most doctors see the patient and have to imagine the disease. On the contrary, radiologists mostly see the disease and have to imagine the patient.   For anyone living as a cancer survivor, and for me at that time in my life, it was hard to imagine a day that didn’t involve thoughts wildly ranging between hope and despair.
Constantly observing one cancer filled image after another did not help the healing process.  CT images of bodies waging futile campaigns against an indiscriminate killer, kept my life's imaginary hourglass clearly visible. 

And then there was guilt. 

Over the years I’ve been able to accomplish what might be considered some fantastic feats of physical endurance for anyone, much less a cancer survivor. 
A few years ago I climbed a mountain many of them will not live to ever visit.
I WAS one of them but they couldn’t know that by looking at me.  Making eye contact as I passed patients in the various departments was close to impossible.   I was and still am the picture of health.  My scans clear, my health good.  I was an intruder there. Worse, I managed to escape and left my buddies behind.


I've been tossed out of a club I didn't want to join in the first place.
I wasn’t insulted, but somehow I felt strangely set adrift.   I sensed or maybe I just imagined that they looked at me with envy and desperately wish to trade places (or bodies?). They couldn’t see the damage I live with and overcome every day.  I am familiar with the desperation that would drive those thoughts.  I've had them.  When I'm caught up in a fit of panic that the cancer has returned because of some unexplained pain or illness I'm having I get scared and mad all at once.

What really gets me especially worked up is when I see people deliberately pissing away their health in various ways.  I had to quit working directly with patients because it made me angry all the time.  When a 400lb. patient would come to the radiology department complaining of back pain, it become increasingly more difficult for me to keep my tongue in check.  What they needed was a damned diet and some exercise, not an x-ray.  I love to help people, but I have a really hard time helping people that are bent on self- destruction.  Not very politically correct of me, but so what? Call it judgmental, call it whatever you want but that's my reality.  It’s tough to exercise good judgment in this life, without being judgmental. 

It was hard as hell to be there.  I began to realize that my mission to help cancer patients had rapidly turned into an exercise in futility.     
I got so flustered one day I had to take a break from the dark reading room.  I stepped outside the hospital to take in the soft, gulf coast sunshine.  It was warm, bright and beautiful.  Then, I saw bald people also outside, in hospital gowns and wheelchairs enjoying the sunshine too.   Many were smoking.
The rising cigarette smoke would curl around and practically caresses the IV bags hanging on the poles attached to their wheelchairs. Some were so weak that they had to have someone push them outside so they could have their cigarettes.  I became so enraged that I all I could think of was that I wanted to kick them all in the chest and knock them over backwards on their asses.  I knew it wouldn’t help but I couldn’t keep myself from thinking about it.

  Nothing helped. 

Disgusted by what I saw, I stood up and went back inside.  

Perhaps by getting out of the sunshine, I managed to avoid skin cancer.   

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Tawanda Chronicles- Part I

He called her a dumb bitch as they walked through the door of the truck stop.  I couldn't imagine how someone could be in such big trouble so early. It was only 4:30 in the morning.  I was there at my usual time to gas up and grab some coffee before getting on the road for my trip to work. The cashier and I exchanged nervous glances at each other as they continued their argument right there near the coffee kiosk.  She had obviously made some sort of mistake with the map, or directions and he was making certain that she and everyone around knew it.  He bullied her up one side and down the other and all she could do was sputter apologies.  She even did some of the work for him as she began disparaging herself as well.  "Well I can't read maps and I'm stupid that way and I just don't know what happened and I'm sorry, I'm sorry I'm sorry" she whined pitifully.

He chimed right back, "You got that right, you are stupid, you can't read a map, you can't do much at all.  You are one dumb bitch.  I have to tell you how to do everything. You can't cook, you don't even clean the house.  What the hell CAN you do, anyway"? 

I couldn't help but stare in disbelief at what was unfolding in front of me.  I thought I was watching a Lifetime movie about spouse abuse because this conversation could have been extracted from any "wife beater" script.  I could only imagine what went on when they were not in public and that made me angry.  Anyone who verbally abuses a woman in that manner is most likely beating the hell out of her as well.  Thinking about it made me furious.  I sometimes wonder how and why women don't leave men that treat them that way but this one is probably terrified and for good reason.  

He told her she better take her bathroom break now because they wouldn't stop again til they got home.  She walked past me and as she headed for the restroom. I wanted to grab her by the arm and walk her right out of there and drive her to some place where she would be safe.  I imagined she'd refuse, or her husband would have something to say about it.  I felt helpless and still angry all at once.  I didn't know what I could do.  Didn't even know if I should do something.
I turned back to the coffee kiosk and grabbed a styrofoam cup.  I poured myself a cup of coffee, and that was when Mr. Wifebeater sauntered over next to me and began pouring himself one as well.  I ignored him and went about my business, adding 4 or 5 of those little cream containers to my coffee. He glanced over at my lightly colored coffee and snorted out a snide little remark, "Hey, having a little coffee with your cream"? 
He thought he was brilliant.

