fostering the humanistic practice of medicine publishing personal accounts of illness and healing encouraging health care advocacy

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fostering the humanistic practice of medicine publishing personal accounts of illness and healing encouraging health care advocacy

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Deborah Levin

Peekaboo

You can’t see it, the way it’s tucked under a fold of skin, but I can’t forget that it’s there. I see it whenever I look in the mirror at my shoulder-length hair and remember—despite my best efforts not to—the months when large bald spots dotted the crown of my head.

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Under the Microscope

I was walking into my kitchen with an armful of groceries when my cell phone rang. It took a second to register the caller’s name: Dr. James. The surgeon I’d met two weeks earlier.

I wasn’t expecting this call. My biopsy had occurred only a few days ago, and I’d been told that, because of the Christmas holiday, the results would be delayed.

Why is she calling?

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Uprooted

It didn’t happen all at once, as I thought it would. But it did happen when they said it would. One afternoon, a few days before my second chemotherapy infusion, I noticed some loose hairs on my computer desk. In the shower that evening, I spotted a bird nest-like cluster on the drain.

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Amen

Gratitude? I’m measuring it in numbers these days.
Two inches of hair now sprout from the bare patches on top of my head. To be honest, when I look in the mirror first thing in the morning, I don’t feel all that grateful. An unfamiliar shape stares back at me, one that looks a bit like a tufted titmouse. That’s the front view. The rear view resembles an abandoned bird’s nest swirling around the crown.

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Invisibility

The glass doors yawn open, first one set, then the other. They don’t see me; they don’t hear me. They just sense me—automatically, electronically, a body approaching. It doesn’t matter my size, shape, or color. The doors don’t know whether I’m walking slowly or quickly; they don’t care whether I’m smiling or crying. They just blindly do their job, usher me in (and later out) of the building. Another patient, another day. 

Three women sit at the reception desk. More glass separates the sick from the well. Masks make everyone look like no one. A hand reaches out to grab my parking ticket and stamp it. Cancer is the price you pay for free parking.

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ROYGBIV +1

This winter, it seemed to me that silver linings were popping up everywhere, like starbursts cast as fairy dust from Tinkerbell’s wand. Everyone seemed to be finding them, but few had any meaning for me. When the vaccine first became available in the new year, I was desperate to get it. Newly diagnosed with cancer, I wanted all the extra protection I could get. I have now received both vaccines and do, indeed, feel safer.

But I’m still not seeing any silver leaking from the sky. Like a horse with blinders, I can see only straight ahead, and everything leads towards a doctor’s office, hospital lab or treatment room. No sunshine, no clouds, no silver linings in any of those places.  

And yet… masks! Being immuno-suppressed from chemotherapy means I need to be wary of going out in public. I’m quite sure it never would have occurred to me before to wear a mask, but now that they are mandated, it’s become welcome silver armor for me.

Then just last week a different color lining burst through the clouds of my despair. I learned about an organization for women with breast cancer. It

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Thin Red Line

“You’ll feel better after the surgery,” my psychiatrist said, “and the cancer is cut out.” I scoffed. He knew me too well to think it would be that easy to quell my escalating anxiety. Cognitive behavioral therapy has never been my thing, and there weren’t enough pills in my prescription bottles to make my fears fly out the window as neatly as that 6 mm tumor would be excised from my breast.

The surgery was easy, as was the recovery. The wound healed quickly. Just five weeks later, my scar is a smooth, scarlet sliver that looks more like a careless scratch than evidence of the purposeful cutting that it was. If I were an optimist, I’d say this is a good sign. Things are going well. I’ve also gotten through my first round of chemo with relatively mild complaints. My body is responding, and healing.

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Vials of Hope

Is it my imagination, or is everyone talking about silver linings these days? By now I’ve heard the phrase spoken so many times in so many different contexts that I’ve begun to expect it as an explanation whenever people mention a COVID-related restriction in their lives. In the midst of despair, misfortune, or even just plain frustration, they find something positive that offers them comfort. I truly admire such vision. Where they see soft, white clouds floating overhead, I see grey ones, spiked with danger—a herd of elephants stampeding across a leaden sky.

But now the vaccine has come along, and even I am beginning to feel optimistic. Reading the eligibility requirements in my state’s plan for phased distribution last month, I saw right away that I did not fall into Phase 1A. Next would be Phase 1B, including (among others) those at increased risk for serious illness. Fortunately, I thought, I suffer from none of the underlying health conditions described in that category.

Or at least I didn’t think I did.

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This Too Shall Pass

I don’t know when I’m going to see my daughter again. When she left with her family this morning after a two-month stay, she hugged me tight, sobbing softly into my shoulder. Trying to keep my own tears in check, I reassured her that I’ll visit soon. “We’ll find a way,” I whispered. Though neither of us knew exactly what that might look like in a few weeks’ time, we held on to hope as we let go of each other.

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No Visitors Allowed

His voice was serious and stern. “You can’t visit, mom,” my son said. “I’m a vector.” In fact, he’s a doctor working at a big-city hospital, and while not on the immediate front lines in terms of direct contact with COVID-19 patients, he is very involved in the logistics related to the ventilators in the ICUs. Walking the common halls and entering the secure isolation areas daily puts him at risk not only for contracting the virus himself but also for transmitting it unknowingly. He could be asymptomatic but test positive for the virus. He absolutely would not consider putting his seventy-year-old parents in danger.

So… no visiting. Not him, not his wife, not his two teenaged children.

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A Bad Dream

Last night I dreamt that New York City was gone–that it had disappeared into a billowy horizon. I was walking on some unknown highway and looked over my shoulder and saw nothing but grey-white layers of clouds. No blue sky. No brown earth. No Big Apple. A real nightmare.

I woke to huge snowflakes dropping from the sky. My family is safe. But I am sad and scared. I can taste the fear, and I don’t like it. 

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Medical Manners

“So, how much do you love the new knee I gave you?” he asked as he walked into the exam room. I stared at the doctor in disbelief. This was his introduction at my first post-op visit after knee replacement surgery? My husband had been an orthopedic surgeon himself, and I’m quite sure that, in his thirty years of practice, he never said that to a patient.

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