I felt a bomb go off inside me. No one would have blamed me for punching that man right then and there. Or worse. I know wanted to.  My adrenaline had already been summoned thanks to his notorious entrance a few moments earlier. I don't know what set me off worse, the way he talked to his wife or his brazen, twisted notion that he could talk to any woman that way. What arrogance!
I turned my head and glared at him.  Through my clenched jaw and gritted teeth I growled back at him, "Who the FUCK, asked you"?  I emphasized the "F" word as loudly and harshly as I could.  I watched him recoil.  I don't think any woman ever spoke to him that way before and he was shocked.  I was so full of anger I was hoping he'd take a swing at me so I had a good excuse to knock him on his ass. In fact, I was so enraged I found myself fantasizing about him following me out to my truck where I kept my gun.  I was ready for him to start something with me there so I could have a legitimate reason to blow him away. For the first time in my life I actually felt fully capable of killing someone.  Not just capable, but eager to do so. That frightened me.  I realized I was giving Mr. Wifebeater  too much credit, too much power. He didn't say anything else to me so I turned away from him and back to my coffee.
I needed to get out of there.    I needed a lid.  I quickly dropped one onto my cup.  As to what happened next I can only attribute to unspent adrenaline.  I must have pressed the lid too tightly to the cup.  The cup collapsed and coffee erupted sideways. The entire counter, most of the napkins and Mr. Wifebeater were now covered in coffee, light no sugar.
There was a moment of suspended silence.  I saw the cashier's eyes widen in anticipation.  No one said a word.  
Some may say that my subconscious probably played a role in causing this to happen.  I really can't answer to or argue with that line of reasoning because I don't have access to those files.
I know it was not deliberate but I am certain it unfolded just as it was supposed to.

Mr. Wifebeater just looked at me and began wiping off what he could with the remaining dry napkins.  He said nothing.  I had silenced him for now.

I paid for my gas and the wasted coffee and hurried back to my truck. 

 I didn't need the coffee anymore.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Thinking About Elizabeth Edwards

I'm the most rational person I know. THE most logical, literal and scientific person I know.  At the age of 4, I declared myself an atheist. I conducted scientific experiments to that effect; I blew out the Chanukah candles and when nothing happened and God didn't strike me down as I'd been told would happen, I knew someone had to be lying. 
As for the Santa story, no one I knew even lived in a house, much less one that had a fireplace so I presumed that story was null and void in modern times.  I never heard how Santa managed to visit apartment house kids, although for a while I harbored some strange theories regarding incinerator chutes.  I got into frequent fights with my English teachers in high school because I refused to capitalize “god” in my essays. I thought of “god” as a concept, an idea, ideology perhaps, but not a proper noun. 

But then, I have my moments of fear and superstition.  

Whenever I board an airplane I must touch the outside of the plane; the painted, riveted metal that meets the frigid air at 30,000 feet.  I’m not sure why or how that compulsion came about, but it’s my way of somehow ensuring my safety.

I also have this bottle.

It's a bottle of cheap champagne from the year 2000. It was tacky.  Boldly emblazoned in glitter all over the bottle are multiple 2000’s.  The millennium was supposed to be a big deal. I bought the champagne for a New Year's Eve party that my “ex” and I were to attend.
I can't recall if we forgot to bring the bottle to the party or if we took it there and forgot to open it.

Nevertheless, I still have this bottle.

It was only a few weeks after that party that I was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was a short time afterwards I discovered that the “ex” was cheating on me -- with the same woman who threw the party. The remainder of the millennium, for me, was an amalgam of physical and emotional misery, acute sickness, pain, chemotherapy and loss.

I imagine that over the years, thanks to fear and superstition, I managed to associate the worst of my suffering with that bottle.  

Fear and superstition being what they are, I held on to it.  

Since those dark days I’ve climbed mountains, run marathons, triathlons -- done more than I would have ever dreamed.  It sounds cliché but it’s true.  What I had thought was the end of the world was just the opportunity for a new start. It was hard to see at the time, but looking back I can say that cancer served to filter all the trash from my life and it left behind only the treasure. 

It's been over 10 years.  I have a great life now. I'm a completely new person yet here I am still dragging this old bottle of champagne around.

I'm in a quandary about what to do with it.

Somehow I have come to believe, that all the memories of betrayal, cancer, pain, sickness and the wretchedness of my life from that entire year are now stored in that bottle... which leads to my dilemma.

I've become afraid to open it, afraid to drink it, afraid to dump it out and throw it away. I've considered smashing it. Still it sits there. I am terrified that any action I take will somehow unleash all of the suffering my fear and superstition placed in there. 

Ridiculous superstition for someone like me, I know, but there it sits. It's an annoyance that it's still with me; such a strange artifact.  I’ve probably bubble-wrapped, packed and moved the damned thing 6 or 7 times.  I have got to do something about it. It can't just sit there forever.

I have a conversation out loud with myself because I have to focus.  Slowly and methodically I force the logic out.  I tell myself the bottle is sealed.  It has never been opened, there's no way I could have actually put anything in there. There is champagne in that bottle, not memories.

Champagne is for celebrating. 

I ask myself why it is customary to open a bottle of champagne on New Year's Eve. Hope perhaps? Hope for a successful future and to bid farewell to the past all at once. That's what champagne is for.  
It's been 10 years, I'm still alive and I think I finally know what to do with that damned bottle.

Mimosas, anyone?

It's the only rational thing to do.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Kinetically Speaking...

Kinetically speaking

My awkwardness with southern manners was first evidenced when I was in the Air Force.

  I was in the mess hall carrying my tray and spotted my southern friend, I'll call him John, at a table.  As I walked over to the table to sit down, he stood up.  I sat down and then he sat back down.   I thought I might be holding him up so I told him that if he needed to leave, to go on ahead, I'll go sit with some other folks.  He just smiled at me.  I then realized that I needed some napkins so I got up to get them.  John stood up once again.  Once more I told him that if he needed to go, to please not let me hold him up and to go do what he had to do.  When I returned to the table he stood up for the 3rd time.  Obviously he was in a hurry to be somewhere.  "John", I said, "Please, please go to wherever you need to go. You are making me nervous standing up and sitting down.  I'm a big girl, I can eat my lunch alone". 
Yet again he sat down and he said he didn't need to go anywhere.  I had no idea what was going on and had never seen anyone behave so strangely.  Later I asked him what he was doing and he told me that a gentleman is supposed to stand whenever a woman sits down or gets up from the table. It's funny now, but apparently I had never been around a gentleman before. I found that sort of thing tedious, annoying and unnecessary.

When I moved to the south years ago, I fell into all the fun, linguistic traps that have been described elsewhere, so I won't bore you with them here.  What I found more confusing than trying to figure out which parent I favored (But I love them both equally!) was body language.
 I know, I know, I know that men are taught from a young age how to be "polite", and I know it's with all good intentions and I know and there's no "evil" inherent, but some things still drive me more crazy than hearing someone say Nuke-YOU-Ler.
When I'm in a public place, in an elevator with a man I do not know I like to keep them in front of me.  It's about being safe and aware of my surroundings.  Here in the south men are trained to herd women and it's led to some awkward moments because I refuse to be herded. They seem compelled to insist that I go first which may "seem" polite, though from my perspective, its dangerous.  I don't know you, I don't want you sneaking up behind me and I want your hands where I can see them.  And why is it considered polite for them to let you off the elevator first, but when you come to any other door they get in the way as they rush to hold it open for you? There must have been great confusion with the old fashioned elevators.
I will refuse to be the one to move first, if I am not the one closest to the door.  It doesn't make any sense for the man in front to stand there, partially blocking the way, under the notion that they are being polite by letting me go first.  I am not buying it.  I love to watch them scramble as the elevators doors begin to close and they then have to choose between getting off at their floor, or being polite.
I'm all about whatever is the smoothest, most sensible action. Whoever is closest to the front, gets out first.  Whoever gets to a door first, should hold it for the next person.  Just go with the flow, no need to impede.

It's been my observation that the gallantry dissolves, indoors and out, while walking down a corridor or sidewalk.  I will see men walking 2-3 abreast, while I'm walking alone.  They rarely if ever, consolidate and step either in front or behind each other to accommodate a woman passing.  I've tested this a few times by coming to a complete stop a few feet from them.  I'll find a reason to stop, perhaps to check or adjust my watch and frequently they walk right into me as though they just expected that I would magically give ground.
 I don't.  It's kind of fun to take the charging hit just to watch the look on their face.  I wonder if it's because so many southern women are brought up to be passive and constantly yielding that the men become accustomed to it?  I don't really know the answer here, but it often provides me with entertainment. Over the years I've come to love the south.  Those who know me, know that I truly do and I write this with all the love and humor I can muster.
I know what I'm describing amounts to stereotyping and that there are exceptions to everything... I'm just reporting my experiences....I highly recommend you conduct your own social experiments and report back in.  Let's compare notes. 

 Chivalry is just chauvinism with a high polish.

P.S.  Attention all southerners...When there is a power outage and the street lights are blinking YELLOW...It is neither safe, nor polite to stop at the intersections.  The side streets have blinking RED lights and those vehicles must stop. YELLOW means proceed with caution.  Stopping confuses the process for everyone because the people that remember the rules will continue through the light while the people that think they are being polite stop for no reason and cause more problems. I feel better now.